Processing abstract language modulates motor system activity

Arthur M. Glenberg, Marc Sato, Luigi Cattaneo, Lucia Riggio, Daniele Palumbo, Giovanni Buccino

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

312 Scopus citations


Embodiment theory proposes that neural systems for perception and action are also engaged during language comprehension. Previous neuroimaging and neurophysiological studies have only been able to demonstrate modulation of action systems during comprehension of concrete language. We provide neurophysiological evidence for modulation of motor system activity during the comprehension of both concrete and abstract language. In Experiment 1, when the described direction of object transfer or information transfer (e.g., away from the reader to another) matched the literal direction of a hand movement used to make a response, speed of responding was faster than when the two directions mismatched (an action-sentence compatibility effect). In Experiment 2, we used single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation to study changes in the corticospinal motor pathways to hand muscles while reading the same sentences. Relative to sentences that do not describe transfer, there is greater modulation of activity in the hand muscles when reading sentences describing transfer of both concrete objects and abstract information. These findings are discussed in relation to the human mirror neuron system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)905-919
Number of pages15
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jan 2008


  • Abstraction
  • Embodiment
  • Language
  • Mirror neurons
  • TMS

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)


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