The Engagement of Motor Imagery in Metaphoric Comprehension

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Alex Golding


metaphor, motor imagery, inference, non-propositional, kinesthesia


This paper proposes a synthesis of ideas from relevance theory’s conceptual and propositional approach to metaphoric interpretation with assumptions about the role of motor imagery from embodied cognition. Relevance theory’s account of metaphoric interpretation describes how conceptual and propositional representations are accessed during interpretation. The hearer of a metaphor inferentially develops the encoded concept to an occasion-specific ad-hoc concept, which resembles the speaker’s thought more closely. Under this approach, motor imagery is not intrinsic to speaker meaning since it is not part of the concept and able to undergo inference. Motor imagery is the capacity to simulate motor actions to plan for action. Within embodied cognition, for example, the word <run> accesses its conceptual counterpart, which shares a resemblance to previous activated motor imagery of observing or running oneself. Novel metaphors using action verbs activate motor imagery more than familiar ones as the latter accesses a new meaning, thereby weakening its motor imagery connection. Therefore, to reconcile this data with relevance theory, this paper proposes three solutions. Motor imagery may: (1) act as input to the inferential process, but is not part of speaker meaning; (2) generate other thoughts which undergo inference; (3) or be part of conceptual meaning and undergo inferential operations, which are intrinsic to metaphoric meaning. Whilst (1) and (2) are appealing, option (3) finds support from recent experimental evidence.

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