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Front Psychol. 2012 Sep 14;3:329. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00329. eCollection 2012.

Electrophysiological potentials reveal cortical mechanisms for mental imagery, mental simulation, and grounded (embodied) cognition.

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  • 1School of Psychology, University of Plymouth, Plymouth Devon, UK ; Massachusetts General Hospital, Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging Charlestown, MA, USA.


Grounded cognition theory proposes that cognition, including meaning, is grounded in sensorimotor processing. The mechanism for grounding cognition is mental simulation, which is a type of mental imagery that re-enacts modal processing. To reveal top-down, cortical mechanisms for mental simulation of shape, event-related potentials were recorded to face and object pictures preceded by mental imagery. Mental imagery of the identical face or object picture (congruous condition) facilitated not only categorical perception (VPP/N170) but also later visual knowledge [N3(00) complex] and linguistic knowledge (N400) for faces more than objects, and strategic semantic analysis (late positive complex) between 200 and 700 ms. The later effects resembled semantic congruity effects with pictures. Mental imagery also facilitated category decisions, as a P3 peaked earlier for congruous than incongruous (other category) pictures, resembling the case when identical pictures repeat immediately. Thus mental imagery mimics semantic congruity and immediate repetition priming processes with pictures. Perception control results showed the opposite for faces and were in the same direction for objects: Perceptual repetition adapts (and so impairs) processing of perceived faces from categorical perception onward, but primes processing of objects during categorical perception, visual knowledge processes, and strategic semantic analysis. For both imagery and perception, differences between faces and objects support domain-specificity and indicate that cognition is grounded in modal processing. Altogether, this direct neural evidence reveals that top-down processes of mental imagery sustain an imagistic representation that mimics perception well enough to prime subsequent perception and cognition. Findings also suggest that automatic mental simulation of the visual shape of faces and objects operates between 200 and 400 ms, and strategic mental simulation operates between 400 and 700 ms.


embodiment and grounded cognition; event-related potential; face identification; mental imagery; object categorization; semantic memory priming; visual knowledge; visual shape perception

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