When an Indirect Statement Becomes a Request for Action
We all know that context matters when it comes to language. What we do not know as well, however, is exactly how our brains tell us when to take actions based on words. New research suggests several mechanisms by which, even in the absence of action words, our brains discern when action is needed based on the context alone – turning a simple statement of “It’s hot in here” into a request for action, say to open a window. This process activates not only motor areas of the brain, researchers found, but also areas responsible for how we interpret the emotions and thoughts of others.
Past research has found that the way people understand the meaning of action words is through activation of motor systems in the brain that recognize the actions to which the words refer – part of the Mirror Neuron System. But Peter Hagoort of the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in the Netherlands wanted to take a different approach to the topic: “We decided that we wanted to study sentences that did not contain action words but in the right context, the meaning of the whole sentence would be interpreted as a request for action,” he says.
So he and colleagues set out to find sentences lacking action words but that could be indirect requests for action – statements like “It’s hot in here” (to ask to open a window), “I am starving” (to ask for food), or “It’s raining” (to request an umbrella). Subjects listened to indirect requests for action during an fMRI session while looking at either an visual scene that corresponded to the indirect request or an arbitrary scene. For example, for “It’s hot in here,” the corresponding image was of an open window, while the arbitrary image was just of a car in the desert. Some participants listened to phrases with no indirect request for action as a control. Compared to the controls, the items in the indirect request condition with the corresponding visual scene were interpreted as action much more often.
The researchers, led by Markus J. van Ackeren of the University of York, found that indirect requests for action lead to activation of areas that are involved in preparing the action, which was a surprise to Hagoort. When the right environment is paired with an indirect request, automatic signals are sent to areas of the brain preparing for such action. “It shows that our brain is highly sophisticated in translating the linguistic input into a schema for action,” he says
Not surprising to Hagoort, however, was that they found that the Theory of Mind (ToM) network is involved in interpreting the indirect request for an action. The ToM is how we make inferences about the mental states of others. “The results clearly demonstrate that the Mirror Neuron System is insufficient to do the job,” he says. “In everyday language communication, we need to make inferences that go beyond simple sensory-motor simulations and that requires the involvement of the ToM network, which was not considered to be a core language area in the brain.”
Beyond the theory, Hagoort says, this research has some important practical implications about the importance of context when processing linguistic information. This is true for autistic patients, where ToM deficits occur, as well as for people in day-to-day situations. “It would be crucial if in many situations of communication, speakers design their utterances more carefully,” he says. “This is, for instance, crucial in the interaction between a patient and the physician, between employer and employee, etc. Miscommunication is often the consequence of a failure in audience design, a failure in formulating the expression with a clear idea about the listener in mind.”
The next step for the research is looking at statements that people use to “save face.” For example, if you ask a colleague “Did you like my presentation?”, a relatively direct answer is “No, your presentation was awful.” But the same message can be communicated in a more indirect and polite way, such as: “It is hard to give a good presentation.” These types of statements may again involve the ToM, as well as areas involved in emotion.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz
Hagoort was a co-author on the paper: “Pragmatics in Action: Indirect Requests Engage Theory of Mind Areas and the Cortical Motor Network,” Markus J. van Ackeren et al., Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, online July 31, 2012.
For more information, contact: Lisa M.P. Munoz, CNS Public Information Officer,