Does Language Trigger Visual Memories? – Part 1

One of the fundamental questions in cognitive science is how information is stored in the brain and in the mind. There are innumerable different models, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, but the one that I will be addressing here is known as embodiment.

From a neurolinguistic perspective, embodiment is the idea that the semantic content belonging to words is linked to sensorimotor representations in the brain. So if you talk about doing something, your brain behaves (to some extent) as if you are actually doing it.

In a view known as “weak embodiment”, linguistic and conceptual representations overlap in certain sensorimotor areas. In the “strong embodiment” view, linguistic and conceptual representations are much more strongly linked, with some researchers suggesting that action words actually trigger the neuronal assemblies that are associated with those actions.

A recent study sought to discover if either of these two views could be supported by neuroimaging. The researchers played sentences describing dynamic (“the mechanic is walking toward the airplane”) or static (“the mechanic is looking at the airplane”) situations and measured the brain response. The researchers looked in particular both in the visual cortex area V5 — which is known to respond to visual motion perception — as well as other temporal areas of the brain.

They suggested that, if the strong embodiment view holds, dynamic descriptions should trigger activity in areas that are very strongly linked with visual motion perception, like V5. If the weak embodiment holds, they said, it was more likely that these descriptions would not trigger V5, but would activate other areas related to motion perception (presumably ones that are less strongly linked to visual cues).

After using localizer stimuli to determine the location of each participant’s V5 area, the authors analyzed the effect of static and dynamic language stimuli on this area. They found activation in the left posterior middle and superior temporal gyri, near V5, but crucially, no overlap between language-activated areas and V5 proper, supporting the weak embodiment theory of language.

So what does this all mean? The authors point out that the sensorimotor representations that are triggered by language are not as specific as the strong embodiment view suggests. In this case, language triggered activation in areas that are more generally linked, amodally, to motion. These parts of the cortex seem to be activated by amodal information related to motion, such as animacy or intention. This has significant implications for theories of embodiment, as strong claims of embodiment must now come up with a way to explain the finding that “once-removed”, schematic areas are activated by language, instead of modality specific representations  (as far as I am aware, there hasn’t been a response to this article from proponents of the strong embodiment view, but I’m sure it’s coming).

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that this may have some relevance for theories on the relationship between language and non-linguistic cognition. Visual sensorimotor representations, being non-linguistic, seem to be triggered, though somewhat indirectly, by language. Exactly how this works could also be important in understanding the other ways in which language and memory interact.


Humphreys GF, Newling K, Jennings C, & Gennari SP (2013). Motion and actions in language: semantic representations in occipito-temporal cortex. Brain and language, 125 (1), 94-105 PMID: 23454619

Image via benchart / Shutterstock.

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  • rahul ghosh

    my probem that shor memory and i forget the word what i say my brain is not rember any thing what i do pls say something…

  • Is linguistic information part of every cognitive process?

    It may be. Personally many of us know that when we think of a word, or see a word, it can bring up many related subjects. It may also bring up images, because our brain fundamentally is structured around our vision. It’s easy to prove this simply, but will save that for a note on “Does language trigger visual memories?”

    There are two basic processes going on, very simply, when we see/hear a word. First we must recognize it, i.e. it must be in a language we speak, read &/or hear. Recall that words came long before reading or writing, or any symbology. Therefore speaking & hearing are primary in the way verbal information is processed. Reading/writing are secondary. Speech, hearing words and the sound shapes of words are primary.

    Cognition comes from the Latin root, to know. So if we ‘know” a word, we have to know what it means and can talk about it. No word is an island. No word stands alone, to again paraphrase John Donne. A simple cortical brain process called the comparison process (COMP) seems to underlie almost all of recognition I’ve been able to test so far. When we hear a word, it immediately triggers the LTM (Long Term Memory) for that word, which may be a few or several caches of LTM including the sound of the word. This is likely the case because of word errors. We are looking for the word to say it and we get the wrong one. We see the same thing in typing erors from time to time. We might want to say “sight” and say instead “sighed”., for instance. We compare the word we hear with those which sound like it, At once pick up the right one, and go from there. If we are hard of hearing, we make more of those same errors, thus showing the widespread associations we have with each word, again, the COMP.

