Cerebral Cortex February 2010;20:468--478
Advance Access publication June 22, 2009
Activation of Sensory--Motor Areas in
Rutvik H. Desai1, Jeffrey R. Binder1, Lisa L. Conant1and
Mark S. Seidenberg2
1Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI 53226, USA and
2University of Wisconsin, Madison, Madison, WI 53706, USA
The sensory--motor account of conceptual processing suggests that
modality-specific attributes play a central role in the organization of
object and action knowledge in the brain. An opposing view
emphasizes the abstract, amodal, and symbolic character of
concepts, which are thought to be represented outside the brain’s
sensory--motor systems. We conducted a functional magnetic
resonance imaging study in which the participants listened to
sentences describing hand/arm action events, visual events, or
abstract behaviors. In comparison to visual and abstract sentences,
areas associated with planning and control of hand movements,
motion perception, and vision were activated when understanding
sentences describing actions. Sensory--motor areas were activated
to a greater extent also for sentences with actions that relied
mostly on hands, as opposed to arms. Visual sentences activated
a small area in the secondary visual cortex, whereas abstract
sentences activated superior temporal and inferior frontal regions.
The results support the view that linguistic understanding of
actions partly involves imagery or simulation of actions, and relies
on some of the same neural substrate used for planning,
performing, and perceiving actions.
Keywords: simulation, conceptual organization, embodiment, semantic
memory, sensory--motor theory, symbol grounding
Recent research on the nature of conceptual representations
has focused on the contrast between 2 general approaches.
One view emphasizes that concepts are abstract, amodal, and
symbolic, and represented independently of the brain’s
sensory--motor systems (see papers in Margolis and Laurence
1999, for a discussion of this view). More recent theories have
emphasized the central role of sensory--motor information in
the organization of conceptual knowledge (Allport 1985;
Pulvermuller 1999; Barsalou et al. 2003; Gallese and Lakoff
2005). On this view, concepts are derived, wholly or in part,
from sensory and motor experience. Understanding a word or
a sentence involves re-instantiating or simulating this sensory--
motor information. This process is thought to involve the same
neural mechanisms as actual sensory--motor activity. This view
is controversial because of a long-standing belief that concep-
tual knowledge cannot be reduced to such experiences (Fodor
Several behavioral studies suggest that understanding a sen-
tence describing an action involves some degree of simulation
of the action. Glenberg and Kaschak (2002) had participants
judge sentence plausibility by making responses that required
limb movement toward or away from the body. When the
sentence implicated action in one direction (e.g., ‘‘open the
drawer’’ suggests action toward the body), participants had
relative difficulty indicating the response with a movement in
the opposite direction (e.g., moving a lever away from the
body). Similarly, Richardson et al. (2003) showed that process-
ing sentences with a visual semantic component can selectively
interfere with visual processing, and Zwaan and colleagues
(Stanfield and Zwaan 2001; Zwaan et al. 2002) reported
evidence of visual imagery in sentence processing using an
object recognition task.
Neuroimaging evidence regarding activation of sensory--
motor areas by linguistic stimuli is somewhat inconsistent
(Pulvermuller 1999; Malach et al. 2002; Gainotti 2004). Most
imaging studies have focused on nouns, but a few have also
examined action verbs. Kable et al. (2002) used actions
represented by either pictures or words in a conceptual
matching task, and observed activation in the posterior middle
temporal gyrus (MTG) for both in comparison to object
pictures and words. Grossman et al. (2002) compared
activation to ‘‘motion’’ (e.g., fall) and ‘‘cognition’’ (e.g., ponder)
verbs. In contrast to the Kable et al. results, they found stronger
activation of the posterior MTG by the cognition verbs. The
motion verbs activated a ventral temporal--occipital region.
Other recent studies suggest that action verbs may be
represented somatotopically in motor and premotor cortex.
Specifically, Hauk et al. (2004) used action words related to
face (smile), arm (throw), or leg (kick) movements in an
event-related design in which participants silently read each
word. These words differentially activated areas that partially
overlapped the areas activated by actual movements of the
tongue, fingers, and feet, respectively. Pulvermu ¨ ller, Shtyrov
et al. (2005) used magnetoencephalography to identify acti-
vation elicited by the Finnish words for eat and kick. The face
word activated inferior frontocentral areas more than the leg
word, whereas the leg word activated a superior central site
more than the face word. Tettamanti et al. (2005) had subjects
listen to sentences describing actions performed with the
mouth, hand, or leg. Compared with abstract sentences, greater
activation of left dorsal and ventral premotor cortex, intra-
parietal sulcus (IPS), and posterior MTG was observed in
association with the action sentences. The motor sentences,
however, differed from the abstract sentences not only in the
type of verb, but also in the type of noun (i.e., concrete vs.
abstract). Possible contributions from other variables, such as
processing difficulty or number of syllables in the sentences,
were also not addressed. Finally, Kemmerer et al. (2008)
compared running and hitting verbs to false fonts, and found
activation in bilateral motor regions. The effects of phonology,
however, were not controlled by the low-level baseline
condition that used unpronounceable false fonts.
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Other sensory--motor modalities have also been explored to
some extent in the neuroimaging literature. Kiefer et al. (2008)
found activation in the left superior temporal sulcus (STS) for
words associated with sound (e.g., bell), but not for visual or
action words. Simmons et al. (2007) found activation in the
fusiformgyrus,overlapping with color perception areas,for color
property verification relative to motor property verification.
