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Pragmatics in action: Indirect requests engage theory of mind areas and the cortical motor network


Hagoort,  Peter
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, External Organizations;
Neurobiology of Language Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Van Ackeren, M. J., Casasanto, D., Bekkering, H., Hagoort, P., & Rueschemeyer, S.-A. (2012). Pragmatics in action: Indirect requests engage theory of mind areas and the cortical motor network. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 24, 2237-2247. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_00274.

Research from the past decade has shown that understanding the meaning of words and utterances (i.e., abstracted symbols) engages the same systems we used to perceive and interact with the physical world in a content-specific manner. For example, understanding the word “grasp” elicits activation in the cortical motor network, that is, part of the neural substrate involved in planned and executing a grasping action. In the embodied literature, cortical motor activation during language comprehension is thought to reflect motor simulation underlying conceptual knowledge [note that outside the embodied framework, other explanations for the link between action and language are offered, e.g., Mahon, B. Z., & Caramazza, A. A critical look at the embodied cognition hypothesis and a new proposal for grouding conceptual content. Journal of Physiology, 102, 59–70, 2008; Hagoort, P. On Broca, brain, and binding: A new framework. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 416–423, 2005]. Previous research has supported the view that the coupling between language and action is flexible, and reading an action-related word form is not sufficient for cortical motor activation [Van Dam, W. O., van Dijk, M., Bekkering, H., & Rueschemeyer, S.-A. Flexibility in embodied lexical–semantic representations. Human Brain Mapping, doi: 10.1002/hbm.21365, 2011]. The current study goes one step further by addressing the necessity of action-related word forms for motor activation during language comprehension. Subjects listened to indirect requests (IRs) for action during an fMRI session. IRs for action are speech acts in which access to an action concept is required, although it is not explicitly encoded in the language. For example, the utterance “It is hot here!” in a room with a window is likely to be interpreted as a request to open the window. However, the same utterance in a desert will be interpreted as a statement. The results indicate (1) that comprehension of IR sentences activates cortical motor areas reliably more than comprehension of sentences devoid of any implicit motor information. This is true despite the fact that IR sentences contain no lexical reference to action. (2) Comprehension of IR sentences also reliably activates substantial portions of the theory of mind network, known to be involved in making inferences about mental states of others. The implications of these findings for embodied theories of language are discussed.