Language and embodiment

Hereafter, we will delve into the more recent research introduced above. Two strands stand out: language and embodiment. Research over the past two decades has suggested that conceptual processing involves both ‘linguistic’ and ‘embodied’ systems of the brain. First, the language system is characterised by associations across networks of words (Landauer et al., 1998; Pylyshyn, 1973). For instance, the word ‘window’ often co-occurs with ‘door’, whereas ‘window’ seldom co-occurs with ‘sheep’.1 Second, the embodiment system is characterised by associations within perceptual, motor, affective and social domains (Barsalou, 1999a; Diveica et al., 2022). For instance, reading the words ‘green’ or ‘red’ can activate the same areas that activate upon seeing those colours (Simmons et al., 2007). Both language and embodiment have strengths and limitations (Bernabeu, 2017; Connell, 2019; Dove, 2020; Kumar, 2021; Louwerse et al., 2015; Mahon & Hickok, 2016), which we address below. For example, several avenues of research support the idea that linguistic information may be activated more quickly, and reach peak activation before embodied information (Louwerse & Connell, 2011; Santos et al., 2011; Simmons et al., 2008), but this mechanism may be dependent on contextual factors such as semantic depth (Connell & Lynott, 2014b; Petilli et al., 2021). As a result, conceptual processing flexibly draws on these systems following the demands of the context (Sato et al., 2008; Shebani & Pulvermüller, 2018; Willems & Casasanto, 2011). Furthermore, research in computational linguistics has further supported the complementarity of language and embodied information, by revealing increased predictive performance when models are provided with perceptual information on top of text-based information (Frome et al., 2013; Roads & Love, 2020).

The terminology used in this topic deserves a note. The first terms of note are language and embodiment. These terms provide the building blocks for the study of a more involved phenomenon, as with other dichotomies used in psychology (e.g., Kahneman, 2011; Paivio, 1990). Particularly noteworthy is the term ‘embodiment’, which encompasses sensory, motor, affective and social information (Borghi et al., 2019; Newcombe et al., 2012; Zwaan, 2021). These systems have helped organise the study of conceptual processing over the past decades. First, language refers to a system of word-to-word associations that are not operationalised in a modality-specific way. These associations are amodal in that they are operationalised using text-based networks of words (Andrews et al., 2014; Louwerse et al., 2015). The language system can be operationalised as a variable using word co-occurrence, which is a calculation of the high-order distance between words (Petilli et al., 2021; Wingfield & Connell, 2022b). The term ‘high-order’ designates relationships across networks of words, as opposed to direct relationships (Landauer et al., 1998). On the other side of the coin, the embodiment system is modality-specific in that it grounds the meaning of words in thematically-relevant areas of the brain. The activation of these areas during semantic processing creates a simulation that contributes to the comprehension of concepts (Barsalou, 1999a). The embodiment system agglutinates four major systems: perception (Connell, 2019), action (Vukovic et al., 2017), emotion (Kousta et al., 2011) and sociality (X. Wang et al., 2021). Furthermore, the perceptual domain in turn comprises vision, hearing, touch, etc. Although these general levels are worth noting due to the influence over the past decades, it is essential in specific studies to define the object of study more precisely (Zwaan, 2021), which we think is the general norm. Last, we should note that we will often use the terms ‘language-based’ and ‘vision-based’ in this thesis. These terms are practically equivalent to ‘linguistic’ and ‘visual’, respectively. However, the latter terms are loaded with associations to languages, on the one hand, and to direct visual perception, on the other hand. Because those associations differ from our intended meaning, we will often use ‘language-based’ and ‘vision-based’, as did Petilli et al. (2021).

The language system is involved in the representation of both abstract and concrete concepts (Ponari, Norbury, Rotaru, et al., 2018; Reggin et al., 2021). For instance, measures of distributional semantic distance—solely based on texts from large corpora—have been shown to capture aspects of the real world with considerable accuracy (Contreras Kallens et al., 2022; De Deyne et al., 2013; Kumar et al., 2020; Louwerse & Zwaan, 2009). The language system is likely more important for the processing of abstract—rather than concrete—concepts, as abstract concepts tend to have reduced sensorimotor content (Barca et al., 2020; Duñabeitia et al., 2009; Hultén et al., 2021), although the degree of this difference could be small (De Deyne et al., 2013). Language-based regularities may even allow distinguishing between concrete and abstract words, as word concreteness is consistently related to linguistic characteristics such as part of speech, morphological structure, countability and etymology (Lievers et al., 2021).