The present research used functional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI) to study neural activity associated with
comprehension of sentences that contained hand/arm action,
vision, and abstract verbs. Because the meaning of a verb is
often closely related to its arguments (e.g., use the hammer
implies an action, but use the opportunity does not), we used
sentences instead of single verbs to clarify verb meaning and
create more natural stimuli that describe entire events. The
sensory--motor account predicts that for action and vision
sentences, corresponding modality-specific areas (e.g., primary
or secondary and association motor areas, motion perception
and vision-related areas) should be activated. The predictions
for abstract verb sentences are somewhat less clear. Under
some theories abstract words are also perceptually grounded
(e.g., Lakoff and Johnson 1980), whereas a simpler alternative is
that abstract verbs are not associated with sensory--motor areas.
Materials and Methods
Participants were 33 healthy adults (18 men; mean age 30.2 ± 9.5; range
19 to 53; mean years of education 16.4 ± 3.0), with no history of
neurological impairments and self-reported normal hearing. Partic-
ipants were native speakers of English, and right-handed according to
the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory (Oldfield 1971). The data from 2
other participants were excluded due to poor task performance (d# <
0.5), and one additional subject was removed due to excessive motion
in the scanner. Informed consent was obtained from each subject prior
to the experiment, in accordance with a protocol sanctioned by the
Medical College of Wisconsin Institutional Review Board. Participants
were compensated for participating in the study.
The stimuli were auditory sentences, spoken by a male native English
speaker (J.R.B.) in a neutral voice, that were digitally recorded in
a sound isolation booth at 44.1 KHz sampling rate. The sentences were
of the form ‘‘I/You/We/They <verb> the <noun>’’ (e.g., I throw the
ball; You see the rope; They consider the risk). The sentences were
1.3--1.8 s long (mean 1.52 s ± 0.15 s).
Based on the type of verb, the sentences were divided into 3 main
conditions: Motor(M), Visual(V),and Abstract(A).The M sentencesused
a hand/arm action verb (e.g., grab, punch), the V sentences used a verb
primarily visual in nature (e.g., read, browse), and the A sentences used
abstract verbs (e.g., allow, explain). There were 23 verbs in each
condition. The M and V verbs were combined with a set of 12 concrete
nouns (e.g., ball, book) to generate sentences. The A verbs were
verbs and nouns is given in Appendix I. Each verb was combined with 4
different pronouns (I, You, We, and They) to generate 92 sentences per
any differences in activation between these conditions are primarily due
to differences in the verbs. Each of the 12 nouns was used approximately,
but not exactly, the same number of times in M and V conditions.
Additionally, 36 nonsense sentences were generated by taking 12
verbs each from the M, V, and A sets and combining them with nouns to
create sentences that are not easily interpretable (e.g., They browse the
ball, We ban the value). To make the nonsense sentences sufficiently
difficult to interpret, some new nouns that were not part of the M, V, and
A conditions were used. To ensure that every noun used in the Nonsense
condition was also used in a sensible sentence, these new nouns were
combined with M, V, or A verbs, creating 17 Filler sentences. Only the M,
V, and A conditions are of interest here, and the data from Nonsense and
Filler conditions were excluded from the analyses.
The M, V, and A verb sets were matched on frequency (from the
CELEX database; Baayen et al. 1995), number of phonemes, and
weighted; from the Irvine Phonotactic Online Dictionary; www.iphod.
com. Six words used here were not in the online database; values for
these words were obtained from the database author.). Similarly, there
were no differences regarding these factors between the M/V nouns
and the A nouns. The M/V nouns were rated as more imageable (P <
0.0001; 2-tailed t-test) than the A nouns, using the imageability ratings
from the MRC Psycholinguistic Database (Coltheart 1981). Summary
statistics for the sentences in each condition are given in Table 1.
Although the verb and noun sets were matched on all relevant variables,
several significant differences between conditions emerged when the
full set of sentences was compared. These variables were therefore
used as covariates in the multiple regression analysis (see Image
Acquisition and Analysis).
The sentences were first normed in a preliminary study with 6
participants (mean age 34.0 ± 10.4, mean years of education 19.5 ±
2.9). Participants rated each sentence for meaningfulness on a scale of 1
(‘‘does not make sense’’) to 5 (‘‘makes sense’’). Reaction times (RTs) were
also collected for each sentence, as a measure of processing difficulty.
The results are summarized in Table 2. There were no differences in
meaningfulness among M, V, and A sentences (all P >0.19) whereas the
Nonsense sentences were rated lower (all P < 0.001). There was no
difference in RT between M and V sentences (P >0.22). The A sentences
produced longer RTs than M and V sentences (both P <0.001), and the
Nonsense sentences produced even longer RTs (P < 0.0001).
The verbs used in the M condition differ in the degree to which they
refer to actions involving the hand versus the arm. Ratings were
Summary statistics (mean SD) for sentences in various conditions
Conditionn Length (s) # Syllables # Phonemes Phon.
92 1.52*3(0.16) 2.92*3(0.92) 8.15* (2.29)
361.54 (0.15) 2.64 (0.80)
17 1.60 (0.10) 3.06 (1.09)
2.53* (0.67) 7.62* (1.39)
9.14 (2.03) 27.32 (20.18)
39.46* (19.96) 3.17* (0.73)
39.66* (23.66) 3.11* (0.89)
Note: For all variables other than Length, the value represents the summation of the statistic for
the noun and the verb. Significant differences (P \ 0.05) between Abstract, Motor, and Visual
conditions are indicated. *Indicates a significant difference from the Abstract condition. 3 in the
Visual condition indicates a significant difference from the Motor condition.
