Research

Main topics of our research:

 

Grounded cognition

A major part of human knowledge consists of concepts. Concepts are the mental representations of entities (such as apple, run, love, or justice) that underlie cognition. For example, when people use language, meaning is represented by concepts and people use concepts to categorize what they perceive. An important recent development in cognitive psychology is the grounded cognition framework (Barsalou, 1999; Glenberg, 1997). Central to the framework is that cognition is based on sensory-motor processing, and thus that sensory modalities and motor actions contribute to higher level cognition. In support of this central claim, we found evidence for the automatic involvement of sensory modalities for conceptual representations (Pecher, Zeelenberg, & Barsalou, 2003; Van Dantzig, Pecher, Zeelenberg, & Barsalou, 2008). Our results suggest that people mentally simulate sensory-motor interactions when they activate concepts. Such simulations happen during language comprehension and memory, and are the result of automatic processes. The involvement of sensory-motor processing was investigated mainly for concrete concepts. We also investigated an explanation from linguistics for how abstract concepts might be grounded in sensory-motor mechanisms, the Cognitive Metaphor Theory. We applied experimental psychology techniques to test this theory and found support for the notion that abstract concepts derive structure from concrete image schemas (Boot & Pecher, 2010, 2011; Zanolie et al., 2012) . The Conceptual Metaphor Theory is limited in its range to explain conceptual representation, however, because it ignores too much of concept meaning (Pecher, Boot, & Van Dantzig, 2011). In a recent series of studies we have looked more critically at the fundamental role of sensory-motor processing for cognition. Many behavioral studies show that cognition and perception/action interact, and neuroimaging studies show overlap in brain activity between cognition and perception/action. While such demonstrations can be convincing and powerful, sometimes conclusions are drawn too quickly, ignoring alternative explanations. In a series of studies (Pecher, 2013; Pecher et al. 2013; Quack et al., 2014; see Zeelenberg & Pecher, 2016, for an overview) we have shown that conclusions about causality based on a particular type of fMRI result must be taken with some grains of salt and cannot be interpreted as proof of action grounding of memory. In these studies we have shown that visual working memory is not supported by object affordances. In another series of studies (Pecher & Van Dantzig, 2016; Roest et al., 2016) we found that, in contrast to previous claims,  visually depicted objects do not automatically activate motor actions towards those objects. These result indicates that not all of cognition is grounded all of the time.

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