What's up? Emotion-specific activation of vertical space during language processing

Carolin Dudschig, Irmgard de la Vega, Barbara Kaup

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The relationship between language processing and vertical space has been shown for various groups of words including valence words, implicit location words, and words referring to religious concepts. However, it remains unclear whether these are single phenomena or whether there is an underlying common mechanism. Here, we show that the evaluation of word valence interacts with motor responses in the vertical dimension, with positive (negative) evaluations facilitating upward (downward) responses. When valence evaluation was not required, implicit location words (e.g., bird, shoe) influenced motor responses whereas valence words (e.g., kiss, hate) did not. Importantly, a subset of specific emotional valence words that are commonly associated with particular bodily postures (e.g., proud → upright; sad → slouched) did automatically influence motor responses. Together, this suggests that while the vertical spatial dimension is not directly activated by word valence, it is activated when processing words referring to emotional states with stereotypical bodily-postures. These results provide strong evidence that the activation of spatial associations during language processing is experience-specific in nature and cannot be explained with reference to a general mapping between all valence words and space (i.e., all positive and negative words generally relate to spatial processing). These findings support the experiential view of language comprehension, suggesting that the automatic reactivation of bodily experiences is limited to word groups referring to emotions or entities directly associated with spatial experiences (e.g., posture or location in the world).

Acta Psychologica