Brain Simulates Actions in Language Processing and Production


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Benjamin Bergen. Image by Keegan Uhl Photography

Benjamin Bergen: The basic idea is simple. We understand words in part by creating experiences of what it would be like to experience the things they describe. When you hear the word “jump”, you can’t help but activate knowledge of what it would be like to see someone jump, or what it would feel like to jump, yourself. We do this for literal language, like “jump over the curb” and also for metaphorical language, like “jump on the bandwagon.”

We do this using parts of our brain that have evolved not primarily for language but to control actions and to perceive using our senses, and yet language seems to have cobbled together new uses for these evolutionarily old systems.

Discovery and Location in the Brain of Perception and Action Simulations

Research has historically and traditionally supported the left-side of the brain as the language processing area. We asked Professor Bergen when it first came to light that other ‘evolutionary older’ areas of our brain used for perception and action were being activated in language processing.

Dr. Bergen responded, “Starting at the end of the 1990s, there were several distinct findings that led people to think this was a viable hypothesis. Some were from Artificial Intelligence, others from neuroscience, and still others from cognitive psychology. So this wasn’t an entirely new idea-it’s just that the science started to show it around the turn of the century.”

Decoded Science: Where are the lower cognition areas of the brain that deal with perception and actions – motor functions located?

Benjamin Bergen: There are systems that control perception and action all over the brain. There are circuits involved in controlling motor action in so-called primary motor cortex, as well as supplementary motor area and pre-motor cortex. These are all in the frontal lobe. Primary visual cortex is in the occipital lobe, at the back of the brain, and primary auditory cortex is in the temporal lobe, near the temples.

Brain Areas Vital for Language Processing and Production

For decades, studies, education, remediation, and intervention have relied on the historical fact that, for the most part, language processing takes place in the left hemisphere of the brain.  How essential are these older brain structures in language processing and production? Decoded Science asked, ” To what extent are these areas vital to language processing and production and are they only activated for certain language skills? Considering the amount of times we use action words, what role do these motor and perception areas play in our day to day language processing?”

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