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Language Affects Physical and Emotional Response

by Shirley Archer, JD, MA on Oct 26, 2009

Mind-Body-Spirit News

Mindful fitness professionals know the power of effective cuing. Now, more scientific research is exploring the relationship between language and motor recruitment. According to Dutch psychologists Foroni and Semin, authors of a study published in Psychological Science (2009; 20 [8], 974–80), “The communicative potency of language is not merely symbolic, but also somatic.”

In 2000, two studies showed that when you observe a smile, it stimulates a smile response by activating your own facial muscles (Dimberg & Petterson, Psychophysiology, 37, 693–96; Dimberg, Thunberg & Elmehed, Psychological Science, 11, 86–89). Foroni and Semin wanted to investigate whether subliminal verbal stimuli would—like visual stimuli—produce corresponding facial muscle activity. These inquiries are significant for exploring whether language comprehension includes stimulation and recruitment of neural systems used for perception, action and emotion. In other words, is the understanding of language both a mind and a body experience?

The psychologists, from the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands, conducted two experiments to determine whether semantic stimuli would induce recruitment of motor neurons and whether, by inducing motor resonance, subliminal verbal stimuli could influence judgments about how subjects felt. The first study, involving a small number of college students, found that reading action verbs that described emotional responses (e.g., to grin, to laugh, to frown, to cry) activated the corresponding facial muscles. In contrast, reading adjectives did not produce the same effect. The second study, in which 164 students took part, showed that when subjects were subliminally presented with emotion verbs before viewing cartoons, different verbs affected how funny the students found the cartoons. However, if muscle movement was prevented—in other words, subjects were prevented from smiling or frowning—the verbal stimuli did not influence their evaluation.

Study authors noted that this research provided “an important bridge between research on the neurobiological basis of language and related behavioral research.”

To learn more about these studies, go to

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About the Author

Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, was the 2008 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and is IDEA's mind-body-spirit spokesperson. She is a certified yoga and Pilates teacher and an award-winning author based in Los Angeles, California, and Zurich, Switzerland. Two of her books, The Walking Deck and The Strength and Toning Deck, are now featured as iPhone apps. Contact her at