Pigasus or Superswine ?

Pigasus or Superswine? Body as a Mirroring Tool

By: Mohammad Khari

Both terms are used by Benjamin K. Bergen in his book titled Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. Bergen explains how through embodied simulation – neural firing patterns to give words meaning that are identical to firing we use to do the same actions, also allows us to extract meaning from words or concepts we have never experienced in the real world, like “flying pigs.” He said most people conceive of a flying pig with wings, a “Pigasus,” while a lessor number conceive of it as with a rocket pack: “Superswine.”

"All sorts of things in this world behave like mirrors."

Language itself is a tool the brain creates to help it understand and interact with others, but from the brain’s perspective it is no easy process. To make this tool, the brain must engage in mirroring and embodied simulation.

The discovery of mirror neurons[1] revolutionized the way we thought we learn. Research was initially focused on movement and what happens when an action is observed and even described. “Several studies consistently showed that premotor and parietal areas contain neurons that perceptually respond to visual, auditory and somatosensory inputs” (Gallese, 2016, p.3). However, this response is not always about the physical tasks especially when it comes to elementary tasks: “Many cortical motor neurons do not discharge during the execution of elementary movements, but are active before and during motor acts—movements executed to accomplish a specific motor outcome—such as grasping, tearing, holding or manipulating objects” (Gallese, 2016, p.3). This shows how focusing only on the physical movements has evolved to non-physical mirroring of emotions and abstract ideas in the language.

Gallese also investigated the different factors affecting a movement, factors like the physical properties of an object, the force it exerts, its speed, etc., and concluded “that canonical neurons contribute to a multimodal representation of individual object relations. The visual world is always also the horizon of our potential pragmatic relation to it.” To put it more simply, cognition is affected by the surroundings in which the body is situated; hence embodied cognition.

Understanding the purpose of an action was also studied and it was highlighted that the relational character of behavior as mapped by the cortical motor system enables the appreciation of purpose without relying on explicit propositional inference, which means one can perceive others’ behavior without necessarily observing it first-hand.

[1] MNs are motor neurons that not only respond to the execution of movements and actions, but also during their perception when executed by others (Gallese, 2016, p.6). In other words, when we watch other people doing physical actions, our own motor neurons for doing the same actions fire, as if we were doing the action ourselves; thus, “mirroring.”

A newborn macaque imitates tongue protrusion, Evolution of Neonatal Imitation. Gross L, PLoS Biology, 4(9). 2006, e311 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0040311, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1480917

Later, the whole idea of embodiment was introduced. Our brains mirror things we see in order to understand what they are, and that understanding in the brain (as we suspect is true about language too), is a sequence of sensory and motor neurons firing the same way, but with less amplitude, as if we were doing the action ourselves. The brain simulates how one engages the world around them.

The intentional character, the “aboutness” of the representational format of our mind could be deeply rooted in the intrinsic relational character of the bodily format of bodily action representation. This, in turn, shows how intrinsically intertwined action, perception, and cognition are. To put it simply, the producer and repository of representational content is not the brain per se, but the brainbody system, by means of its interactions with the world of which it is part. (Gallese, 2016, p.5)

The mirror neurons can be activated only after the goal of the observed action has been attributed by other brain structures. By Svetlognev - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43470961

But, how is all this related to language teachers? To answer this question, one needs to ponder upon some key concepts:

Empathy and Intersubjectivity

We have already explored emotions in one of our Think Tanks and it is known that a big part of language learning is dependent on our ability to empathize and socialize. The mirroring function of our brain is not limited to just actions. Gallese (2016) says,

As originally hypothesized by Goldman and Gallese (2000), empirical research demonstrated that the very same nervous structures involved in the subjective experience of emotions and sensations are also active when such emotions and sensations are recognized in others. A multiplicity of “mirroring” mechanisms are present in our brain. It was proposed that these mechanisms, thanks to the “intentional attunement” (see here for more) they generate (Gallese, 2006), allow us to recognize others as our fellows, likely making intersubjective communication and mutual implicit understanding possible. The functional architecture of Embodied Simulation seems to constitute a basic characteristic of our brain, making possible our rich and diversified intersubjective experiences, being at the basis of our capacity to empathize with others. (p.7)

So, is it that easy? That empathy through mirroring enables us to communicate better? Gallese does not think so as there are other factors involved: “Understanding others is a complex enterprise. It requires the representation of others’ proximal and distal goals[2], others’ emotional state, the identification of the beliefs, desires, and intentions specifying the reasons promoting behavior, and the understanding of how those reasons are linked to agents and to their behavior” (Gallese, 2016, p.11).

[2] Proximal goals are objectives that are attainable in a fairly short time. For example, studying a page in the textbook may be considered a proximal goal. Distal goals are objectives that take longer to attain. For example, obtaining a university degree is a distal goal. (source)

Context and Meaning

In close connection with the whole idea of embodiment and how the situated body determines which neurons are fired, language is not perceived and produced in a vacuum. Adding to the complexity of understanding others mentioned above, the role of context is paramount. As Cuccio et al. (2014) put it:

We can think of meaning as the product of a process that entails different mechanisms such as, motor simulation and the integration of co-textual[3] and contextual information. Significantly, this definition of meaning allows us to hypothesize that the mechanism of embodied simulation is part of the process of language comprehension in spite of being an automatic mechanism (in the sense that most of it happens through mirroring) and is sensible to the context, considering context in its broadest sense.

