Embodied Cognition

Cognition is founded on the vast experiences we learn through our body. Embodied cognition refers to the idea that all conceptual knowledge has to be grounded in our bodily experiences, rather than arbitrary linguistic symbols.

For example, RED can only be meaningful if it is grounded in the visual experience of red-ness. When we hear or read this word, our brain would re-activate, or ‘mentally simulate’, some of that learned visual experience for us to understand what RED means. In comparison, RED would not be represented in such ways for people who are born blind.

We are very interested in how abstract concepts like LOVE or TRUST are grounded in bodily experiences. Although they do not have direct referents in the physical world, new research suggests that abstract meaning could be supported by experiences inside the body in the emotional, introspective, and interoceptive (internal organs) domains. For example, our recent work asks how abstract concepts like TIME, IDEA, MISTAKE that are invisible to the eye can have size (e.g., “Tomorrow is my big day”, “I like big ideas”, “I made a small mistake”)? It turns out that abstract size may be derived from how emotionally evoking the word is and from metaphorical associations with concrete words that do have size (e.g., “The responsibility is like a mountain on my shoulders”). In other words, abstract concepts could use emotional experiences, or visual experiences of their concrete counterparts to represent its size.

Understanding conceptual processing is a challenge but also good fun. There are many questions that fascinate us, for example:

  • How are embodied representations of language flexibly activated across contexts and task demands?

  • What are the neurocomputational mechanisms of embodied mental simulations?

  • How do people who lack mental imagery understand concepts?

  • What are the relative contributions of linguistic and embodied experiences in conceptual processing? How do they change across contexts and lifespan?

If you are interested in this area, and would like to work with us, please do get in touch.
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Example papers from the lab:

(2022). What can size tell us about abstract conceptual processing?. Journal of Memory and Language, 127, 104369.


(2018). Differential emotional processing in concrete and abstract words. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 44(7), 1064-1074.


(2013). Semantic size of abstract concepts: It gets emotional when you can’t see it. PLoS ONE, 8(9), e75000.


Bo Yao
Bo Yao
Cognitive Neuroscientist

Cognitive Neuroscience of Language