Understanding Embodied Simulation: Creating Meaning out of Language


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Benjamin Bergen. Image courtesy of B Bergen.

Language and Parallel Image Formation

How does the brain deal with words? Is parallel processing of language and image formation taking place in our brains? Decoded Science asked Professor Bergen, “When written language first began the symbols were pictures not arbitrary signs but chunks of meaning.  However, since words are made up of arbitrary symbols does the brain translate them simultaneously into  images , so we can make sense of  our environment, the message we are hearing  or the event we are seeing etc??

Professor Bergen responded, “We know that reading produces similar effects to hearing language-people construct mental simulations of what the things described would look or feel or sound like. One interesting finding is that because reading takes up your visual resources, it appears to be easier to access auditory information while reading and visual information while listening to language.”

Decoded Science:  So when we read / hear language we are parallel processing by accessing our motoric and sensory memories to create images that support language and by doing this we are creating a kind of online mental story board  of what we are reading or hearing?

Benjamin Bergen:  That’s the idea, yes, we are sort of parallel processing. We do create a kind of story board but it’s certainly not as detailed as a picture book would be. It’s also quite ephemeral-each word can provoke its own response, which overtakes what preceded it.

Movement and Sensory Creation and Memory

Movement, sensory perception and memory. Image by Adrian McGarry.

Mental recording of movement and sensory creation may affect our memory of events and experiences, according to Professor Bergen. We asked, “Could it be that if we cannot create these mental simulations in the form of  images we are less likely  to understand and remember what we read or hear because we cannot base the information on any prior knowledge?”

Benjamin Bergen answered, “That might be the case. There’s been very little work on what happens when people can’t access perceptual or motor simulation. It does seem that it becomes slightly harder for them to understand language in the moment, but I don’t know of any work on subsequent recall showing that. An interesting point that the research does prompt is if we do create meaning through simulating sights, sounds and actions, then we are using brain systems beyond those that process language to create meaning.”

Understanding Meaning Creation Could Help Us Better Understand Who We are

To make meaning out of language, our brain uses its older structures that process our senses and movements and creates mental simulations of past experiences to understand present ones. We construct meaning in our minds from our own experiences, this process is known as embodied simulation. As Professor Bergen points out in his book, further research on the importance of embodied simulation could help us understand “what makes us unique as humans, about what kind of animal we are and how we came to be this way.”


Bergen, B. You versus the man: Perspective in language-driven mental simulation. (2008). Academia.edu. Accessed May 14, 2013.

Bergen, B. et al. Body part representations in verbal semantics. (2010). Memory & Cognition. 38 (7), 969-98. Accessed May 14, 2013.

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

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