Brain Simulates Actions in Language Processing and Production


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Well-crafted language transports the reader or the listener to another place. Image by Adrian McGarry

Well-crafted language transports the reader or the listener to another place. Image by Adrian McGarry

Professor Bergen answered, “That’s what the field is trying to figure out right now. Are these brain areas used to understand everything that anyone ever says? (It seems unlikely-how would they be used to understand “Hi” for example?) Are they used when you really want to deeply understand something? Are they used only when you want to understand something you’ve never heard or thought about before? Are they used for making inferences? For preparing to respond appropriately? We don’t know.

Mental Images and Language Processing

People used images to communicate with before spoken language and writing systems were developed.  Why wasn’t the fact that we use images to help us decode language investigated beforehand? We asked Dr. Bergen to clarify.

Decoded Science: It’s surprising that this wasn’t considered before because surely before the development of language people must have used mental images to think about things?

Benjamin Bergen: Well, to be sure there are many people who have argued over the centuries that something like this might be going on with language. Intuitively, it feels like well-crafted language transports the reader or the listener to another place, evokes feelings and sights and sounds that they would experience there. But only recently have we been able to test whether this is actually happening, and when.

Is Simulating Images a Natural Part of Language Processing?

If the older (in evolutionary terms) parts of our brain have always been producing ‘images’ to record experiences, could it be said that this process is inherent to language processing – that we cannot have one without the other? Decoded Science asked Dr. Bergen for clarification. “So it is a new discovery but creating images is something our brains have been doing always naturally?”

Benjamin Bergen: It’s certainly possible. We know that the brain uses motor and perceptual systems in an “offline” way during lots of behaviors, like sleep for example. Language seems to grab onto that ability and exploit it. How different that use/exploitation is from how we use simulation during recall, planning, etc., we still don’t know.

The Language Topic and Content Determines the Area of Language Processing and Production

Through conducting and examining a decade’s worth of research in psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience, cognitive scientist Benjamin  Bergen offers a new theory into how our minds process language and generate meanings. Bergen claims that the cognitive network used when we hear words and sentences and engage in conversations is much wider than once thought since the evolutionarily older parts of our brain used for perception and action have been found to become activated and simulate the activities that we are exposed to linguistically. As Bergen pointed out in our interview there are still many unanswered questions, “Which is why this is such an exciting time to study meaning!”


Bergen, B. You versus the man: Perspective in language-driven mental simulation. (2008). Accessed May 10, 2013.

Bergen, B. Louder than words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning. (2012). Basic Books.

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