The Meanings of Actions


The purpose of this study was to collect native English speaker’s intuitions about the extent that motor movements may determine the meaning of most common English verbs. The standard linguistic position is that the meaning of a verb is determined by its argument structure – that is, the abstract roles it denotes in a sentence. For instance, the verb “to give” presupposes an agent (the giver), a patient (the givee) and transfer of possession.


However, recent brain imaging and behavioral evidence suggests that, unexpectedly, premotor cortex is involved in the processing of action words and sentences. A recent Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) study demonstrated that in fact, there may be a causal link between motor representations and verbs. When a hand-related area of motor cortex is deactivated, people are slower to recognize hand-related verbs (such as “to pick”) than, say, foot-related words (“to kick”) – and vice versa. This intriguing finding has led some researchers to conclude that the meaning of certain action words is the process of activating relevant motor programs, and does not have an abstract component.


We are in the process of testing the hypothesis that motor programs do not exhaust the meaning of even the most common English verbs, let alone the majority of action words. People al over the world have rated these verbs according to whether there is a typical motor motion associated with the verb, whether that motion is definitive of the action (or the action can be carried out in other ways), whether the result of the motion is important or not, etc. Such approach is atheoretical (that is, we are not motivated by linguistic categories of verbs and want English speakers tell us what they think). Then we take verbs that score the highest on the motor typicality scale and do a series of experiments. These experiments will show whether motor motions will determine the verbs’ meaning even for the most highly rated action words.


Thus, "The Meaning of Actions" is not a typical experiment in the sense of testing a hypothesis. Rather, it was part of a method to develop test materials for other experiments to be conducted by the Snedeker Lab at Harvard. The development of stimuli is a critical part of most cognitive research; your results are only as good as the method used to obtain them. Stay tuned at that site for results from these ongoing studies. Thank you again to everybody who participated.


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