Is embodiment behind our love of certain characters?

When Twilight first became popular, I heard many observations (criticisms?) like this one that teen girls are so enraptured by the books because Bella, the main character, is extremely non-descript. She’s an “empty shell,” which makes it so that “any female can slip into it and easily fantasize about being this person.” This makes sense, and it rings true when I think about the books I liked when I was younger: the characters had something in common with me, and I usually chose to disregard the traits we didn’t have in common. Even movies: I loved Matilda, and as I look back on it, I realize that I was (am?) almost as book-obsessed as she, and we even have a pretty strong physical resemblance.

My childhood doppelganger  Image: www.fanpop.com
My childhood doppelganger
Image: http://www.fanpop.com

The acknowledgment that stories are more interesting when we can imagine ourselves in them is not new. But recently as I was thinking about this, I wondered: does this have anything to do with embodiment? If our bodies constitute the foundation through which we experience the world, are we able to experience it more vividly when we can actually imagine our bodies in the story? Embodiment is intimately connected to the idea of simulation – even when we’re not using our bodies, when we’re thinking about something, we mentally simulate that doing that action or seeing whatever object we’re thinking about. Is that what draws us to certain stories and is that why I could never get enough Matilda?!

(These questions aren’t rhetorical, by the way. I actually want answers, though I know they may not exist yet.)

Embodied Language Conflict

Last night, I read a cool paper by Bergen and colleagues on the role of embodiment in understanding language. The idea is that portions of the brain that are used for perception and motor activity also play a role in understanding language via a process referred to as “simulation”.

Variations of the Perky effect can be used to study language understanding. For example, if a person is simulating while understanding language, it may be harder for him to use that same part of the brain in a visual or motor task. This is exactly what Bergen et al. found:

In Experiment 1, participants viewed sentences whose verbs literally denoted up or down, such as “The cork rocketed,” an “UP” sentence. At the same time, they had to characterize pictures of objects that were either located at the top or bottom of a screen. When the objects were located at the top, they were slower to do so, demonstrating an interference effect that may have occurred because they were simulating an “UP” sentence. This effect was also observed for “DOWN” sentences and objects located at the bottom of the screen.

When reading that "the cork rocketed," you probably simulated something in the upward direction, like this. Image: www.thewinectr.com
When reading that “the cork rocketed,” you probably simulated something in the upward direction, like this.
Image: http://www.thewinectr.com

Experiment 2 was the same, except up/down nouns were used instead of verbs. The experimenters again found an interference effect in the same direction. This suggests that the specific lexical entry isn’t what causes the simulation, but instead understanding the sentence as a whole may.

In Experiment 3, sentences containing verbs that expressed metaphorical motion were used (for example, “The prices climbed.”). There was no interference effect, nor was there an effect in Experiment 3, in which abstract, non-metaphorical verbs (such as “the percentage decreased”) were used. Together, these add support to the idea that the meaning of a sentence as a whole triggers simulation, rather than individual words.

Then this morning, I read a post about a paper that counters Bergen et al.’s findings. In the fMRI study reported, participants were shown nouns, verbs, noun-like nonwords, and verb-like nonwords (their endings were what signaled whether they were noun- or verb-like). The authors found that when viewing verbs and verb-like nonwords, participants’ premotor cortices were activated more than when viewing nouns and noun-like nonwords. They took this as an indication that the observed cortical responses to action words result from ortho-phonological probabilistic cues to grammar class, as opposed to embodied motor representations.

But, what about context? We rarely come in contact with words in isolation, but instead with words embedded in the context of a sentence, and sentences in their contexts too. Since the methods in the anti-embodied language study aren’t reflective of the real-life situations in which we encounter language, are they meaningful? How can we reconcile a these two studies?

Imagery Colors Perception: The Perky Effect

Ben Bergen’s book Louder than Words: The New Science of how the Mind Makes Meaning advocates for embodiment as the source of deriving meaning from language. The argument is that by simulating (creating experiences of perception and action in our minds in the absence of their external manifestations), we understand language.

louder than words

One piece of evidence that supports the embodiment hypothesis is the Perky effect. In this famous study, participants were asked to fixate on a screen and visualize various objects. While they were doing so, Perky projected a faint patch of color (just above the visibility threshold, and the same color as the objects participants were visualizing) onto the screen. Afterwards, every participant believed that what they “saw” on the screen was solely a product of their imagination, instead of an actual physically present stimulus.

Bergen points out that the Perky effect is common in everyday life: when you daydream, your eyes are open and you’re completely awake, yet you’re imagining something else that isn’t there. While doing so, you don’t process as much of the visual world around you as you might otherwise.

The results suggest that there isn’t a black and white difference between the experiences of perceiving and imagining, but instead the difference between imagining a stimulus and actually perceiving it is a matter of degree. This makes simulation as a means for understanding language seem quite plausible.

The results also suggest that imagining can interfere with perception. This is really cool to me, because it demonstrates the importance of context for cognition. If the participants in Perky’s experiment hadn’t been visualizing shapes, they most likely would have reported seeing the faint colors projected on the screen. Similarly, if I’m daydreaming while driving down the street, I’m much more likely to perceive my surroundings quite differently from if I’m fully focused on my driving. This is a reminder to me that context is inescapable and will always color our perceptions of reality.