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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2012 Feb;141(1):170-86. doi: 10.1037/a0024904. Epub 2011 Sep 19.

The evocative power of words: activation of concepts by verbal and nonverbal means.

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Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706, USA.


A major part of learning a language is learning to map spoken words onto objects in the environment. An open question is what are the consequences of this learning for cognition and perception? Here, we present a series of experiments that examine effects of verbal labels on the activation of conceptual information as measured through picture verification tasks. We find that verbal cues, such as the word "cat," lead to faster and more accurate verification of congruent objects and rejection of incongruent objects than do either nonverbal cues, such as the sound of a cat meowing, or words that do not directly refer to the object, such as the word "meowing." This label advantage does not arise from verbal labels being more familiar or easier to process than other cues, and it does extends to newly learned labels and sounds. Despite having equivalent facility in learning associations between novel objects and labels or sounds, conceptual information is activated more effectively through verbal means than through nonverbal means. Thus, rather than simply accessing nonverbal concepts, language activates aspects of a conceptual representation in a particularly effective way. We offer preliminary support that representations activated via verbal means are more categorical and show greater consistency between subjects. These results inform the understanding of how human cognition is shaped by language and hint at effects that different patterns of naming can have on conceptual structure.

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