- Louder than words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning by Benjamin K. Bergen
Imagine that you are a participant in the following psycholinguistic experiment. You are seated in front of a computer terminal and shown the sentence The carpenter hammered the nail into the wall. After reading the sentence, you are shown a picture of an object, such as a nail or elephant, and asked to quickly judge whether that object was mentioned in the sentence. Of course, you would quickly say ‘yes’ to the picture of a nail and ‘no’ to the elephant. The primary interest, however, is in your speeded response to the nail picture, depending on whether it was shown in a horizontal or vertical orientation. Research indicates that people, on average, are faster to make their ‘yes’ decisions when the picture was in the same spatial orientation as implied by the sentence just read (Zwaan et al. 2002). Thus, people are faster to say ‘yes’ when the picture showed the nail in the horizontal orientation than when it was shown upright, or in the vertical position. However, when they first read the sentence The carpenter hammered the nail into the floor, people are faster, on average, to say ‘yes’ to the nail picture that presented it in a vertical position rather than horizontal.
One interpretation of these findings is that people automatically construct a mental image of an object in its appropriate spatial orientation based on what the sentence implies. Even if the nail’s position is not explicitly noted in the sentence, our immediate understanding of the sentence’s meaning enables us to create an image of the situation in which the nail was hammered in a horizontal or vertical position. How people construe imaginative understandings of language is the subject of Ben Bergen’s book. This lively, entertaining book offers a broad, but detailed, overview of the idea that people interpret language using embodied simulation processes. This hypothesis asserts that people ordinarily construct imaginative reenactments of what some language event must be like to participate in given their own bodily capacities and experiences. People do not first comprehend a sentence’s purely linguistic meaning and only then derive richer imaginative understandings. Instead, people’s embodied simulation abilities enable them to immediately infer detailed, imagistic understandings of what speakers imply by what they say.
The embodied simulation hypothesis has been widely debated within the cognitive science community in recent years as it possibly applies to various cognitive and linguistic phenomena, including conceptual representations, memory, problem solving, learning, and consciousness. B’s book progressively outlines the arguments and empirical evidence for embodied simulations in terms of how people make sense of linguistic meanings. Ch. 1 presents the main idea of embodied simulation processes by showing how people can imagine unrealistic scenarios, such as ‘flying pigs’, by combining mental representations of different percepts that they have experienced (e.g. experiences of pigs and flying). B contrasts this view of language understanding with a traditional account in which words are comprehended by looking up their definitions in a mental lexicon, a repository that is assumed to be quite distinct from embodied experiences and actions.
Ch. 2 describes how many facets of mental imagery are closely tied to the ways our brains move our bodies and perceive the world. One key finding is that mental imagery sometimes interferes with visual perception. For example, when you form a mental image of a banana while looking at a blank wall, this hinders your ability to perceive a faint image of a banana projected onto the wall. Various cognitive neuroscience studies demonstrate that brain areas responsible for visual perception are also engaged when people are only imagining some object or scene or remembering some past action (e.g. making a fist). These different experimental results emphasize both the tight coupling of perception and action, and the possibility that people use their perceptual and motor systems for simulation purposes.
Ch. 3 begins the discussion of the...