    These caches appear to be associated with each other, i.e, they compare with each other. We state Minnesota, and we think of that state, upper MidWest, just north of Iowa, and W of Wisconsin, in our geography caches. We may think of Minneapolis by close comparison, to Minnesota. & the more educated we are the more caches there might well be. Children, proportional to their ages, have fewer caches and connections. Adults have far, far more. This may be the reason why in Piaget’s work in the mental development of children, kids are unable to reason very much until they reach about age 12. It’s the age they build up enough related caches, and categories with related words in them, in order to see the relationships, necessarily logical, among the words.

    These associations are created by the Comparison Process. They are all organized by it. & it’s everywhere in cognition, language, math, and music, etc., because it appears to generate AND recognize all of the relationships of each word by the COMP.

    We define words in terms of words. We organize our dictionaries, encyclopedias and Thesauri massively by this simple, but widely applicable & repeatable COMP. Some might find this interesting to reach, I mean read (grin) in my blog, “Le Chanson Sans Fin” in It’s rather astonishing to see how this simple function, the COMP can do so very much cognition, ordering, creating and so forth with so very little.


    • Oops, got the above in the wrong place. Here’s what was supposed to go here.

      Hi, Daniel!! You’ve got some great material.

      Does language trigger visual images?

      It often does. The point is the major input of information into our brains is visual, simply because there are likely 1000’s of times more channels in vision, than with the far fewer frequencies of sound, alone.

      Our brains are visually oriented right down to the fundamental anatomy of our brains and those of our simian cousins. Take the sensorimotor cortex which lies astride anteriorly and posteriorly the Sylvian fissures. It’s organized from superior (top) with the toes right down thru the foot, then leg, the thigh, pelvis and so forth down to the fingers, then arm, shoulder, neck, chin and up through the eyes and the forehead and scalp. Sensory cortex follows this pattern closely, posteriorly to the Sylvian fissure. But note the configuration of the sensory/motor strips. It’s reversed right for left and top for bottom. Why is this?

      It’s simple. Look at the world thru a magnifying glass. It reverses the image right to left and top to bottom. Now comes the creative leap. Superimpose this visual image on the brain and you find the same thing. What compares to the magnifying glass in the body? The Lenses of the eyes, clearly. The brain is oriented to the inverted and right for left reversed image created by our lenses. In addition, the decussations of the pyramids in the brainstem, take the brain afferents and efferents and reverse them from the right side hemisphere to the left side of the body; and left hemisphere to Right body, thus connecting motor/sensory brain areas to their opposite sides in the body. So where you see decussations of the pyramids, logically, necessarily, we know the brain is organized in any animal that same way. Even the bottlenosed dolphins.

      The brain is organized around this configuration, directly comparing it to the lens’ images on the retinas of the eyess. It’s a deeply anatomically structured configuration. Inescapably true. To reinforce this point, our visual cortex is likewise organized top for bottom and left for right of the visual images. Same configuration. Our brains are oriented to visual input, largely. We are visual creatures, cognitively.

      We know by empirical introspection rules, that language can trigger visual images. and Vice versa. When we think of G’ma, we can see her face, if we choose. When we see G’ma, we can call out her name. That’s in the right inferior temporal lobe, where visual recognition of faces takes place & it plugs in to the left temporal area speech centers via the corpus callosum.

      When we think of Rocky Mountain National Park, we can image the Loch, Bear Lake, Estes Park area, Trail Ridge Road, and even Sky Pond, etc., if we’ve been up there. Because we are primarily primates, visually oriented & our brains confirm this, so, yes, we can. Language can trigger visual images and visual images can trigger language, because we can talk about what we see. Or remember.


Daniel Albright, MA, PhD (c)

Daniel Albright, MA, is a PhD student at the University of Reading, studying the lateralization of linguistically mediated event perception. He received his masters in linguistics from the University of Colorado-Boulder. Get in touch with him at or on Twitter at @dann_albright.

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