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Perception Words in Space

When we talk about objects in the world, the words we use convey multimodal perceptual information. For example, if we think about the word coffee, we might associate the smell and taste of coffee with it, as well as its brown colour, and the warm feeling of the mug in our hands. Furthermore, the extent to which an object is experienced in one perceptual modality may affect spatial associations we have with the object. Since coffee is experienced primarily through smell and taste, it is likely that we associate it with being close to the mouth and nose. Alternatively, an object such as a traffic light, which is primarily experienced through sight, is likely to be associated in space further away from the body.

We collected norms for 485 Dutch nouns, rated for their associations with sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, and found they were highly multimodal. Nevertheless, it was possible to categorize each noun in terms of its strongest perceptual modality and then test whether they had different associations in near or far space by conducting a lexical decision experiment. We found that words with strong olfactory associations were responded to faster in near presentation, suggesting they are represented in proximal space, i.e., close to the body. Perceptual information is important for the meaning of words, but words may be processed differently depending on the specific perceptual information associated with each word.

Speed, L. J. & Majid, A. (in press) Dutch modality exclusivity norms: Simulating perceptual modality in space. Behavior Research Methods. Full text (pdf)

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