RT (SD) in ms and meaningfulness rating (SD) (on a scale of 1--5) from the pilot experiment for
Abstract 921918 (517) 4.66 (0.47)
Motor 921603* (422) 4.73 (0.30)
Visual92 1682* (452) 4.71 (0.35)
Nonsense 362710* (509)1.77* (0.57)
Filler17 2102 (497)4.55 (0.51)
Note: *Indicates a significant difference (P\0.05) from the Abstract condition. Motor and Visual
conditions did not differ on RT or on meaningfulness ratings.
Cerebral Cortex February 2010, V 20 N 2 469
collected for each of the M verbs regarding the 2 types of knowledge.
Nine raters (each with at least high school education) who did not
participate in the pilot or the imaging experiment provided the ratings.
For each action described by an M verb, raters were asked to decide if
they can ‘‘do the action using only hands’’ by rating the verb on a scale
of 1 (no) to 5 (yes). Verbs with low ratings indicate actions that require
a significant contribution of arms (e.g., throw), whereas verbs with high
ratings depict actions that can be performed mostly with the hands
(e.g., crumple). The mean hand rating for M verbs was 3.01 ± 1.04, with
a range from 4.55 to 1.33. These norms were used as a covariate in
a secondary analysis.
Action and Vision Ratings
Verbs highly associated with action and vision were selected for M and V
conditions respectively. However, it is possible that some of the V and A
verbs have associations with action, or that some of the M and A verbs
are related to vision. Action and Vision ratings were collected to assess
these associations for all verbs. Thirteen raters (mean age 25.9 ± 9.3,
mean years of education 16.2 ± 2.5) rated each verb twice on a scale of 1
(not associated with action/vision at all) to 5 (very much associated with
action/vision). M, V, and A verbs had an Action rating of 4.87± 0.2, 2.12 ±
0.6, and 2.09± 0.6, respectively. M verbs had a higher action rating than V
or A verbs (P < 0.00001), with no reliable difference between V and A.
Vision ratings for M, V, and A verbs were 1.66± 0.3, 4.13± 0.7, and 1.71 ±
0.4, respectively. V verbs had a higher vision rating than M or A verbs
(P < 0.00001), with no reliable difference between M and A. This
suggests a clear separation in action and vision attributes of the verbs
consistent with their group assignment.
In the fMRI study, participants judged whether the sentences were
sensible, pressing a response button with their left index finger only for
sentences judged to be nonsense. The left hand response was used to
minimize activation of the left hemisphere motor system. The Go/
NoGo response procedure, which required motor responses only for
the infrequent Nonsense trials, was designed to minimize activation of
the motor response system during the M, V, and A conditions.
Participants were familiarized with the task and response procedure
before scanning by listening to a small set of practice sentences outside
the scanner and pressing a button after each nonsense sentence. At the
end of this practice session, feedback was given as to which sentences
in the practice set were considered nonsense. Participants kept their
eyes closed during scanning, and the room lights were dimmed to
minimize extraneous visual stimulation. The stimuli were presented
binaurally through electrostatic headphones at a level comfortable for
the participant. Participants also wore mufflers that attenuated scanner
noise. Any effects of scanner noise on activation were assumed to be
similar across conditions.
The sentences were divided into 4 sets, and each set was used in
a scanning run in an event-related design. The order of all stimuli was
pseudorandomized. The interval between sentences was varied
between 2 and 18 s to optimize the separation of the hemodynamic
response to each condition, as determined by the Optseq program
(Dale 1999). Two such pseudorandom orders of stimuli were used,
each for approximately half of the participants.
These runs were followed by 2 runs aimed at localizing participants’
primary and association motor and visual cortices. In the Motor
Localizer (ML) run, participants repeatedly opened and closed their left
hand, right hand, or rested, according to instructions on the screen,
over the course of eighteen 20-s blocks (6 per condition). The
instructions (‘‘left’’, ‘‘right’’, or ‘‘rest’’) were displayed at the beginning of
each block and then replaced by a fixation cross. In the Visual Localizer
(VL) task, participants viewed a fixation cross or a circular checker-
board pattern that reversed in luminance at a frequency of 6 Hz in
eighteen alternating 20-s blocks.
Image Acquisition and Analysis
A 3T GE Excite scanner was used to acquire images. One volume of T2*-
weighted, gradient echo, echo-planar images (echo time = 20 ms, flip
angle = 80?, acquisition time = 2 s) was acquired every 2 s. The auditory
sentence presentation was time-locked with the beginning of an
acquisition. Volumes were composed of 36 axially oriented 3-mm slices
with a 0.3-mm interslice gap, covering the whole brain, resulting in 3.25
3 3.25 3 3.30 mm voxel dimensions. Anatomical images of the entire
brain were obtained using a 3-dimensional spoiled gradient echo
sequence with 0.81 3 0.81 3 1.0-mm voxel dimensions.
The AFNI software package (Cox 1996) was used for image analysis.
