Understanding Embodied Simulation: Creating Meaning out of Language


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Making sense out of experiences requires language. Image by Adrian McGarry

Many language theorists have proposed that word meanings are connected to mental images in that we form mental representations in our minds of our experiences. Cognitive scientists are developing a new, more explanatory theory, known as ’embodied simulation.’

Making Sense and Action out of Language

Through his research and book, Louder than words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning, cognitive scientist, Professor Benjamin Bergen, a faculty Member of the University of California, San Diego, adds to the theories of how we make sense of language. Bergen’s studies shows that in addition to the left hemisphere of the brain, traditionally associated with language processing and production, other areas of the brain that process actions and perception – known as lower cognitive areas –  are involved in language processing and production. Bergen, explains in detail how these areas necessary for the creation of meaning through what is known as embodied simulation.

Embodied Simulation Explained

Embodied simulation refers to the possibility that we understand the meaning of language by simulating in our minds the experience that the language describes through memories of our own experiences of that event. Bergen points at that we simulate constantly, when we imagine faces of friends or relatives, sounds, music, tastes, smells, and actions through conscious mental imagery. He explains that embodied simulation is a slightly deeper process and the images that we conjure up are ‘just the tip of the iceberg;’ when we simulate we create mental experiences of sense perceptions and actions without them being present. The processes that we consciously activate to do this are actually busy even when we are not aware of them.  When we practice ‘embodied simulation’ research shows we ‘prod’ those areas of the brain that deal with actions and perceptions that have unconsciously collected all our experiences and actions and reawaken them.

Meaning and Sensory Perception and Experience are Necessary in Language Processing

In its broadest interpretation, Bergen explains that when we use or confirm action verbs, research shows we need to activate the low-level motor and perceptual brain structures for imagined action. The brain activity seen in these areas  once again supports the notion that in language processing, meaning and thought are tightly grounded in the experiences individuals have from their interaction with the world around them. In continued discussions with Decoded Science, Bergen said that we understand words partly by creating mental simulations of what it would be like to experience the things being described. We do this by activating previously stored knowledge about an action or event. This all takes place using brain structures that have evolved not principally for language, but to control actions and to perceive using our senses.

Decoded Science took the opportunity to discuss further with Professor Bergen the meaning of these findings in connection to language processing and production.

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