They also hypothesized the following, based on their data and the previous findings:

    • Motor activation during the processing of action-related words is not fixedly associated to the literal meaning of words but depends on the context of utterance.
    • Automatic mechanisms can be sensitive to the context.
    • There is an intimate relationship between hand and language and that language evolved exactly from manual gestures.[4]

[3] Meaning, in this view, is a dynamic process in which both speaker and hearer are actively involved. Until now, when contextual effects have been taken into account, they have been conceived of as something given outside of speakers and that interacts with prefixed meanings in their ‘‘heads’’. Cuccio et al. (2014, p.3)

[4] Previous studies (Fogassi L, Ferrari PF (2007), Rizzolatti G, Craighero L (2004)) have widely shown that Broca’s area, traditionally considered a language area, is also involved in hand motor control. In fact, Broca’s area is both involved in tasks such as complex finger movements, mental imagery of grasping actions, and hand-imitation tasks and in syntactic processing involving reconstruction and interpretation of structured sequences of sentences. No relation like this exists between language areas and areas that control the movements of the foot.

Language and Paradigm

As Gallese (2016) puts it, restoring the relation between body and language, which was undermined for a long time by Cartesian influence, was the direction the Embodied Cognition moved towards.

The relation between body and language was to a great extent underestimated in the last century, thanks, above all, to Chomsky’s major influence. In 1966 Chomsky published a book significantly entitled Cartesian Linguistics. According to Descartes and the Cartesian tradition of which Chomsky too is part, language is the tool through which we manifest an autonomous thought preceding language—a thought structured by logic but certainly not by language, whose role is circumscribed and downsized to that of being a mere label of thoughts. (p. 12)

To add a little more philosophical angle to the discussion, it is good to know what is meant by the Greek notion of paradeigma. By applying the notion of paradigm to the grammatical “rules” of language, Agamben (2008) highlights a central point: the linguistic rule derives from the suspension of the concrete denotative application: “That is to say, in order to be able to serve as an example, the syntagm[5] must be suspended from its normal function, and, nevertheless, it is precisely through this non‐operation and this suspension that it can show how the syntagm works, can allow the formulation of the rule”. According to Agamben, “…in the paradigm, intelligibility does not precede the phenomenon, but is, so to speak, ‘alongside’ it (parà)”. In other words, “…in the paradigm there is not an origin or an arché: every phenomenon is the origin, every image is archaic” (Gallese, 2016, p.13).

[5] A linguistic unit consisting of a set of linguistic forms (phonemes, words, or phrases) that are in a sequential relationship to one another.


Does learning L1 follow the same procedure as L2? Is embodied cognition in effect in L2 as much as it is in L1? Is it the same for both positive and negative feelings? Foroni (2015) examined muscle contraction to answer these questions:

The processing of affirmative emotion sentences in L2 involved the simulation of the state of the affair described by the text; namely, when we read sentences like ‘I am smiling’ in L2 our smiling muscles contract. This result nicely parallels the one obtained for L1 and supports the claim that also the processing of L2 has somatic bases and correlates. However, and differently from L1, when we process negative sentences we do not see any significant relaxation of the relevant muscle. If we take the muscle activation as an index of somatic correlates of language processing, then this supports the interpretation that while emotional language processing in L1 relies on simulations of the meaning described by the utterances, in L2 such simulations are only partial.


Two different views on the core meaning of “mental simulation” are currently being proposed: simulation as resemblance and simulation as reuse. Gallese and Sinigaglia (2011) state,

Humans may process language by recruiting brain areas typically involved in the motor representation of action. Such involvement occurs at three different levels. The first level pertains to phono-articulatory aspects of language. The second level concerns the semantic content of a word, verb, or sentence. The third level concerns syntax. All three levels share the same reuse notion and bodily format characterizing ES. What is distinctive about the MM[6]-driven ES is that people reuse their own mental states or processes in functionally attributing them to others, where the extent and reliability of such “reuse” and functional attribution depend on the simulator’s bodily resources and their being shared with the target’s bodily resources.

[6] Mirror Mechanism

Mental Practice

Language teachers can benefit from Cullen’s (2020) suggestion, explained step by step in the article:

This phenomenon of embodied simulation has been comprehensively demonstrated in mental practice which has become very common in sports, business, and other areas. The diagram below shows the results of an experiment in mental practice. Over a period of 10 days, participants in group A carried out physical practice on a soccer field, trying to improve their ability to score goals. Group C were a control group who were instructed not to do any practice. Group B were the mental practice group who were instructed to simply imagine that they were kicking the ball and scoring goals perfectly. Remarkably, the mental practice group achieve almost as well as the physical practice group, despite the lack of real-world feedback or any apparent practice of motor skills. Clearly, combining physical practice with mental practice will achieve better results.

So, is it worth going through all these challenges to understand how language is learned as a teacher? I would say it is because of these challenges that it is extremely hard to succeed in this profession and when you can help a learner reach the comfort point of using a language, the joy is incomparable. As Gallese (2016, p.12) puts it:

Language allows us, and this is unique among all living species, to fix and relive specific aspects of our bodily experience. Through language we can crystallize and relive fragments of experiences that are not topical, that is to say, are not my experiences now, but become a paradigm, a model, for understanding others and us.

Further Resources:

·  on canonical neurons

·  Gibbs, R. W., Jr, & Perlman, M. (2010). Language understanding is grounded in experiential simulations: a response to Weiskopf. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 41(3), 305–308. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsa.2010.07.004

·  Gallese V. (2007). Before and below ‘theory of mind’: embodied simulation and the neural correlates of social cognition.

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 362(1480), 659–669.

·  Embodied Cognition with Evan Thompson (BS 198)

·  Embodied Cognition with Lawrence Shapiro (BSP 73)

·  BS 200 Embodied Cognition in Education and Learning



Mohammad Khari is an English lecturer at Ozyegin University, Istanbul. He holds a BA in English Literature, an MA in Philosophy of Art, and a CELTA. Mohammad has been reading and researching on the integration of neuroscience into pedagogy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *