Liane Ströbel

Sensory-Motor Concepts in Language and Cognition

Aims and Scope

The conference focuses on the challenges and boundaries of an interdisciplinary study.

The goal is to discuss strategies and to propose ways to bridge the gulf between theoretical operating disciplines such as linguistics and more experimentally orientated disciplines such as cognitive neuroscience.

The following questions dealing with the representation and computation of language in the minds and brains of speakers will be raised: How do we perceive the world?

In which way are the single entities of our perception stored? What role do sensory-motor concepts play in our understanding of the world and for the linguistic encoding?

Concepts are the elementary units of reason and linguistic meaning. They are conventional and relatively stable (Gallese and Lakoff 2005). Recent theories in cognitive science propose that many concepts are grounded in sensory-motor processes (Barsalou 2008, Gibbs 2005, Pezzulo et al. 2011, Wilson 2002). The conference will explore the thesis of grounded cognition from the perspectives of linguistics, cognitive neuroscience and philosophy of the mind, and critically discuss empirical, experimental and clinical results and linguistic evidence as well as conceptual arguments.

The linguistic perspective focuses on the fact that language and body are closely interrelated. Embodiment not only plays a role for the lexicon (e.g. metaphors, Steen et al. 2010), but also for the grammar of a language. For example, in many languages auxiliaries and analytic verbal constructions can be traced back to action concepts (Ströbel 2010, 2011) involving body parts such as the hand/arm (e.g. make, do, give, take, etc) or the foot/leg (e.g. go, come, etc.).

Recent neurological studies using neuroimaging techniques (e.g. fMRI, EEG) and also patient studies (Grossman et al., 2008) have provided several pieces of the puzzle concerning auditory language perception, reading and language production and deliver valuable insights into this highly developed cognitive function. Furthermore, these studies have shown that premotor and motor areas are activated somatotopically when subjects read verbs referring to hand or foot actions (Boulenger, Hauk and Pulvermüller 2009; Hauk, Johnsrude and Pulvermüller 2004; Hauk and Pulvermüller 2004). Several parts of the brain subserve different aspects of language comprehension and production and only their coordinated interplay warrants effective functioning. Another focus of interest is activation of brain motor areas in abstract use of prefixations of concrete action, such as German greifen ‘grasp vs. begreifen ‘comprehend’ and in abstract use of prefixations of abstract verbs, such as e. g. German denken ‚think‘ vs. bedenken ‚consider‘. While contrasting the concrete and abstract simple verbs resulted in greater activation of primary motor and somatosensory cortices in concrete as compared with abstract verbs no such difference emerged for the prefixation (Rüschemeyer et al. 2007).

Similarly, in philosophy, theories of embodied or grounded cognition (Barsalou 2008, Glenberg and Kaschak 2002) have been acknowledged and the importance of sensory-motor processing concepts is now widely recognized. Traditional views of the architecture of the mind, such as computational views and the theory of a language of thought as a general format of mental representation, will be reconsidered in the light of empirical findings.

The conference will focus on transparent and opaque source domains, both of which are grounded in sensory-motor concepts and highlight the interdisciplinary character of this particular phenomenon. The linguistic theoretical foundations will be enriched with neurological analysis and philosophical empirical findings. The aim of the interdisciplinary approach is to achieve a better understanding of the way language is conceptualized, structured and cognitively stored.

We invite the submission of abstracts on all kinds of empirical and theoretical approaches which involve sensory-motor concepts and which deal with the following questions or topics:

  • Advantages and limits of sensory-motor source domains
  • Language change based on sensory-motor concepts
  • Action versus object processing
  • Temporal aspects of language processing
  • Clinical evidence for allocation of action or object attributes in the brain
  • The relation between perception, action and sensory-motor concepts
  • Is thinking based on linguistic abilities or is thinking grounded in perception and action rather than language?
  • Can sensory-motor concepts be transduced into more abstract concepts, or is abstract thinking based on very different grounds than perception and action?
  • Are theories of grounded cognition modern versions of concept empiricism? Can rationalistic/transcendental theories be formulated coherently while appreciating the role sensory motor concepts have in science?


Barsalou, L. W. (2008). Grounding symbolic operations in the brain’s modal systems. In G. R. Semin, & E. R. Smith (Eds.), Embodied grounding: Social, cognitive, affective, and neuroscientific approaches (pp. 9–42). New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.

Boulenger, V., Hauk, O., & Pulvermüller, F. (2009). Grasping ideas with the motor system: semantic somatotopy in idiom comprehension. Cereb Cortex, 19(8), 1905–1914.

Gallese & Lakoff (2005).The Brain’s Concepts: The Role of the Sensory-Motor System in Reason and Language. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 2005, 22:455–479

Gibbs, R. W. J. (2005). The psychological status of image schemas. In B. Hampe (Ed.), From perception to meaning (pp. 113–135). Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Gibbs, R. W. J. (2006). Embodiment and cognitive science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Glenberg, A. M., & Kaschak, M. P. (2002). Grounding language in action. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9, 558–565.

Grossman, M., Anderson, C., Khan, A., Avants, B., Elman, L., & McCluskey, L. (2008). Impaired action knowledge in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Neurology, 71(18), 1396–1401.

Hauk, O., Johnsrude, I., & Pulvermüller, F. (2004). Somatotopic representation of action words in human motor and premotor cortex. Neuron, 41(2), 301–307.

Hauk, O., & Pulvermüller, F. (2004). Neurophysiological distinction of action words in the fronto-central cortex. Hum Brain Mapp, 21(3), 191–201.

Pezzulo, G., Barsalou, L.W., Cangelosi, A., Fischer, M.A., McRae, K., Spivey, M. (2011). The mechanics of embodiment: A dialogue on embodiment and computational modeling. Frontiers in Cognition, 2(5), 1–21.

Rüschemeyer, S. A., Brass, M., & Friederici, A. D. (2007). Comprehending prehending: neural correlates of processing verbs with motor stems. J Cogn Neurosci, 19(5), 855–865.

Steen, Gerard J., Dorst, Alette G., Herrmann, J. Berenike., Kaal, Anna, Krennmayr, Tina, and Pasma, Trijntje. (2010). A method for linguistic metaphor identification: From MIP to MIPVU. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Ströbel, L. (2010). Die Entstehung einer neuen Kategorie – Leerverben als paralleler Kopulastrang. Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang.

Ströbel, L. (2011). Invisible, visible, grammaticalization. In Callies, M. Lohöfer, A. Keller, W. (Eds.), Bi-directionality in the Cognitive Sciences [provisional title]. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

van Elk, M., van Schie, H. T., Zwaan, R. A., & Bekkering, H. (2010). The functional role of motor activation in language processing: Motor cortical oscillations support lexical-semantic retrieval. Neuroimage, 50(2), 665–677.

Wilson, M. (2002). Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9, 625–636.

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