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Cereb Cortex. 2010 Feb;20(2):468-78. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhp115. Epub 2009 Jun 22.

Activation of sensory-motor areas in sentence comprehension.

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  • 1Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI 53226, USA. rhdesai@mcw.edu


The sensory-motor account of conceptual processing suggests that modality-specific attributes play a central role in the organization of object and action knowledge in the brain. An opposing view emphasizes the abstract, amodal, and symbolic character of concepts, which are thought to be represented outside the brain's sensory-motor systems. We conducted a functional magnetic resonance imaging study in which the participants listened to sentences describing hand/arm action events, visual events, or abstract behaviors. In comparison to visual and abstract sentences, areas associated with planning and control of hand movements, motion perception, and vision were activated when understanding sentences describing actions. Sensory-motor areas were activated to a greater extent also for sentences with actions that relied mostly on hands, as opposed to arms. Visual sentences activated a small area in the secondary visual cortex, whereas abstract sentences activated superior temporal and inferior frontal regions. The results support the view that linguistic understanding of actions partly involves imagery or simulation of actions, and relies on some of the same neural substrate used for planning, performing, and perceiving actions.

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