The evocative power of words: Activation of visual information by verbal and nonverbal means


A major part of learning a language is learning to map spoken words onto objects in the environment. An open question concerns the consequence this learning has for cognition and perception. We show that hearing common words (e.g., dog) activates visual information more than equally informative non-linguistic information (e.g., a dog bark). The main results show that (1) pictures were verified more quickly after hear-ing a word than after hearing a nonverbal sound, even after hundreds of trials of practice. (2) Verbal labels activated vis-ual information more effectively than nonverbal sounds as tested by a simple visual discrimination task that required mi-nimal semantic processing. (3) The advantage of the verbal modality did not arise simply due to greater familiarity of verbal labels: when experience with novel labels and sounds was equated, verbal labels continued to activate the associated visual information more reliably than the equally well-learned nonverbal sounds. These results inform the understanding of how human cognition is shaped by language and hint at ef-fects that different patterns of naming can have on individu-als’ conceptual structure.

Back to Table of Contents