Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Self, Others, Objects: How This Triadic Interaction Modulates Our Behavior

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Self, Others, Objects: How This Triadic Interaction Modulates Our Behavior

Article excerpt

Published online: 23 May 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Two experiments investigated whether the triadic interaction between objects, ourselves and other persons modulates motor system activation during language comprehension. Participants were faced with sentences formed by a descriptive part referring to a positive or negative emotively connoted object and an action part composed of an imperative verb implying a motion toward the self or toward other persons (e.g., "The object is attractive/ugly. Bring it toward you/Give it to another person/Give it to a friend"). Participants judged whether each sentence was sensible or not by moving the mouse toward or away from their body. Findings showed that the simulation of a social context influenced both (1) the motor system and (2) the coding of stimulus valence. Implications of the results for theories of embodied and social cognition are discussed.

Keywords Embodied language . Social cognition . Stimuli valence . Simulation . Language comprehension


An important ability of our species is to comprehend language referring words to objects, entities, and situations. According to the embodied and grounded cognition approach (Barsalou, 1999; Borghi, 2005; Borghi & Pecher, 2011; Elsner & Hommel, 2001; Glenberg, 1997), understanding language implies forming a mental simulation of what is linguistically described. For example, understanding the sentence "She kicks the ball" would imply a simulation entailing the recruitment of the same neurons that are activated when actually acting or perceiving the situation expressed through the language (Borghi & Cimatti, 2010; Gallese & Lakoff, 2005; Gibbs, 2003; MacWhinney, 1999; Zwaan, 2004). Simulation induces then a reenactment of our perceptual and interactive experience with objects and other entities, but it also has a predictive aspect, since it helps us prepare for situated action (e.g., avoiding a ball that is being kicked; see Barsalou, 2009; Borghi, 2012; Gallese, 2009).

Behavioral and TMS evidence has suggested that the simulation formed while comprehending language is quite detailed, since it is capable of activating different aspects of action, such as the effectors involved in the action-related sentences and the properties of objects mentioned in those sentences as well (see Borghi, Gianelli, & Scorolli, 2010, for a review). For example, for the sentence "She kicks the ball," the foot, and not the hand, would be activated. In this sense, Glenberg and Kaschak (2002) demonstrated that the simulation activated while processing a sentence referring to an object motion affects motor responses. More precisely, in their experiment, participants were to judge whether sentences were sensible by pressing a button situated far from their body or close to it. The sentence stimuli referred to actions that imply a motion toward ("Open the drawer") or away from ("Close the drawer") the body. Results indicated that performance was faster when the movement implied by the sentence was congruent with the one actually performed by participants; that is, toward and away from the body movements were faster when performed in response to "Open the drawer" and "Close the drawer" sentences, respectively. The authors referred to this effect as the action-sentence compatibility effect (ACE).

Other evidence suggested that the neural system for emotion is engaged during language processing, showing how the motor system and the evaluation of emotional terms are strictly interwoven. The approach/avoidance effect (from now on, AAE) outlined that positive and negative words automatically trigger approach or avoidance actions (Chen&Bargh, 1999;Markman & Brendl, 2005; Niedenthal, Barsalou, Winkielman, Krauth- Gruber, & Ric, 2005; Puca, Rinkenauer, & Breidenstein, 2006; van Dantzig, Pecher, & Zwaan, 2008). Chen and Bargh found that congruent conditions-that is, pulling a lever toward the body in response to positive words (i. …

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