Grasping the grounded nature of mental simulation

“Mental simulation”—interacting mentally with an object—is an important part of our daily interactions.  We review literature that provides evidence that humans mentally simulate automatically in preparation for object interactions.  We also discuss our research showing how simple object orientation can change mental simulation and thus purchase intention.  This review should provide practitioners and curious intellectuals a primer for understanding this fascinating area of human thought.

Our lives are filled with repetitive behavior. Take, for example, your daily dinner routine. You pull out your chair, take a seat in front of your plate, reach for your fork or spoon, and begin to eat. Occasionally you grab for your glass, drink from it, and place it back on the table. Even those of us who may eat at a different restaurant every night still proceed through the same set of behaviors. However, you don’t consciously think about these behaviors, such as reaching for your fork and then chewing your bite, nor would you want to. Because your cognitive resources are limited (Miller, 1956), you’d rather devote your mental capital to the conversation you are having with a friend or colleague or family member. Fortunately, your brain has stored these routinized processes and behaviors in memory, and automatically and unconsciously plays them back upon encountering the physical object—or even a representation of the object. This play back of processes is what Barsalou (2008) refers to as mental simulation within a grounded cognition framework.

The theory of grounded cognition proposes that our thoughts are derived from our bodily states, our environment, and our actions, as well as from mental simulations (Barsalou, 2008). In this article, we focus exclusively on mental simulation. Although mental simulation has only recently been formally proposed as a fundamental aspect of how we think, researchers have studied it for several decades. Such studies have demonstrated the existence of mental simulation from an experimental perspective; more recently, they have also done so using brain-scanning technology.  Finally, researchers, including us, have begun to explore how mental simulation affects our attitudes and behaviors.  We address each of these three areas in turn.

Experimental evidence of mental simulation

We frequently use our hands to interact with objects, reaching for them, grasping them, and manipulating them. Consequently, one of the more commonly studied forms of simulation is motor simulation, or the simulation of action from a visual cue. Psychologists Tucker and Ellis (1998, 2001, 2004) have been instrumental in providing behavioral support for motor simulation.

Because mental simulation within the grounded cognition framework is defined as an automatic, unconscious process, asking participants about their simulations makes little sense. Researchers therefore have to develop clever ways to show that mental simulation is occurring. In one of their first sets of studies, Tucker and Ellis (1998) had participants view a series of common items (e.g., frying pan, tea kettle, dustpan) and indicate whether they were upright or inverted. Each picture was shown with the handle either on the right or the left, which was irrelevant to the response. By pressing a key with either hand, participants indicated if an object was upright or inverted. The specific actions (right for inverted, left for upright, or vice versa) were randomly assigned to participants. The researchers ultimately found that when the handle orientation matched the correct response (e.g., left-facing upright frying pan paired with a left-key press), reaction time was faster than when the handed orientation did not match the correct response (e.g., left-facing upright frying pan paired with an upright right-key press). This finding suggests the mind is quicker when grip-orientation and response match. The readiness of the participants’ minds was a result of mentally simulating interaction with the object.

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