Liane Ströbel

Liane Ströbel: What is so fascinating about sensory-motor concepts?

What is so fascinating about sensory-motor concepts?

According to Barsalou, mental representations used in cognitive tasks are grounded in the sensory-motor system. Therefore it is assumed that the human system of concepts cannot be regarded as either abstract or amodal, but as immediately anchored in the perception, experience and simulation of sensory-motor actions (Barsalou, 2008). This assumption is supported by the following facts: a) sensory-motor knowledge is the most specific and best-differentiated concrete human experience we possess, and b) sensory-motor concepts are not only conceptually simple and easy to encode given the fact that they are part of our everyday life, but due to their semantic complexity they can also function as cognitive anchorage points for a diverse range of encoding strategies. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that we use sensory-motor concepts as a model for less specific, less differentiated, more abstract knowledge, such as emotions, needs or temporal and spatial relations. The mere fact that even the words to understand and to comprehend (< Latin prehende ̄re ‘to catch, to seize’) can be traced back to sensory- motor concepts and that we use sensory-motor-based metaphors, such as to grasp an idea or to handle a problem underlines the predominance of sensory-motor source domains in the lexicon. But grammar, too, is full of morphemes which can be traced back to sensory-motor activities. One example is the way we refer to time, e. g. Frenchle passé ‘the past’ (something that has gone by), maintenant ‘now’ (< Latin manu tenendo ‘in the hand holding’) and l’avenir ‘the future’ (< Latin adven ̄ıre ‘still to come’) or that we encode emotions or feeling with the help of a possessive verb related to hand action, such as I have concerns, etc. Many light verbs and auxiliaries can also be traced back to hand or food actions, such as to give a smile, to take a walk, or I am going for a swim, etc. Similar the copulae in Spanish can be traced back to bodily positions (e.g. ser [< Latin sede ̄re ‘to sit’] or estar [< Latin sta ̄re ‘to stand’]) or the negation in French to the denying of an action, such as to not take a step (ne . . . pas ‘not a step’), etc. (Ströbel, 2010, 2011). In all these examples the underlying strategy is based on the fact that not only the same brain areas are activated whether we fulfill or just imagine an action, but that we can also imagine a sensory-motor task, such as grasping an object without actually grasping it (Gallese and Lakoff, 2005) and that is exactly what makes sensory-motor concepts so suitable for rendering abstract entities less abstract by connecting them to concrete bodily actions (Ströbel, 2014).

The linguistic perspective is covered by theories in cognitive science which support this assumption by asserting that many concepts are grounded in sensory-motor pro-cesses (Barsalou, 2008; Gibbs, 2005; Pezzulo et al., 2011; Wilson, 2002). Psycholinguistic studies confirm that different sensorimotor experiences directly shape people’s use and understanding of complex situations and metaphorical statements. Neurological studies using neuroimaging techniques (e. g. fMRI, EEG) and also patient studies (Grossman et al., 2008) have furthermore provided several pieces of the puzzle concerning auditory language perception, reading and language production and deliver valuable insights into this highly developed cognitive function.

The interdisciplinary interest in the topic is also reflected in this volume. Looking at the subject from a number of different perspectives, the various contributions here elaborate the fact that language and body are closely interrelated.


  1. Michiel van Elk: Preface
  2. Liane Ströbel: What’s so fascinating about Sensory-Motor Concepts?
  3. Liane Ströbel: Sensory-Motor Concepts and Language
  4. Liane Ströbel: The Diversity of Sensory-Motor Concepts and its Implications
  5. Liane Ströbel: Sensory-Motor Concepts and Perception
  6. Raymond W. Gibbs: Experimental and Corpus Studies on Embodied Metaphoric Meaning 
  7. Valentina Cuccio: Inferential Communication in the Embodied Language Paradigm
  8. Johann-Mattis List, Anselm Terhalle and Daniel Schulzek: Traces of Embodiment in Chinese Character Formation A Frame Approach to the Interaction of Writing, Speaking, and Meaning 
  9. Wolfgang G. Müller: Motion and Emotion. The application of sensory-motor concepts to the representation of emotion in literature 
  10. Gerard Steen: Sensory-Motor Concepts and Metaphor in Usage
  11. Ralf Naumann: Dynamics in the Brain and Dynamic Frame Theory for Action Verbs
  12. Sander Lestrade: The place of Place (according to spatial case)
  13. Andrea Bellavia: Force Change Schemas and Excessive Actions: How High-Level Cognitive Operations Constrain Aspect in Idiomatic Constructions 
  14. Lionel Brunel, Denis Brouillet, Rémy Versace: The Sensory Nature of Knowledge
  15. Martin V.Bütz and Daniel Zöllner: Towards Grounding Compositional Concept Structures in Self-organizing Neural Encodings
  16. Alex Tillas: Grounding Cognition: The Role of Language in Thinking 
  17. Olaf Hauk: Postface