Studies demonstrating the involvement of motor brain structures in language processing typically focus on time windows beyond the latencies of lexical-semantic access. Consequently, such studies remain inconclusive regarding whether motor brain structures are recruited directly in language processing or through post-linguistic conceptual imagery. In the present study, we introduce a grip-force sensor that allows online measurements of language-induced motor activity during sentence listening. We use this tool to investigate whether language-induced motor activity remains constant or is modulated in negative, as opposed to affirmative, linguistic contexts.
Participants listened to spoken action target words in either affirmative or negative sentences while holding a sensor in a precision grip. The participants were asked to count the sentences containing the name of a country to ensure attention. The grip force signal was recorded continuously. The action words elicited an automatic and significant enhancement of the grip force starting at approximately 300 ms after target word onset in affirmative sentences; however, no comparable grip force modulation was observed when these action words occurred in negative contexts.
Our findings demonstrate that this simple experimental paradigm can be used to study the online crosstalk between language and the motor systems in an ecological and economical manner. Our data further confirm that the motor brain structures that can be called upon during action word processing are not mandatorily involved; the crosstalk is asymmetrically governed by the linguistic context and not vice versa.