Representing actions through language

12 July 2010
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How do we understand the actions of others as they are described to us through language? Embodied theories of conceptual knowledge suggest that sensory-motor representations of actions similar to those involved in the performance of the action described are recruited during language comprehension. The extent of this recruitment, however, and the brain mechanisms supporting how word meanings are combined remain unknown. In this talk, I will discuss neuroimaging studies investigating these issues. One study compared the activity elicited by sentences that conveyed different degrees of physical effort. A graded BOLD response to these sentences, reflecting the graded effort required to perform these actions, was found in the same motoric areas that were activated by physically stressing a ball. However, similar response was also found in Broca's area, a region typically associated with language processing. Two subsequent studies suggest that the motoric component of such findings is likely confined to brain areas implicated in planning actions, rather than executing them. The fact that Broca’s area is sensitive to the real-world effort entailed by executing the described actions suggests that language comprehension involves a complex interplay between abstract representations of action and linguistically based representations.