Within-subject analysis involved spatial coregistration (Cox and
Jesmanowicz 1999) and registration of functional images to the
anatomy using FLIRT (Jenkinson et al. 2002). Voxelwise multiple linear
regression was performed with reference functions representing each
condition. A standard hemodynamic response function convolved with
the reference functions representing the onset of each sentence, and
its temporal derivative, were used. In addition, a correction for
amplitude bias was applied using the method described by Calhoun
et al. (2004). Sentences in M, V, A, or Filler conditions that were
considered nonsense by the participant were not included in the
respective condition and were coded with a separate regressor. Images
during which the participant pressed a button were also coded with
a separate regressor to capture activation due to the buttonpress. To
account for differences in RT (based on values collected in the rating
study), sentence length, number of syllables, number of phonemes, and
phonological neighborhood density between some of the conditions,
de-meaned values for each of these variables were used as additional
item-wise regressors. These additional regressors capture the modula-
tion in activation solely due to differences in these variables, allowing
more specific identification of activation changes due to the semantic
factors of primary interest.
General linear tests were conducted to obtain the M--V, V--A, and M--A
contrasts. The individual statistical maps and the anatomical scans were
projected into standard stereotaxic space (Talairach and Tournoux
1988) and smoothed with a Gaussian filter of 5-mm full-width-half-
maximum. In a random effects analysis, group maps were created by
comparing activations against a constant value of 0. The group maps
were thresholded at voxelwise P < 0.02 and corrected for multiple
comparisons by removing clusters smaller than 22 voxels (766 lL) to
achieve a mapwise corrected 2-tailed P < 0.05. Only the voxels within
a mask that included the gray matter, but excluded areas outside the
brain, deep white matter areas, and ventricles, were analyzed. The
cluster threshold was determined through Monte Carlo simulations
that estimate the chance probability of spatially contiguous voxels
exceeding the voxelwise P threshold. The data from the 2 localizer
scans were analyzed as block designs in a similar way.
A secondary analysis was performed to assess the effects of the
degree of dependence of actions on hands versus arms. An additional
regressor containing the mean hand rating for each M verb was
included, and a group map of areas whose activation was correlated
with hand ratings was created.
In addition to these whole-brain analyses, ROI analyses were
performed to increase sensitivity to smaller activation clusters. Two
ROIs were defined as the areas activated in the motor and visual
localizer scans, respectively, at voxelwise P < 0.02.
Attentiveness during the long fMRI scan is a potential concern,
especially given the relatively infrequent occurrence of the button
responses. We analyzed gaps between successive responses (in the
form of number of intervening trials) of each participant to find any
periods during which the participant may have been inattentive. If
a gap was greater than or equal to Q3 + 4 3 IQR (Q3 = gap at the 75th
percentile; IQR = interquartile range), it was determined to be an
extreme outlier, and that run was removed from the analysis. Nine runs
(6.8% of the data) were removed in this way.
To assess subject comprehension performance and overall
vigilance during scanning, d# values were calculated for each
subject. The mean d# was 1.78 ± 0.62, with a range from 0.53
Activation of Sensory--Motor Areas in Sentence Comprehension
Desai et al.
The activation maps for various contrasts are shown in Figure 1.
The maps are displayed using Caret (Van Essen et al. 2001) on
an inflated cortical surface of a representative subject, created
through FreeSurfer (Dale et al. 1999). Cluster information and
coordinates of the peak activations are reported in Appendix II.
Motor versus Visual
Differences in activation between M and V conditions primarily
reflect differences in motor and visual verb semantics because
the same concrete nouns were used in both conditions. This
contrast showed a focus in the inferior postcentral cortex,
This included the left inferior postcentral sulcus (PoCS) and
anterior supramarginal gyrus (SMG; mostly in BA 40 and
marginally extending into BA 2). Additionally, a focus on the
posterior inferior temporal gyrus (pITG) (BA 37, 19), extend-
ing into the MTG and lateral fusiform gyrus, was also activated.
Areas activated more for the V sentences included bilateral
(left > right) STS and superior temporal gyrus (STG).
Motor versus Abstract
To assess whether any areas, such as those associated with
visual imagery, were activated in both M and V conditions, we
compared them to the A condition. The areas activated more
for M sentences were very similar to those in the M > V
comparison, including the left inferior postcentral region and
pITG (Fig. 1b).
For A sentences, extensive activation of bilateral (left >right)
STG and STS, inferior and middle frontal gyri (IFG, MFG) and
precentral gyrus (PrCG) was observed. Bilateral supplementary
motor area (SMA) and anterior cingulate gyrus (aCG), cuneus,
lingual gyrus, and superior occipital gyrus (SOG) were also
Visual versus Abstract
An area activated more by the V sentences compared with A
sentences was observed in the left SOG (BA 19), adjacent to the
angular gyrus (AG) (Fig. 1c). Areas showing more activation for
A sentences were similar to those in the A >M comparison, and
included bilateral (left >right) STS and STG, IFG, SMA, superior
frontal gyrus (SFG), and lingual gyrus.
Areas Correlated with RT
To account for activation associated with general task difficulty
and time on task, item-wise RT (collected during the pre-
liminary study) was included as a single regressor in the
analysis. The areas correlated positively with RT included
bilateral (left > right) IFG, MFG, PrCG, SMA, and aCG (Fig. 1d).
Activation in the posterior left STS/MTG was also positively
correlated with RT. Extensive negative correlation was also
observed, including bilateral (right >left) AG and SMG, anterior
MTG, posterior cingulate gyrus and precuneus, SFG, and
ventromedial frontal cortex.
