Spatial and Linguistic Aspects of Visual Imagery in Sentence Comprehension


Department of Linguistics, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 569 Moore Hall, 1890 East-West Rd., Honolulu, HI, 96822. E-mail:


There is mounting evidence that language comprehension involves the activation of mental imagery of the content of utterances (Barsalou, 1999; Bergen, Chang, & Narayan, 2004; Bergen, Narayan, & Feldman, 2003; Narayan, Bergen, & Weinberg, 2004; Richardson, Spivey, McRae, & Barsalou, 2003; Stanfield & Zwaan, 2001; Zwaan, Stanfield, & Yaxley, 2002). This imagery can have motor or perceptual content. Three main questions about the process remain under-explored, however. First, are lexical associations with perception or motion sufficient to yield mental simulation, or is the integration of lexical semantics into larger structures, like sentences, necessary? Second, what linguistic elements (e.g., verbs, nouns, etc.) trigger mental simulations? Third, how detailed are the visual simulations that are performed? A series of behavioral experiments address these questions, using a visual object categorization task to investigate whether up- or down-related language selectively interferes with visual processing in the same part of the visual field (following Richardson et al., 2003). The results demonstrate that either subject nouns or main verbs can trigger visual imagery, but only when used in literal sentences about real space—metaphorical language does not yield significant effects—which implies that it is the comprehension of the sentence as a whole and not simply lexical associations that yields imagery effects. These studies also show that the evoked imagery contains detail as to the part of the visual field where the described scene would take place.