The function of words: distinct neural correlates for words denoting differently manipulable objects

J Cogn Neurosci. 2010 Aug;22(8):1844-51. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21310.


Recent research indicates that language processing relies on brain areas dedicated to perception and action. For example, processing words denoting manipulable objects has been shown to activate a fronto-parietal network involved in actual tool use. This is suggested to reflect the knowledge the subject has about how objects are moved and used. However, information about how to use an object may be much more central to the conceptual representation of an object than information about how to move an object. Therefore, there may be much more fine-grained distinctions between objects on the neural level, especially related to the usability of manipulable objects. In the current study, we investigated whether a distinction can be made between words denoting (1) objects that can be picked up to move (e.g., volumetrically manipulable objects: bookend, clock) and (2) objects that must be picked up to use (e.g., functionally manipulable objects: cup, pen). The results show that functionally manipulable words elicit greater levels of activation in the fronto-parietal sensorimotor areas than volumetrically manipulable words. This suggests that indeed a distinction can be made between different types of manipulable objects. Specifically, how an object is used functionally rather than whether an object can be displaced with the hand is reflected in semantic representations in the brain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cerebral Cortex / blood supply
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Psychoacoustics
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*
  • Space Perception
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Vocabulary*
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen