Summary of Empirical Findings

Across these various data sets several findings emerge that characterize how function and geometric information constrain the comprehension of spatial language. First, the identity of the located object is important. Stronger functional biases were observed with a located object that was functionally related to the reference object, with the bias in the direction that was consistent with the appropriate functional part. Second, the parts of a reference object seem to differ in importance, with some default preferences for certain parts over others, as observed in the "near" data with a neutral reference object. Third, the strength of the functional influence varies across spatial term, with "near" exhibiting stronger effects than "above" or "below." One reason for this is that for the objects that we used, "near" enabled placements that were consistent with a simulated interaction between the objects, whereas "above" and "below" did not. We favor this explanation because it provides a possible account of why there may be term differences, rather than simply describing such differences. Fourth, prior exposure to the reference object in the context of a particular interaction caused only a slight bias toward the emphasized functional part in a placement task with a neutral object. This was only for the term "near," and was smaller than that observed without a video but using functionally related located objects. The next step is to test whether previous exposure to the interaction with the object would magnify the functional bias, assessed by showing the videos followed by a placement task using the functionally related objects rather than the neutral object used here. A larger bias may be expected because the depicted interaction on the video is consistent with the presumed simulated interaction. Fifth, in addition to varying degrees of functional bias, all studies had placements that were based on geometric factors, with most of the "above" and "below" placements around the midpoint of the reference object.


This chapter began by motivating the use of both geometric and functional influences on the interpretation of spatial language, arguing for the importance and impact of each type of factor. One particular functional effect (Carlson-Radvansky et al., 1999) was taken as an example of a combination of geometric and functional influences. A theoretical account of the functional bias was offered that was based on the general idea that language comprehension is best understood with respect to an embodied theory of meaning rather than a set of amodal propositional representations (e.g., Barsalou, 1999; Coventry & Garrod, in press; Gibbs, 2003; Glenberg, 1997; Glenberg & Kaschak, 2002; Pecher, Zeelenberg, & Barsalou, 2003; Zwaan, Stanfield, & Yaxley, 2002). Specifically, interpretation of a spatial description was examined in the context of the immersed experiencer framework (Zwaan, 2004), and several predictions were derived that focused on the idea that the located object as the focal entity defined an active zone on the reference object (Langacker, 1993, 2002) around which the search domain of the spatial term was defined. When the focal entity did not functionally interact with the reference object, the search domain was defined by the geometric properties of the spatial term. This is consistent with idea that a function of an object is not automatically activated during identification (Bub et al., 2003), but rather requires the strategic construction of a viable situation model that is based on perceptual simulations of the objects and their relation (Barsalou, 1999) and that is consistent with the affor-dances of the objects and the actions that can operate upon them (Glenberg, 1997).

Thus, along these lines, we infer that when asked to place one object above another object, participants are actively considering how these objects interact, calling up their conceptual knowledge and past experiences with these objects, with this information dictating how the spatial term is understood. An important feature of this account is that it emphasizes the interpretation of language not in isolation but as an act (Clark, 1997) of activation and construal (Zwaan, 2004) that takes into account goals, context and previous knowledge, thereby linking the processing of language to other more general cognitive processes such as memory, perception, attention and action (see especially, Spivey, Richardson & Gonzalez-Marquez, Chapter 11, this volume; Zwaan & Madden, Chapter 10, this volume).


These experiments were conducted as part of the second author's senior honors thesis. We are grateful to the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program sponsored by the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, College of Arts and Letters, University of Notre Dame for supporting this work. Many thanks to Claudia Gonzalez and Rina Tamayo for help in coding the data. Address correspondence to: Laura Carlson, Department of Psychology, 118-D Haggar Hall, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556; email: [email protected]; phone: 574-631-6511.


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