Preprint Review Version 1 Preserved in Portico This version is not peer-reviewed

From Affordances to Abstract Words: The Flexibility of the Sensorimotor Grounding

Version 1 : Received: 31 July 2021 / Approved: 2 August 2021 / Online: 2 August 2021 (23:19:08 CEST)

A peer-reviewed article of this Preprint also exists.

Mazzuca, C.; Fini, C.; Michalland, A.H.; Falcinelli, I.; Da Rold, F.; Tummolini, L.; Borghi, A.M. From Affordances to Abstract Words: The Flexibility of Sensorimotor Grounding. Brain Sci. 2021, 11, 1304. Mazzuca, C.; Fini, C.; Michalland, A.H.; Falcinelli, I.; Da Rold, F.; Tummolini, L.; Borghi, A.M. From Affordances to Abstract Words: The Flexibility of Sensorimotor Grounding. Brain Sci. 2021, 11, 1304.


Recent research has shown that the sensorimotor system plays a significant role in a variety of cognitive processes. In this paper, we will review recent studies performed in our lab (Body Action Language Lab, BALLAB) or in labs with which we collaborate, showing the involvement of the sensorimotor system at different levels. With the purpose of expounding on this aspect, we focus on studies that highlight two main characteristics of the involvement of the sensorimotor systems. First, we concentrate on the flexibility of sensorimotor grounding during interaction with objects. We report evidence showing how social context and current situations influence affordance activation. We then focus on the tactile and kinesthetic involvement in body-object interaction. Second, we illustrate flexible sensorimotor grounding in word use. We review studies showing that not only concrete words, like “bottle,” but also abstract words, like “freedom,” “thinking,” and “perhaps,” are grounded in the sensorimotor system. We report evidence showing that abstract words activate sensory modalities and involve the mouth effector more than concrete words due to their privileged relationship with language, both outer and inner speech. We discuss the activation of the mouth sensorimotor system in light of studies on adults (e.g., studies employing articulatory suppression), children (e.g., studies on the effects of pacifier use on word acquisition and processing), and infants (e.g. studies on emergence of new words). Finally, we pinpoint possible mechanisms at play in the acquisition and use of abstract concepts. We argue that with abstract concepts, we rely more on other people to learn or negotiate the meaning of words; we have called this mechanism social metacognition.Social metacognition is bidirectionally linked to our sensorimotor system. On the one hand, linguistic explanations constitute a primary source of grounding that may be re-enacted when retrieving a concept, for example through inner speech. On the other hand, it leads us to feel closer and be more synchronous in movement with others, who can help us understand the meaning of very complex words. Overall, we show that the sensorimotor system provides a grounding basis not only for objects and concrete words but also for more abstract and concrete ones. We conclude by arguing that future research should address and deepen two different and interrelated aspects concerning the involvement of the sensorimotor system during object and word processing. First, the sensorimotor system is flexibly modulated by the context, as studies on affordances reveal. Second, the sensorimotor system can be involved at different levels, and its role can be integrated and flanked by that of other systems, like the linguistic one, as studies on abstract concepts clearly show. We urge future research aimed at unravelling the role of the sensorimotor system in cognition to fully explore the complexity of this intricate-and sometimes slippery-relation.


body; action; abstract concepts; metacognition; sociality


Social Sciences, Psychology

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