Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Examining Mental Simulations of Uncertain Events

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Examining Mental Simulations of Uncertain Events

Article excerpt

Published online: 27 November 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract A great deal of research into the experiential nature of language has demonstrated that our understanding of events is facilitated through mental simulations of the described linguistic input. However, to date little is understood about how contextual uncertainty about the described event might influence the content and strength of these mental representations or the cognitive effort involved. In this article, we report a single experiment in which participants read sentences such as "The old lady [knows/thinks] that the picnic basket is open." Following a delay of 250 or 1,500 ms, they responded to pictures that varied in the physical form of the target object (matching vs. mismatching). Results revealed an expected facilitation effect for matching images, but more important, they also showed interference effects (longer reaction times) at the shorter interstimulus interval (ISI; 250 ms) following the uncertain verb thinks, as compared with the certain verb knows. At the longer ISI, this effect was no longer present. This suggests that at the short ISI, uncertain conditions required extra time to construct and map a simulation of events onto the available image. Results are discussed in terms of the mechanisms involved in representing possible events and with reference to related literature on perspective taking.

Keywords Situation model . Language comprehension . Uncertainty


The ability to communicate and understand information regarding not only the present, but also the past, future, and even the impossible is an important feature of human language (Hockett, 1960). It has been suggested that such processes are facilitated in language users through the construction of mental representations, which depict the described events and set up expectations about forthcoming referents (Zwaan, 2004). Despite over a decade of research that has evaluated the structure and content of such mental representations for understanding concrete language, none so far has considered how they are affected by uncertainty. Therefore, in the present study, we attempted to examine the way that readers represent described events under varying levels of certainty (by comparing knows vs. thinks).

The idea that readers construct a mental representation of linguistic information is commonly referred to as a situation model (Glenberg, Meyer, & Lindem, 1987; Graesser, Millis, & Zwaan, 1997; Zwaan & Radvansky, 1998). According to this model, mental simulations are experiential in nature since they implicate embodiment and are assumed to be grounded in perception and action. Thus, understanding language entails recapitulating motor or perceptual activity as a simulation of the language input. A number of findings have been produced over the last decade, using various tasks, to demonstrate the validity of this mental simulation view (e.g., Martin & Chao, 2001; Pecher, Zeelenberg, & Barsalou, 2003; Pulvermüller, 1999, 2002; Spence, Nicholls, & Driver, 2001; Spivey, Tyler, Richardson, & Young, 2000). In this article, we will concentrate on those studies that have exploited the link between linguistic input and experimental task and have shown reliable facilitation/ interference effects using different language structures (e.g., Glenberg & Kaschak, 2002; Zwaan, 2004; Zwaan & Yaxley, 2003).

One popular version of this paradigm is the sentence- picture verification task. Here, participants read sentences such as "The ranger saw an eagle in the sky," then subsequently respond (mentioned/not mentioned) to an image that depicts the eagle in a matching physical form (i.e., an eagle with its wings outstretched) or a mismatching physical form (an eagle with folded wings). Response times reveal facilitation effects (shorter reaction times) when the depicted object's shape and orientation matches information implied in the preceding sentence and interference effects (longer reaction times) when these two sources of information are in conflict (Zwaan, Stanfield, & Yaxley, 2002). …

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