Professor Pulvermüller’s guest lecture in Helsinki, 12 March 2015

Professor Friedemann Pulvermüller, Freie Universität Berlin
Thursday March 12, at 10.15-11.30
Lecture room 107, Athena, Siltavuorenpenger 5A, University of Helsinki

Professor Pulvermüller is hosted by the doctoral programme PsyCo

Language – action – meaning: can brain science contribute to the understanding of human communication?

Friedemann Pulvermüller, Brain Language Laboratory, Department of Philosophy and Humanities, Freie Universtät Berlin, f.p(at)

According to recent action-oriented perspectives in cognitive neuroscience, brain mechanisms of cognition and language are built from those for action and action perception (1, 2). Whereas traditional approaches have attributed specifically-human cognitive domains to genetic endowment and encapsulated processes, modern brain science has shown that mechanisms for speech sounds and symbols emerge as a result of sensorimotor functional interaction in the brain. Correlational Hebbian learning in anatomically prestructured network architectures binds articulatory-motor to auditory-perceptual (phonological) knowledge, and explains important aspects of the storage of (lexical) whole forms as symbols or constructions, combinatorial (syntactic, grammatical) linkage between stored forms, and context-dependent flexible (semantic, pragmatic) binding between forms, their meaning and interactive function. Therefore, it becomes possible to ‘spell out language in terms of neurons’. For example, when words become meaningful, their distributed neuronal assemblies link up with other networks processing ‘brain-embodied’ information about objects and actions. Similar learning can also emerge at the level of phrases and whole constructions. In the case of idioms (for example: ‘She grasped the idea’), neuroimaging data suggest that semantic processes take place at the word level at the same time as at the construction level (3). For understanding the communicative function of words and constructions, predictions on future actions and goals are calculated based on linguistic utterances and their action context (for example, the word [ti:] in front of a tea pot may be understood as a request). Neuroscience research has recently shown how communicative function and action prediction is reflected in brain responses, where it engages action systems (4). The new action-centered perspective on language and communication has not only led to a better understanding of the interplay between language, action and cognition, it also carries translational fruit, for example in the context of novel approaches to language rehabilitation after stroke (5).

1.Pulvermüller, F., & Fadiga, L. (2010). Active perception: Sensorimotor circuits as a cortical basis for language. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11(5), 351-360.
2.Pulvermüller, F. (2013). How neurons make meaning: Brain mechanisms for embodied and abstract-symbolic semantics. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(9), 458-470. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2013.06.004
3.Pulvermüller, F., Moseley, R., Egorova, N., Shebani, Z., & Boulenger, V. (2014). Motor cognition – motor semantics: Action-perception theory of cognitive and communicative cortical function. Neuropsychologia, 55, 71-84. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2013.12.002
4.Egorova, N., Pulvermüller, F., & Shtyrov, Y. (2014). Neural dynamics of speech act comprehension: an MEG study of naming and requesting. Brain Topography, 27, 375-392. doi: 10.1007/s10548-013-0329-3
5.Berthier, M. L., & Pulvermüller, F. (2011). Neuroscience insights improve neurorehabilitation of post-stroke aphasia. Nature Reviews Neurology, 7(2), 86-97.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *