Sensorimotor grounding of metaphor
A fierce debate regarding the representational nature of concepts has been swirling in cognitive psychology for several decades. I’m interested in when and how conceptual representations are grounded in the perceptual and motor systems responsible for their acquisition. In this project, I examined whether figurative language comprehension is grounded. My ChatLab colleagues and I created and normed a set of metaphorical and literal sentence stimuli, where motion (e.g. scurry, hop) and sound (e.g. sizzle, groan) verbs are used metaphorically. If the involvement of motor and auditory cortices contributes to the comprehension of action and sound words, even when they are used figuratively, then patients with impaired motor circuitry yet intact auditory processing should be impaired in the comprehension of action metaphors relative to sound metaphors. However, we did not find strong evidence that patients with Parkinson’s disease were disproportionately impaired in processing action metaphors.
Aesthetic appreciation of “action paintings”
Jackson Pollock, a key figure in the abstract expressionist movement, famously created his paintings through action, by literally dripping and pouring paint onto the canvas. This particular style of gestural abstraction was dynamic and vigorous, and emphasised the physical act of painting in itself as essential to the finished piece. I am interested in whether people simulate an artist’s actions when they view action paintings, and if so, how these simulations affect their aesthetic appreciation of the work. I examined whether the aesthetic appreciation of action paintings changes in Parkinson’s disease patients who may have more difficulty simulating actions. In addition, I am using functional neuroimaging to test whether motor cortices are recruited when people view and aesthetically evaluate action paintings.
A pre-print of the Parkinson’s work is now available.
Action representations in gesture
Why do we gesture when we speak? What can co-speech gestures tell us about thought? Current theories of gesture production have proposed that gestures are the product of cognitively simulated action, and that they schematise spatio-motoric information for conceptualisation. My PhD thesis examined how gestures change when the motor circuitry underlying action representation and simulation is compromised – in patients with Parkinson’s disease. A key finding was that Parkinson’s patients are more likely to gesture about others’ actions from a third-person perspective (or “observer viewpoint”), while controls are more like to gesture from a first-person perspective (“character viewpoint”). A fine-grained analysis of different action features including manners and paths of motion revealed that manner information is particularly impaired while path is relatively spared in the gestures of people with Parkinson’s. Furthermore, actions that require more complex or intense movement (e.g. climbing) are particularly difficult for Parkinson’s patients to represent relative to low motion actions (e.g. knocking).
A study on the visual perspective of action gestures in Parkinson’s was published in Cortex.
Later work on manner and path gestures was recently accepted at the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.