Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
According to embodied theories of language, people understand a verb like throw, at least in part, by mentally simulating throwing. This implicit simulation is often assumed to be similar or identical to motor imagery. Here we used fMRI to test whether implicit simulations of actions during language understanding involve the same cortical motor regions as explicit motor imagery. Healthy participants were presented with verbs related to hand actions (e.g., to throw) and nonmanual actions (e.g., to kneel). They either read these verbs (lexical decision task) or actively imagined performing the actions named by the verbs (imagery task). Primary motor cortex showed effector-specific activation during imagery, but not during lexical decision. Parts of premotor cortex distinguished manual from nonmanual actions during both lexical decision and imagery, but there was no overlap or correlation between regions activated during the two tasks. These dissociations suggest that implicit simulation and explicit imagery cued by action verbs may involve different types of motor representations and that the construct of “mental simulation” should be distinguished from “mental imagery” in embodied theories of language.