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J Cogn Neurosci. 2013 Nov;25(11):1957-74. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00437. Epub 2013 Jun 27.

Putting an "end" to the motor cortex representations of action words.

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University of Queensland, School of Psychology.


Language processing is an example of implicit learning of multiple statistical cues that provide probabilistic information regarding word structure and use. Much of the current debate about language embodiment is devoted to how action words are represented in the brain, with motor cortex activity evoked by these words assumed to selectively reflect conceptual content and/or its simulation. We investigated whether motor cortex activity evoked by manual action words (e.g., caress) might reflect sensitivity to probabilistic orthographic-phonological cues to grammatical category embedded within individual words. We first review neuroimaging data demonstrating that nonwords evoke activity much more reliably than action words along the entire motor strip, encompassing regions proposed to be action category specific. Using fMRI, we found that disyllabic words denoting manual actions evoked increased motor cortex activity compared with non-body-part-related words (e.g., canyon), activity which overlaps that evoked by observing and executing hand movements. This result is typically interpreted in support of language embodiment. Crucially, we also found that disyllabic nonwords containing endings with probabilistic cues predictive of verb status (e.g., -eve) evoked increased activity compared with nonwords with endings predictive of noun status (e.g., -age) in the identical motor area. Thus, motor cortex responses to action words cannot be assumed to selectively reflect conceptual content and/or its simulation. Our results clearly demonstrate motor cortex activity reflects implicit processing of ortho-phonological statistical regularities that help to distinguish a word's grammatical class.

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