Regarding the time course, the language system is activated more quickly in semantically-deep tasks (Connell & Lynott, 2013; Louwerse & Connell, 2011), whereas both systems are similarly fast in semantically-shallow tasks (Petilli et al., 2021). For instance, Louwerse and Connell (2011) found that language-based information better predicted rapid responses, while perceptual information better predicted slower responses. In turn, responses of intermediate duration were equally well predicted by both types of information. As a result of these characteristics, the language system is equipped to support a major part of conceptual processing (Connell, 2019; Connell & Lynott, 2014a). However, the language system is hindered by the symbol grounding problem, which refers to the impossibility of obtaining meaning—or ‘grounding’ lexical content in reality—on the sole basis of language-based associations (Günther et al., 2018, 2021; Harnad, 1990; Louwerse, 2011). That is, having only word-to-word associations leads to a circularity where meaning is never associated with anything in the real world. This is why embodied simulation is deemed useful. Another limitation is caused by the finite vocabularies of languages, which sometimes fall short of the richness of sensorimotor experience (De Deyne et al., 2021; Günther et al., 2021; Majid & Burenhult, 2014; Majid & Levinson, 2011; Majid & van Staden, 2015). Consider all the sensory, motor, affective and social experiences that cannot be described with a word in your language. Taken together, the great importance of the language system across studies and across contexts suggests that language-based associations are necessary for conceptual processing. In addition, modality-specific information seems to play a significant—if smaller—role, and is especially relevant in contexts of deeper semantic processing. If this is indeed the case, we could hypothesise that language is necessary but not sufficient, insofar as some contexts present a significant contribution of modality-specific information.

The embodiment system is best suited for the representation of concrete concepts, such as those involving perceptual features (Ostarek & Huettig, 2017; Pecher et al., 1998; Yee et al., 2012) and actions (Riccardi et al., 2019), such as table or hammer. Some research has suggested that embodied simulation plays an integral role in conceptual processing (Pulvermüller, 2013), at least in the context of relatively deep semantic tasks—e.g., classifying abstract and concrete words—and relatively concrete concepts—e.g., table (Connell & Lynott, 2016; García et al., 2020; Lebois et al., 2015; Ostarek & Huettig, 2017; Pecher et al., 1998; Shebani et al., 2021; Vitale et al., 2021; Vukovic et al., 2017; X. Wang et al., 2021; Yee et al., 2012). Further evidence for the contextual dependency of the interplay between language and sensorimotor information was found by Riccardi et al. (2019), who investigated the comprehension of action verbs and abstract verbs in left-hemisphere stroke patients, finding that the processing of action concepts relied more heavily on sensory-motor areas. Furthermore, studies have suggested that even abstract concepts may be partially grounded in modality-specific domains such as emotion, sociality and interoception (Borghi et al., 2022; Conca et al., 2021; Connell et al., 2018; Diveica et al., 2022; Kousta et al., 2011; Vigliocco et al., 2014; X. Wang et al., 2021). For example, the relatively-abstract concepts of fear and sadness are rated as being highly interoceptive (Connell et al., 2018).

However, other research has curtailed the importance of the embodiment system (Bottini et al., 2021; Garcea et al., 2013; Günther et al., 2018, 2021; Mahon & Caramazza, 2008; Montero-Melis et al., 2022; Vannuscorps et al., 2016). For instance, studies have found that lesions to motor brain areas did not systematically impair the processing of action concepts in language (Negri et al., 2007; Papeo et al., 2010). Furthermore, behavioural studies from the past decade have begun constraining the role of perceptual simulation. For instance, Louwerse and Connell (2011) found that perceptual simulation was more important late in the time course of property verification (also see Bernabeu et al., 2017). In another study, Connell and Lynott (2014a) found that the auditory information in words is relevant for reading aloud but not so much for word identification. Importantly, even the keenest critiques of embodiment have not denied that conceptual processing can involve activation of sensory and motor systems. What they questioned was the role of these activations. For instance, Mahon and Caramazza (2008) argued that these activations could be a by-product of comprehension rather than a contributor to comprehension. In conclusion, the language and the embodiment systems are complementary to each other (Andrews et al., 2009; De Deyne et al., 2021; J. Wang et al., 2010).