The inclusion of an RT regressor is useful in removing
variability due to processing time and difficulty. However, it can
also mask activation of interest (e.g., activation due to semantic
factors, as in this study) if the activation of interest is strongly
correlated with RT. Here, the A sentences had longer RTs than
both M and V sentences. To examine the effects of the RT
regressor on the activations, the analysis was also repeated
without the RT regressor. We do not give a complete listing of
results here in the interest of space, because the results were
largely similar. The primary difference was that in the V > A
comparison, an additional focus was observed in the right AG.
Localizer Scans and Overlap
Compared with the resting condition, the ML task induced
extensive activation in sensory--motor cortex, including the
Figure 1. Activations for (a) M--V, (b) M--A, and (c) V--A contrasts. Panel (d) shows areas correlated with RT. Orange/yellow denotes positive values, whereas blue/cyan denotes
negative values. Activations are projected on an inflated surface of a brain. Gyri are shown in light gray and sulci in dark gray. M 5 motor, V 5 visual, A 5 abstract.
Cerebral Cortex February 2010, V 20 N 2 471
central sulcus, PrCG, and PoCG. Frontal and parietal opercu-
lum, SMA, basal ganglia, and posterior MTG and ITG were also
activated, with stronger contralateral activation. Some de-
activation was observed in the aCG, anterior insula, SFG,
portions of cuneus, and superior and middle occipital gyri.
The activation from the VL task included large portions of
the occipital lobe, extending into posterior ITG and IPS
bilaterally. Scattered bilateral activation of anterior SFG, MFG,
IFG and PrCG was also observed. Deactivation was seen in
bilateral cuneus, precuneus, anterior lingual gyrus, and AG.
Maps in Figure 2 show the overlap between areas activated
in the localizer tasks and those activated in the M > V, M > A,
and V >A contrasts. The inferior postcentral focus in the M >V
and M >A comparisons overlapped almost completely with the
ML activation. The pITG focus in these 2 comparisons also
overlapped largely with the VL activation, and partly with the
ML activation (Fig. 2a,b). The SOG focus in the V
comparison was close to, but did not overlap, the VL activation
(Fig. 2c). In summary, the areas activated by the M condition
were also activated by the ML task, whereas the area activated
by the V condition was just outside the VL activation.
Correlations with Hand Ratings
To examine whether there was a difference between areas
activated by hand-oriented and arm-oriented actions, we used
hand ratings as an item-wise regressor for the M sentences in
the analysis. The results showed a number of areas that were
positively correlated with the ratings, showing higher activa-
tion for hand-oriented actions (Fig. 3). These included areas in
the left PoCG, SFG, and pre-SMA; bilateral SMA, putamen/
lentiform nucleus, AG, cuneus, and lingual gyrus; and right STG
and precuneus. According to an atlas of sensory--motor areas
(Mayka et al. 2006), the left PoCG cluster was in S1, and the SFG
cluster was in dorsal premotor (PMd) cortex and pre-SMA.
Activations in the PoCG, SMA, and putamen overlapped with
the ML activation, as did part of the activation in pre-SMA/PMd.
No additional activations were found in the ROI analyses,
which were restricted to the areas activated by ML and VL
We presented participants with sentences containing motor,
visual, and abstract verbs to examine the involvement of
sensory--motor regions in comprehension. The majority of the
studies examining sensory--motor basis of conceptual process-
ing have used action words and visual presentation. We
introduced visual verbs, and used auditory presentation.
Inferior Postcentral Cortex
In the M >V as well as M >A contrasts, left inferior postcentral
cortex was activated for the M condition. Inferior postcentral
cortex is involved in a wide variety of tasks associated with
goal-oriented hand/arm actions, including coordinated appli-
cation of force, motor planning, pantomiming tool use, listening
to tool sounds, visually guided grasping, and imagined grasping
of viewed objects. For example, Ehrsson et al. (2001) reported
activation in the inferior postcentral cortex when participants
applied force to a small object held between the index finger
and the thumb, compared with a baseline of weakly holding the
object. Rushworth et al. (2001) found inferior postcentral
activation when comparing the pre-execution planning phase
for a specific finger movement with executing the same finger
movement. Johnson-Frey et al. (2005) reported activation in
this area for planning movements for tool use compared with
preparing random movements, whereas Frey et al. (2005)
found inferior postcentral cortex activation for visually guided
grasping compared with pointing. Hand-object illusion (an
illusion that the wrist, along with an object in the hand, is
moving), compared with hand-illusion (illusory movement of
empty hand), also activated inferior postcentral cortex (Naito
and Ehrsson 2006). Pantomiming tool use (Rumiati et al. 2004;
Johnson-Frey et al. 2005; Lewis et al. 2006) and listening to
sounds of tools (Lewis et al. 2006) has also been linked to
activation of this region. In addition, activation in this region
was reported for making action judgments about pictures of
objects compared with making function judgments (Kellen-
bach et al. 2003).
Figure 2. Composite maps of the contrasts and the activation from localizer scans.
(a) M[V (b) M[A (c) V[A. Green represents the M condition in panels (a) and
(b), and represents V in panel (c). Activation by the motor localizer is in red, and that
by the visual localizer is in blue. White represents the overlap of all 3 conditions. M 5
motor, V 5 visual, A 5 Abstract. ML 5 motor localizer, VL 5 visual localizer.
Activation of Sensory--Motor Areas in Sentence Comprehension
Desai et al.
Damage to the anterior/inferior parietal lobe is associated
with ideomotor apraxia (Haaland et al. 2000; Jax et al. 2006).
