12/07/2012 12:43 pm ET

Listen With Our Hands: How Words Influence Our Motor Activity

By Daisy Yuhas
(Click here for the original article and podcast)

Many of us talk with our hands. But some researchers suspect we may listen with our hands, too.

Cognitive scientists had subjects listen to spoken sentences, each in the third person and present tense, such as “John walks to work.” As they listened, the subjects pinched a grip-force sensor.

The researchers found that subjects increased their grip when listening to action words that involved hands or arms, such as scratch, throw or lift. But this response depended on context—grip force was unchanged when the action was negative, as in "Laura did not lift her luggage." The study is in the journal PLoS One. [Pia Aravena et al., Grip Force Reveals the Context Sensitivity of Language-Induced Motor Activity during “Action Words” Processing: Evidence from Sentential Negation]

The results demonstrate how words subtly and selectively induce motor activity. The fact that this motor response depends on context is a testament to our brain's flexibility when processing words.

The study also adds to the growing evidence that sensory-motor and language experiences are linked in the brain. Figuring out this connection could lead to new therapies for speech and language disorders. In the meantime, the next time you tense up over a game of mad libs, do go easy on those verbs.