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PLoS One. 2014 May 19;9(5):e97905. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0097905. eCollection 2014.

How sound symbolism is processed in the brain: a study on Japanese mimetic words.

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Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America.
Faculty of Environment and Information Studies, Keio University at Shonan-Fujisawa, Endo, Fujisawa, Kanagawa, Japan.
Department of Intelligent Systems, Faculty of Computer Science and Engineering, Kyoto Sangyo University, Kamigamo-Motoyama, Kita-Ku, Kyoto, Japan.
Department of Mechanical Systems, College of Engineering, Tamagawa University, Machida, Tokyo, Japan.
Tamagawa University Brain Science Institute, Machida, Tokyo, Japan.


Sound symbolism is the systematic and non-arbitrary link between word and meaning. Although a number of behavioral studies demonstrate that both children and adults are universally sensitive to sound symbolism in mimetic words, the neural mechanisms underlying this phenomenon have not yet been extensively investigated. The present study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate how Japanese mimetic words are processed in the brain. In Experiment 1, we compared processing for motion mimetic words with that for non-sound symbolic motion verbs and adverbs. Mimetic words uniquely activated the right posterior superior temporal sulcus (STS). In Experiment 2, we further examined the generalizability of the findings from Experiment 1 by testing another domain: shape mimetics. Our results show that the right posterior STS was active when subjects processed both motion and shape mimetic words, thus suggesting that this area may be the primary structure for processing sound symbolism. Increased activity in the right posterior STS may also reflect how sound symbolic words function as both linguistic and non-linguistic iconic symbols.

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