These patients are commonly impaired in imitating actions or
gestures, pantomiming, recognizing object-related pantomimes
Kyle, et al. 2005; Goldenberg and Karnath 2006). Tunik et al.
(2008) reported that transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) of
the left SMG caused a delay in planning goal-oriented actions, but
not in responses to an arbitrary stimulus. In summary, inferior
postcentral cortex appears to play an important role in planning
and control of complex or object-related hand movements.
suggests that comprehension of such sentences also involves
circuits involved in planning and control of complex movements.
The inferior parietal lobule in monkeys is also involved in
action performance and understanding. For example, Fogassi
et al. (2005) reported that neurons in this region in monkeys
fire differently when the same act (e.g., grasping) is embedded
in different actions (e.g., eating or placing), for both action
observation and performance.
A dorsal part of the postcentral focus overlapped both ML
and VL activation (white region in Fig. 3). Activation in this
more dorsal region may play a role in visuo-motor coordination
(e.g., Shikata et al. 2001).
Posterior Inferior Temporal Gyrus
A left pITG region, extending into posterior MTG, was activated
in the M > V and M > A contrasts. It largely overlapped the VL
activation, and partly the ML activation. Bilateral posterior MTG
activation is frequently associated with processing visually or
auditorily presented or imagined tools and manipulable objects
(e.g., Chao et al. 1999; Beauchamp et al. 2004; Johnson-Frey et al.
2005; Lewis et al. 2006). More left lateralized activity, extending
ventrally, is often observed when linguistic knowledge about
tools or actions is involved (Martin et al. 1995; Damasio et al.
1996; Davis et al. 2004; Emmorey et al. 2005; Kable et al. 2005;
Kellenbach et al. 2003; Noppeney et al. 2003, 2005; Tranel et al.
2005; Tyler et al. 2003). The pITG activation we observed was
immediately anterior to the human visual motion processing
area MT/MST, suggesting a role in more abstract motion
processing (Kable et al. 2005). The lack of activation of this
region in the V > A contrast, and its partial overlap with the ML
activation, suggests that it is not purely involved in processing
concrete nouns, but may mediate visuo-semantic knowledge of
both actions and objects, although it is not exclusively associated
with action (e.g., Rodd et al. 2005 report activation in this region
for high relative to low ambiguity sentences). It is possible that
somewhat different information about the same nouns is activated
in motoric versus visual contexts. Such an effect, however, would
best be viewed as a combinatorial verb--noun effect rather than
purely a difference in the nouns.
In the V--A contrast, a region in the left SOG was activated for the
V sentences. This region corresponds approximately to BA 19/
V3, and is probably involved in higher-level vision and object
recognition (Kaas 1996). Activation in this region is modulated
by noun imageability (Binder, Westbury, et al. 2005); thus the
difference in noun imageability between V and A sentences may
contribute to the activation of this area. The right AG was also
activated for V >A after removal of the RT covariate. This region
also responds to noun imageability (Binder, Medler, et al. 2005;
Binder, Westbury, et al. 2005; Sabsevitz et al. 2005). The finding
that the left SOG and the right AG were activated for V > A, but
not for M > A, suggests that visual verbs also contribute to the
activation of these regions. These regions did not overlap with,
but did border, the activation from the VL task. The VL task used
only a checker board pattern and therefore probably did not
activate higher-level visual systems. SOG and AG may process
this relatively more abstract visual knowledge.
Compared with M and V sentences, the A sentences
activated large portions of the superior temporal lobe as well
as inferior frontal regions. Activations were bilateral, but
stronger in the left hemisphere. This result is in agreement
with a number of previous studies (e.g., Wise et al. 2000;
Noppeney and Price 2004; Sabsevitz et al. 2005), and is
consistent with the suggestion that processing of abstract
concepts relies more on verbal associations of those concepts
and thus activates a verbal--lexical system that is left hemi-
sphere dominant (Paivio 1971, 1986). Other areas, such as SMA,
aCG, thalamus and basal ganglia, were also activated more by A
sentences. These regions are often positively correlated with
RT (Binder, Medler, et al. 2005; Desai et al. 2006). Although an
RT covariate was included in the analysis, RTs were collected
from a separate group of subjects in a preliminary experiment,
Figure 3. Areas correlated with hand ratings of motor verbs and their overlap with the motor localizer. White lines show stereotaxic axes.
Cerebral Cortex February 2010, V 20 N 2 473
and the same mean RT regressor was used for all subjects in the
imaging experiment. Therefore, some of the between-subject
variability in RTs may not be adequately captured by this
regressor. Because A sentences took longer to process than
both M and V sentences, some of the areas showing greater
activation for the A condition may have been activated due to
general task difficulty and time-on-task effects.
The V sentences activate the superior temporal region more
than the M sentences, but less than the A sentences. If superior
temporal activation is taken as an index of abstractness or the
degree to which processing evokes verbal associations, then V
verbs appear to be intermediate between M and A verbs in
degree of abstractness.
Occipital Activation for Abstract Sentences
An unexpected result was the activation of some occipital
areas, especially the lingual gyrus and cuneus, for A sentences
relative to M and, to a lesser extent, relative to V sentences.
