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Public Lecture

Our intelligent hands: The role of action in language comprehension

Presented by Professor Daniel Bub
Department of Psychology, University of Victoria

Thursday 6 November 2014, Macquarie University, Sydney


In the 19th century, an influential claim about language was that the meaning of words referring to objects - an example used by Wernicke (1848-1905) and Charcot (1825-1893) was the word "bell" - is entirely based on stored traces of our sensory and motor experience. According to this view, we understand the meaning of "bell" by contacting memories of what the object looked like, the sound of a bell, how it felt (if we have had a chance to touch or use one), how much a typical bell weighs when we lift it, and so on. The combined sensory and motor memories of all our experiences with the physical object constitute the meaning of the word. Although modern linguistic theories have moved well beyond this early view, new evidence has emerged that appears consistent with the classical approach to word meaning. I will discuss and critique this rebirth of an old theoretical claim, with particular emphasis on the possible role of hand actions in understanding words and sentences that refer to graspable objects like cellphone, pencil or spray-can. Such words, alone or in a sentence like "John lifted the cellphone to clear a space on the shelf" do indeed automatically evoke interesting patterns of activity in the motor system. Does this evidence necessarily imply, though, that object concepts are grounded in sensory-motor experience? I will provide an alternative explanation, based on a theory of how planned actions are organized in the brain, and how language communicates with components of the motor system.


Daniel Bub was born in Capetown, South Africa. He completed a BSc (Honours) degree in psychology at University College, London, England, and a PhD in cognitive science at the University of Rochester, New York. He obtained a postdoctoral fellowship in cognitive neuropsychology, held in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at the University of Western Ontario. He was then appointed Assistant Professor and then Associate Professor at the Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University before joining the Department of Psychology at the University of Victoria.


The conference will be held in Room 1.200 (Lecture Theatre) at the Australian Hearing Hub at Macquarie University, Sydney NSW, Australia.

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2.00-3.30 pm with light refreshments from 3.30 pm


Robin Blumfield
Tel: +612 9850 4127

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