Pupillary Responses to Words That Convey a Sense of Brightness or Darkness


  • Mathôt Sebastiaan
  • Grainger Jonathan
  • Strijkers Kristof


  • Open materials
  • Open data
  • Pupillary light response
  • Embodied cognition
  • Pupillometry
  • Language comprehension

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Theories about embodiment of language hold that when you process a word’s meaning, you automatically simulate associated sensory input (e.g., perception of brightness when you process lamp) and prepare associated actions (e.g., finger movements when you process typing). To test this latter prediction, we measured pupillary responses to single words that conveyed a sense of brightness (e.g., day) or darkness (e.g., night) or were neutral (e.g., house). We found that pupils were largest for words conveying darkness, of intermediate size for neutral words, and smallest for words conveying brightness. This pattern was found for both visually presented and spoken words, which suggests that it was due to the words’ meanings, rather than to visual or auditory properties of the stimuli. Our findings suggest that word meaning is sufficient to trigger a pupillary response, even when this response is not imposed by the experimental task, and even when this response is beyond voluntary control.

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