The division between language and embodiment has provided fruitful avenues for research and yielded a prolific output over the past two decades (Connell, 2019), and many more research avenues are yet to be explored (Bernabeu et al., 2021).2 However, with more than two decades of history, it may be pertinent to appraise this division and consider alternatives. First, we know that the categories we have in our research toolkit may be a bit arbitrary (Tulving, 2007). Second, cognitive science research needs to be open to change. In a recent discussion, Michel (2021) contended that there is a stalemate between the amodal and the modal views. On the one hand, the amodal view has an ‘ad-hoc air’. This criticism echoes the adjective of ‘post-hoc’ that had been used by Rosch (1975b) in relation to the spreading activation stance. On the other hand, the modality-specificity—or embodiment—stance is challenged by having smaller effect sizes (Louwerse et al., 2015) and by some non-replications (Morey et al., 2022; E.-J. Wagenmakers et al., 2016). The smaller effect sizes and the non-replications may be more closely related than we often acknowledge, as some effects can require sample sizes far exceeding what we are used to (Marek et al., 2022), and non-replications require the consideration of alternative explanations (Noah et al., 2018). Regarding sample size, where very large sample sizes are necessary to study some effects, the onus will be on scientists to decide whether we can and should invest the required funding.

In sum, Michel (2021) proposed working towards a continuous construal of language and embodiment in conceptual processing. I am sympathetic to this view, as continuums—that is, the use of gradual, continuous measures—often outperform categorical divisions in science. For instance, consider the move from categorical factors to continuous variables in the area of conceptual processing (Lynott & Connell, 2009; Petilli et al., 2021). Part of the reason for the advantage of continuous measures probably lies in the fact that they involve more data, thus offering greater precision. At the same time, however, taking the leap advocated by Michel will require reframing a longstanding discussion. I look forward to following such a development in the future. In the present work, I have adhered to the language-embodiment division, although my use of continuous predictors aligns with the goal of a continuum between language and embodiment. In this way, I have investigated how the interplay between language and sensorimotor simulation is reflected at various levels of the experimental structure—namely, at the levels of individuals, words and tasks. In closing, if/when the field attempts to overcome the opposition between language and embodiment, I think it will be important to consider such a move in the context of neuroscience, too. That is, is it neuroscientifically plausible to conceive of a single system? Research has demonstrated the role of amodal regions of the brain and of modality-specific regions during conceptual processing, showing signs of a continuous progression in spite of the separate specialisation of the areas (Binder & Desai, 2011; Fernandino et al., 2016). In a recent study, Kuhnke et al. (2021) observed a functional coupling—that is, a functionally useful interplay—between amodal and modal areas, characterised by a flow of information in both directions. Arguably, this research provides some support for Michel’s continuum proposal.

One of the core reasons why it is important to investigate language and embodiment is the optimality of scientific theories, classically epitomised by Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor represents the desirability of concise theories. Put concretely: if one single mechanism could explain a cognitive process, only one mechanism should be used. Gallese and Lakoff (2005) were among the first to articulate the Occam’s razor argument within the present topic. The authors argued: ‘In short, we think there is an Occam’s Razor argument here. The modality-neutral structure is just not needed.’ (p. 468). Gallese and Lakoff wrote that in 2005. Importantly, since then, a sizable amount of evidence has challenged the role of embodiment by suggesting that sensorimotor activations are not conducive to meaning, but are instead of a result of comprehension (Hickok, 2014; Mahon & Caramazza, 2008; Mahon & Hickok, 2016), and other evidence has favoured the ‘hybrid’ theory, as reviewed above. Indeed, as reviewed above, research has extensively investigated how language and embodiment interact as a function of the concreteness of concepts and the semantic depth required by the context. In contrast, the role of individual differences has received less attention. Furthermore, most of these studies have investigated how individual differences interact with either language or sensorimotor simulation. For instance, Pexman and Yap (2018) found that higher-vocabulary individuals were more sensitive to task-relevant information, such as word concreteness, when performing a task that required classifying words as abstract or concrete. Similarly, research has found that physical expertise and perceptual biases are associated with differences in the mental simulation of meaning (Beilock et al., 2008; Calvo-Merino et al., 2005; Vukovic & Williams, 2015). In spite of the advancements, there is room for the investigation of further combinations, such as the way in which vocabulary knowledge interacts with both language-based information and vision-based information.


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  1. The reader is encouraged to consult the relationship between these and other words using the Latent Semantic Analysis website at, where they can select the option ‘Matrix Comparison’.↩︎

  2. The pregistration in Bernabeu et al. (2021) had to be sidelined due to project adjustments required during the Covid-19 pandemic. We hope that the research questions laid out in this preregistration inspire future research.↩︎

Pablo Bernabeu, 2022. Licence: CC BY 4.0.

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