Grasping ideas with the motor system: semantic somatotopy in idiom comprehension

Cereb Cortex. 2009 Aug;19(8):1905-14. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhn217. Epub 2008 Dec 9.


Single words and sentences referring to bodily actions activate the motor cortex. However, this semantic grounding of concrete language does not address the critical question whether the sensory-motor system contributes to the processing of abstract meaning and thought. We examined functional magnetic resonance imaging activation to idioms and literal sentences including arm- and leg-related action words. A common left fronto-temporal network was engaged in sentence reading, with idioms yielding relatively stronger activity in (pre)frontal and middle temporal cortex. Crucially, somatotopic activation along the motor strip, in central and precentral cortex, was elicited by idiomatic and literal sentences, reflecting the body part reference of the words embedded in the sentences. Semantic somatotopy was most pronounced after sentence ending, thus reflecting sentence-level processing rather than that of single words. These results indicate that semantic representations grounded in the sensory-motor system play a role in the composition of sentence-level meaning, even in the case of idioms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Comprehension*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Language Tests
  • Language*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Semantics