That Inward Eye: Embodied Simulation, Language and the Brain | Larissa Dahl at the University of Alberta Neurolinguistics Extravaganza Conference (2017)

  • When you listen to or read language, you effortlessly create a simulation of what you hear. 

  • Scientists have done research that proves 

    • Scientist tells you, “The man hammered the nail into the floor.” Then shows you a photo of a nail pointed downward and asks you if it was an object in the sentence. You reply yes. However, when different people are read the same sentence, but shown a picture of a nail pointed sideways, it takes them longer to answer that yes, it was an object in the picture. 

      • The nail pointed horizontally is one you would expect to be hammered into a wall, not the floor. 

      • As it processes language, the brain automatically creates a simulation that draws on real world knowledge. 

  • What about when we are producing language? 

    • The brain first creates a representation, or simulation, that it draws on, to produce it. 

      • I show you a picture, and then ask you to describe it back to me. As you describe it, even if the picture is removed and there is nothing there anymore, your eyes will move around according to what you’re describing. 

  • You can be in pitch black darkness and language will still activate the occipital lobe as if you’re seeing something. 

  • "Fictive motion” language is more compelling than “non-fictive

    • i.e. “The river runs beside the road.” vs. “The river is beside the road.” 

      • Exactly the same content, but one has motion implied.

    • RESEARCH STUDY: Scientists gave two groups of people different sentences pairs of sentences to read. One of either: "The desert is hilly,” or, “The desert is flat;” were paired with either: "The road runs through the desert,” or, "The road is in the desert."

      • Both groups were then shown the exact same picture, which 

    • People enrich the picture [what they see] with the understanding given to them through language. That changes the representation that they have in their mind, and that in turn changes how they look at the picture. 

      • This only happens with the fictive motion sentence. 

  • Movement in language — regardless of the literal interpretation — causes the brain to imagine motion 

  • We simulate motion dynamically with the language that we are receiving and that we are creating 

  • Our outward eyes follow this “inward eye” that we have and that we use 

  • Visuals activate the occipital lobe

  • The motor cortex is activated when we process action verbs 

    • GRASP — the prefrontal cortex activates to help you understand that word — it runs a simulation as if you’re actually grasping something

    • Auditory cortex activates when we imagine our inner dialogue, when we talk to ourselves in our heads (which we do all the time!) 

      • It activates as though we are receiving input, even when there is no auditory stimulation coming in through the ears. 

  • Areas seem unrelated to language but activate when we are comprehending or producing language 

  • When we evolved language we took areas of the brain that had evolved to do other things — i.e. actions, hearing, seeing — and we tacked language onto those, and use them to help us in our comprehension and production of it. 

    • Language isn’t just in one part of the brain, it uses all the brain. 

  • Every action, thought and perception, every bit of language that we encounter or produce, is rooted in our experiences and also in our body. And it’s not just the literal interpretation of one word after another. 

    • Our inward eye is the thing that allows us to understand language — to do everything that we do with language — and it happens automatically, dynamically and effortlessly. 

    • Language uses your whole body and your experiences and everything that you are to process, understand and produce it.