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Grasping for Words

Grasping for Words

Hearing or seeing a word doesn’t mean it is immediately understood. The brain must first recognize the letters, put them together, and “look up” what the word means in its mental lexicon.

In a new study, cognitive psychologists at Bielefeld University’s Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) have shown how word comprehension can be sped up by having study participants grasp objects while reading at the same time.

The method could offer an approach for new therapies, such as treating stroke patients, according to the German researchers.

“Latest theories in cognitive science research hypothesize that our memory also records physical sensations as part of the words stored,” said Dr. Dirk Koester, who works in a research group led by Dr. Thomas Schack.

“Similar to an entry in a reference book, the brain records a word like whisk, associating it with concepts such as inanimate and kitchen device. In addition to this, the brain connects the word to one’s own experience — how a whisk feels, for instance, and that a spinning motion is related to it.”

For the new study, researchers recruited 28 participants who sat in front of a computer screen where three cubes were lying next to each other. One was about the size of an apple, one the size of a table tennis ball, and one the size of a dice.

Words then appeared in one of the fields on the screen — sometimes made-up words, sometimes real ones. When a pseudo-word such as “whask” was displayed, the participants did not have to do anything.

But if a real noun like “orange” appeared, they were supposed to grip the cube corresponding to that respective field. An EEG electrode cap recorded brain activity, allowing the researchers to then evaluate how the word was processed.

“When the study participants had to grasp an object while reading, their brain processed parts of the meaning of the words earlier than in previous studies in which words were evaluated without something being gripped,” Koester said.

Previous studies have shown that it takes the brain a third of a second to process a word.

“In our study, however, we were able to show that comprehension can already begin much earlier, after just a tenth of a second — if a grasping action is required,” said Koester.

The study not only provides evidence that the brain has a common control center for language and movement, but “it also shows that our brain’s processing steps shift very quickly and adjust to current tasks — in this case, the task of grasping something while reading,” he explained.

Koester believes the study’s findings could also be used in the future for various therapies, such as treatments for aphasia, a language disorder that can occur after a stroke in which one’s ability to comprehend or formulate words is impaired or lost.

“Similar as in our experiment, patients could practice words they cannot access by indicating not only verbally, but also with grip movements to show they recognize a word. In short, motor training,” Koester said.

“As such, one’s knowledge of words would be strengthened through the ‘back door’ of motor control.”

The study was published in PLOS One.

Source: Bielefeld University

Photo: Once they understood the word that appeared on the screen, the test subjects grasped the cube under the word displayed. Credit: CITEC/Bielefeld University.

Grasping for Words

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Grasping for Words. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 28 Dec 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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