Researchers show the power of mirror neuron system in learning and language understanding

December 19, 2013

TEMPE, Ariz. - Anyone who has tried to learn a second language knows how difficult it is to absorb new words and use them to accurately express ideas in a completely new cultural format. Now, research into some of the fundamental ways the brain accepts information and tags it could lead to new, more effective ways for people to learn a second language.

Tests have shown that the human brain uses the same neuron system to see an action and to understand an action described in language. Researchers at Arizona State University have been testing the boundaries of this hypothesis, which focuses on the operation of the mirror neuron system (MNS). The ASU group has found that the MNS can be modified by language use, and that the modification can slightly change visual perception.

The work focuses on how the brain receives and classifies information that a person sees (an action, like one person giving another a pencil) and tests how the brain receives the information from a description of an action (simulation), like "Cameron gives Annagrace a pencil."

"We tested the idea that the mirror neuron system, which is part of the motor system, is used in the simulation process," said Arthur Glenberg, an Arizona State University professor of psychology. "The MNS is active both when a person takes an action (e.g., giving a pencil) and when that action is observed, (witnessing the pencil being given)." Supposedly, the MNS allows us to infer the intentions of other people, so that when Jane sees Cameron act, her MNS resonates, and then Jane understands why she would give Annagrace the pencil and infers that that is the reason why Cameron gives Annagrace the pencil."

Glenberg, Noah Zarr, formerly an ASU psychology major and now a graduate student at Indiana University, and Ryan Ferguson, a graduate student in ASU's Cognitive Science training area in the Department of Psychology, recently published their findings in the paper "Language comprehension warps the mirror neuron system," in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. This research began with Zarr's honors thesis.

"The MNS has been associated with many social behaviors, such as action, understanding and empathy, as well as language understanding," Glenberg explained. "Previous work has demonstrated that adapting the MNS can affect language comprehension. But no one had yet shown that the process of language comprehension can itself change the MNS."

"The question becomes when Jane reads, 'Cameron gives Annagrace the pencil' is she using her MNS just like when she sees Cameron give the pencil," Glenberg asks. "To test this idea, we used the fact that the MNS is used in both action and perception of action, and the idea that repeated use of a neural system leads to adaptation of that system."

"So, in the tests participants read a bunch of transfer sentences," Glenberg explained. "We then show them a bunch of videos of transfer. We have shown that after reading the sentences, people are impaired (a little bit) in perceiving the transfer in the videos, which means the reading modifies the same MNS used in action understanding.

While the work explores the boundaries of a theory on comprehension there are applications in which it could be employed, Glenberg said.

"If language comprehension is a simulation process that uses neural systems of action, then perhaps we can better teach kids how to understand what they read by getting them to literally simulate the actions," he explained.

Glenberg added that part of his on going research into the mirror neuron system, the system that allows us to decipher what we see and understand the intent of language, is to test the idea of simulation and how it can help Latino English language learners read better in English.
-end-
Source: Arthur Glenberg, (480) 727-7790

Media contact: Skip Derra, (480) 965-4823; skip.derra@asu.edu

Arizona State University

Related Language Articles from Brightsurf:

Learning the language of sugars
We're told not to eat too much sugar, but in reality, all of our cells are covered in sugar molecules called glycans.

How effective are language learning apps?
Researchers from Michigan State University recently conducted a study focusing on Babbel, a popular subscription-based language learning app and e-learning platform, to see if it really worked at teaching a new language.

Chinese to rise as a global language
With the continuing rise of China as a global economic and trading power, there is no barrier to prevent Chinese from becoming a global language like English, according to Flinders University academic Dr Jeffrey Gil.

'She' goes missing from presidential language
MIT researchers have found that although a significant percentage of the American public believed the winner of the November 2016 presidential election would be a woman, people rarely used the pronoun 'she' when referring to the next president before the election.

How does language emerge?
How did the almost 6000 languages of the world come into being?

New research quantifies how much speakers' first language affects learning a new language
Linguistic research suggests that accents are strongly shaped by the speaker's first language they learned growing up.

Why the language-ready brain is so complex
In a review article published in Science, Peter Hagoort, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University and director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, argues for a new model of language, involving the interaction of multiple brain networks.

Do as i say: Translating language into movement
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a computer model that can translate text describing physical movements directly into simple computer-generated animations, a first step toward someday generating movies directly from scripts.

Learning language
When it comes to learning a language, the left side of the brain has traditionally been considered the hub of language processing.

Learning a second alphabet for a first language
A part of the brain that maps letters to sounds can acquire a second, visually distinct alphabet for the same language, according to a study of English speakers published in eNeuro.

Read More: Language News and Language Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.