One possibility is that the greater activation of A sentences in
these regions was driven by greater suppression of activity
during processing M and V sentences, and not due to activation
(relative to rest) of these areas during processing A sentences
per se. There is evidence of deactivation of visual areas when
performing tasks in other modalities. For example, deactivation
of the visual cortex during tactile (Merabet et al. 2007) and
auditory (Laurienti et al. 2002; Hairston et al. 2008) processing
has been reported. We measured the activation of each
condition relative to baseline in a spherical ROI placed on
the left lingual gyrus activation in the A >M contrast. The mean
and standard deviation of the beta coefficients for M, V, and A
conditions were –17.8 (68.2), –5.4 (70.4), and 11.4 (73.3),
respectively. Note that the baseline condition of rest involves
task-unrelated thoughts and semantic processing (Binder et al.
1999; McKiernan et al. 2003), and hence the sign of activation
compared with baseline is somewhat arbitrary. Due to
intersubject variability, none of the activations were reliably
different from resting baseline. We also looked for deactivation
in occipital regions (defined by the VL activation) during the
ML task. In fact, deactivation in visual areas was found (peak
Talairach coordinates: –22 –94 –5 and 24 –84 34 for the right
hand; 39 –89 –6, –37 –86 –3, and –14 –93 25 for the left hand)
during the ML task. This lends some support to the possibility
that the greater activation for A sentences in occipital regions
may be driven by relative suppression of activity during
processing of M and V sentences, resulting from partial
activation of motor plans induced by motor verbs or
manipulable object nouns in M and V conditions.
found in other studies (Binder, Medler, et al. 2005; Binder,
is unlikely that the average RT regressor used in this study was
completely able to account for item variability in RT, as item
variability was likely not uniform across subjects. Nonetheless, it
appears to have captured many of the areas associated with
general task difficulty and time-on-task. One exception is the IPS,
which was correlatedstrongly with RT inboth of the Binderetal.
IPS is associated with visual attention. With the auditory pre-
sentation of stimuli in the present study, IPS was not correlated
with processing time. Conversely, RT effects in the posterior STS,
observed here with auditory stimuli, were absent or very weak in
the prior visual word studies.
Hand Rating Correlations
(Penfield and Rasmussen 1950), and hands/fingers have a larger
representation than arms. By collecting hand ratings for each M
verb, we distinguished sentences that were weighted more
toward hand-oriented actions from sentences weighted toward
arm-oriented actions. Hand action verbs activated parts of
primary sensory area S1, SMA, pre-SMA, PMd, and putamen,
largely overlapping the ML activation. The PoCG activation (BA
2) was in an area activated during tactile interaction and hand
stimulation (Boecker et al. 1995; Bodegard et al. 2001; Eickhoff
et al. 2008). This suggests that activity associated with
understanding sentences describing hand actions goes beyond
planning for actions and involves primary sensory and
premotor areas involved in action execution. For arm-oriented
actions, it is possible that primary sensory--motor regions were
not activated, or that due to intersubject variability in anatomy,
the smaller cortical representation for arms could not be
reliably detected in the group maps.
Several studies have emphasized the role of the precentral
gyrus in action processing, as opposed to the postcentral gyrus/
SMG activation found here. The lack of strong precentral
activity here was perhaps partly due to better controls for
phonological processing and the use of regressors represent-
ing the number phonemes and syllables that accounted for
some the activity in the precentral gyrus.
To summarize, comprehending sentences with hand/arm
action verbs activated areas associated with action planning,
visualization, and execution. Processing sentences with con-
results are consistent with the proposal that the sensory
modalities through which such concepts are learned and
experienced play a role in how they are represented in memory
and how the words corresponding to these concepts are
comprehended. Such findings suggest linkages among percep-
tion, action, and cognition, and contrast with theories that
strongly differentiate between sensory--motor systems and
cognitive systems. According to such theories, sensory and
motor systems give rise to perceptual states, which are then
abstracted into amodal symbols (Fodor 1975, 1983; Pylyshyn
2003). Computations within the cognitive system operate over
to what they represent. They are amodal in the sense that their
representation is outside the sensory--motor system and in-
dependent of the perceptual modality that gives rise to their
meaning. Schwanenflugel (1991) and Schwanenflugel and Stowe
(1989) suggested that both abstract and concrete concepts are
(e.g., in lexical decision) for concrete items arises from having
a greater number of associations. Computational models such as
Latent Semantic Analysis (Landauer and Dumais 1997) and
Hyperspace Analogue to Language (Burgess and Lund 1997)
propose that word meaning can be captured by higher-order
statistical relations among words. Our results suggest that such
effects may be mediated by the fact that many words are
connected to the world via sensory--motor associations.
Activation of Sensory--Motor Areas in Sentence Comprehension
Desai et al.
Sensory--Motor Theories and fMRI Activation
According to embodied theories of cognition, sensory--motor
systems play an important role in the representation of
concepts (Lakoff 1987; Glenberg 1997; Barsalou 1999; Lakoff
and Johnson 1999; Feldman and Narayanan 2004; Gallese and
Lakoff 2005). This approach seems to apply most easily to
concepts (such as actions or objects) that have transparent
sensory--motor correlates and are learned via perception and
action. However, what about the many words that lack such
transparent sensory--motor bases? Two broad versions of the
embodiment idea can be imagined. Under the strong version,
all concepts derive from sensory--motor experience, even
seemingly abstract ones. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) empha-
sized the extent to which many abstract concepts can be seen
as grounded in sensory--motor experience. For example, the
abstract concept of ‘‘understanding’’ is grounded in a ‘‘conduit’’
metaphor (e.g., ideas are hard to get across; ideas are given or
captured, and so on). On a weaker version of the theory, there
is a gradation in the degree of association with sensory--motor
systems. Some concepts, such as those associated with
concrete actions and objects, rely strongly on sensory--motor
systems, whereas others are more removed from them. The
present results show that Abstract sentences were associated
with a different pattern of activation than the Motor and Visual
sentences, strongly activating the superior/anterior temporal
and inferior frontal areas. This suggests that abstract concepts
may be represented primarily through verbal associations with
other concepts, and are further removed from sensory--motor
experiences. This is consistent with the weak version of
embodiment. However, a stronger test would be provided by
examining a sample of abstract verbs that have the strongest
links to sensory--motor information. Glenberg et al. (2008)
found that motor system activity is modulated even by abstract
sentences depicting transfer of information towards or away
from the reader (e.g., ‘‘Anna delegates the responsibility to you.’’).
Is it possible that abstract sentences in the current experiment
also activated the motor system, and hence strong activation in
primary motor regions was not found in the M-A comparison?
This is unlikely, because the V-A contrast showed no activity in
motor regions for A verbs, and one would not expect visual verbs
to activate the motor system to the same degree, given their
relative lack of motor associations as measured by the ratings.
Furthermore, the most abstract verbs used in the study were
nondirectional (e.g., assess, discuss, prove).
Even for words that have transparent sensory--motor associ-
ations, a distinction can be made within the embodiment
theories in terms of the degree of involvement of sensory--motor
systems. One can imagine a continuum where at one end,
sensory--motor and conceptual systems are thought to be
completely distinct, and at other end, they are virtually identical.
Although the former end of the spectrum is not supported by
these results, the latter extreme is also not supported. The
activation resulting from the comprehension of motor sentences
is not close to the activation from the motor localizer task, either
in extent or in intensity. Relative to A and V sentences, M
sentences engage relatively small portions of the motor system,
and with much less intensity. Thus, an intermediate view seems
most plausible, where sensory--motor and conceptual systems
are tightly linked, but not identical.
Another question regarding the sensory--motor activations
found here is whether they are epiphenomenal, and not causally
linked to comprehension. Such activations can potentially arise
from postcomprehension imagery that is not necessary for the
comprehension process. This possibility cannot be ruled out
with the current study. Multiple lines of evidence suggest that
this activation may be causally related to action knowledge and
not due to epiphenomenal imagery, however. First, studies using
techniques with higher time resolution suggest that activation of
sensory areas occurs very quickly—as early as 200 ms—after
action words are presented (Pulvermuller et al. 2001; Hauk and
Pulvermuller 2004; Pulvermuller, Shtyrov, et al. 2005; Borreggine
and Kaschak 2006; Boulenger et al. 2006; Zwaan and Taylor
2006; Scorolli and Borghi 2007). Second, TMS studies indicate
a functional link between sensory--motor systems and action
knowledge (Buccino et al. 2005; Pulvermuller, Hauk, et al. 2005;
Glenberg et al. 2008). Lastly, some patient studies indicate
a conceptual deficit in action knowledge with damage to
sensory--motor systems (Bak and Hodges 2003, 2004; Kemmerer
and Tranel 2003; Tranel et al. 2003; Bak et al. 2006; Silveri and
Ciccarelli 2007; Grossman et al. 2008).
The comparisons of activations elicited by auditory sentences
describing hand/arm action, visual, and abstract events show
that understanding sentences describing actions involves some
of the same areas engaged in planning, performing and
perceiving those actions. Visual verbs were associated with
a higher-order visual area in the left hemisphere. These results
are compatible with theories that emphasize the role of
embodiment, simulation, and imagery in language and cogni-
tion and present challenges for theories that emphasize
abstract, amodal cognitive processing.
National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant (R01 NS33576) to J.R.B.;
NIH grant (R03 DC008416) to R.H.D.; and NIH General Clinical
Research Center grant (M01 RR00058) to Medical College of
We thank Edward T. Possing for technical assistance, David Medler for
providing the program used in the visual localizer, Dana Krauss for help
with collecting behavioral ratings, and Kenny Vaden for help with the
iPhod database. Conflict of Interest: None declared.
Address correspondence to Rutvik Desai, PhD, Medical College of
Wisconsin, Department of Neurology, 8701 Watertown Plank Road,
MEB 4550, Milwaukee, WI 53226, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Appendix I. Verbs and Nouns Used to Create Sentence Stimuli
Motor verbs: catch, clutch, flip, grab, grasp, grip, hold, punch, rotate,
scratch, snatch, tap, tear, throw, twist, juggle, fumble, handle,
crumple, tighten, loosen, pull, squeeze.
Visual verbs: browse, envision, examine, eye, face, glimpse, imagine,
inspect, notice, observe, perceive, peruse, picture, read, scan,
scrutinize, see, skim, spot, spy, view, visualize, watch.
Abstract verbs: allow, assess, consider, demand, explain, guess, judge,
praise, prove, provide, recall, revise, trust, verify, welcome, learn, ban,
doubt, dread, test, summarize, hail, stress.
Concrete nouns: ball, book, coin, letter, lid, magazine, page, toy, rope,
tie, bolt, wall.
Abstract nouns: evidence, gain, growth, method, need, procedure, risk,
rule, scheme, skill, aim, value.
Cerebral Cortex February 2010, V 20 N 2 475
Appendix II. The Cluster Size (in lL), Mean and Maximum z-Scores,
and the Location of the Peak in the Atlas of Talairach and Tournoux
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