From language comprehension to action understanding and back again

Pascale Tremblay, Steven L. Small

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


A controversial question in cognitive neuroscience is whether comprehension of words and sentences engages brain mechanisms specific for decoding linguistic meaning or whether language comprehension occurs through more domain-general sensorimotor processes. Accumulating behavioral and neuroimaging evidence suggests a role for cortical motor and premotor areas in passive action-related language tasks, regions that are known to be involved in action execution and observation. To examine the involvement of these brain regions in language and nonlanguage tasks, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on a group of 21 healthy adults. During the fMRI session, all participants 1) watched short object-related action movies, 2) looked at pictures of man-made objects, and 3) listened to and produced short sentences describing object-related actions and man-made objects. Our results are among the first to reveal, in the human brain, a functional specialization within the ventral premotor cortex (PMv) for observing actions and for observing objects, and a different organization for processing sentences describing actions and objects. These findings argue against the strongest version of the simulation theory for the processing of action-related language.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1166-1177
Number of pages12
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • action observation
  • embodiment
  • mirror neurons
  • object observation
  • premotor cortex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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