A role for the motor system in binding abstract emotional meaning

Authors: Moseley, R., Carota, F., Hauk, O., Mohr, B. and Pulvermuller, F.


Journal: Cerebral Cortex

Volume: 22

Pages: 1634-1647

ISSN: 1460-2199

Sensorimotor areas activate to action- and object-related words, but their role in abstract meaning processing is still debated. Abstract emotion words denoting body internal states are a critical test case because they lack referential links to objects. If actions expressing emotion are crucial for learning correspondences between word forms and emotions, emotion word–evoked activity should emerge in motor brain systems controlling the face and arms, which typically express emotions. To test this hypothesis, we recruited 18 native speakers and used event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging to compare brain activation evoked by abstract emotion words to that by face- and arm-related action words. In addition to limbic regions, emotion words indeed sparked precentral cortex, including body-part–specific areas activated somatotopically by face words or arm words. Control items, including hash mark strings and animal words, failed to activate precentral areas. We conclude that, similar to their role in action word processing, activation of frontocentral motor systems in the dorsal stream reflects the semantic binding of sign and meaning of abstract words denoting emotions and possibly other body internal states.

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