Overall, neuroimaging and behavioral evidence is consistent with the idea that concept-nouns activate motor responses automatically. This has been demonstrated thus far only for simple manipulatory actions such as grasping and reaching the object's parts, directly afforded by characteristics such as shape and size, and not for complex actions involving access to functional knowledge. Barsalou and Borghi (2004) found that when asked what is typically included in complex actions such as eating, participants produced mostly microactions, such as chewing. Microaffordances probably operate at this microlevel.

The difference between manipulation and function information has interesting implications. It helps explain that the fact that children extend names on the basis of shape rather than of function is not due to their scarce sensitivity to action information (Landau, Smith, & Jones, 1998). In fact, shape certainly incorporates motor information, even if not functional information.

true only for manipulable objects?

We have seen that concepts support interaction with objects, mostly through the use of motor imagery. Motor imagery may facilitate simple interaction with objects - responding to their organization in parts, holding them, grasping them. This is especially true for manipulable objects, independent of their ontological kind. Manipulable natural kinds, such as flowers, evoke behavioral effects similar to those evoked by manipu-lable artifacts. Motor imagery may also be activated for microinteractions with nonmanipulable objects. Consider buildings, for example. We do not typically manipulate them, but we may manipulate their parts.

The difference between artifacts and natural kinds might arise when we consider goal-driven actions. Simple artifacts, at least, such as cups, are designed so that information relevant for microinteractions is congruent with functional information. Probably responses to natural kinds are more frequently mediated by goals than response to artifacts, as we typically act with natural kinds in different ways and have to extract different affor-dances depending on our goals - we typically drink from glasses, while we can feed, caress, and perform surgery on cats. This could explain why natural kinds activate the visual areas of the cortex more than tools. Accessing more perceptual properties may guarantee more action flexibility (Parisi, personal communication, 2001).

Thus, on the basis of the evidence, it can be concluded that manipulable object concepts, and in some cases object concepts overall, directly activate motor information concerning microinteractions with their referents, i.e., interactions not mediated by goals. This is true both when we interact directly with objects and when we process concept-nouns. Evidence that concepts automatically activate motor information related to their functional characteristics is less compelling.

Things become more complicated if we consider concepts that do not refer to objects, such as abstract concepts like freedom and truth (see Barsalou & Wiemer-Hastings, Chapter 7, this volume). The acquisition of these concepts may be grounded in interactions we have with the world and their possession can be useful for acting in the world, but they probably do not elicit motor images. However, they might elicit situations through mental imagery. Preliminary evidence by Borghi, Caramelli, and Setti (2004) (unpublished manuscript) indicates that more than 80% of the relations produced with abstract concepts such as risk are situations. Furthermore, a growing body of evidence shows that abstract concepts can also refer indirectly to bodily experiences. Boroditsky and Ramscar (2002) showed that abstract concepts such as time are understood through the experience-based domain of space.


This chapter shows that object concepts play an important adaptive role. In the presence of objects and when objects are referred to by words they activate action simulations to facilitate interaction with objects. Concepts directly evoke simple motor responses and can therefore be seen as patterns of potential action (Glenberg, 1997). However, to guarantee the flexibility necessary for interactions mediated by goals, concepts should rather be conceived of as made of "perceptual symbols," from which to extract information relevant for the hic-and-nunc (Barsalou, 1999). These two visions of concepts are complementary and share the assumption that concepts are grounded in sensorimotor activity.

In the presence of objects, concepts help to combine affordances with previous experiences. This occurs primarily at an unconscious level. In some cases we might simply react to novel objects, in which case affor-dances are a direct invitation to act. In other cases, we may need to know how to manipulate objects in order to interact with them successfully. Evidence shows that visual information potentiates microaffordances, i.e. af-fordances associated with object manipulation, which automatically evoke motor responses. In other cases we might need to know how to use objects, i.e., to know what kind of affordances to extract, given the current situation and goals.

What happens with concepts expressed by words? They keep track of our interaction with objects. First of all, they keep track of the experience of object manipulation. They activate microaffordances such as those elicited by shape and size, and these microaffordances automatically evoke motor responses. Second, concept-nouns keep track of information relevant for more complex interactions with objects by activating perceptual, contextual, functional, and causal information. This allows us to activate the affor-dances relevant for the current situation and goals, thus facilitating situated action. Evidence seems to indicate that at this "higher" level the motor system is not automatically activated, but that its activation is mediated by access to general perceptual and situational information.


Thanks to Andrea di Ferdinando, Tina Iachini, Diane Pecher, Rolf Zwaan, and two anonymous reviewers for useful comments on an earlier draft and to Ann Gagliardi for help with English.


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