Observing functional actions affects semantic processing of tools: evidence of a motor-to-semantic priming

Francesco De Bellis, Antonia Ferrara, Domenico Errico, Francesco Panico, Laura Sagliano, Massimiliano Conson, Luigi Trojano

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent evidence shows that activation of motor information can favor identification of related tools, thus suggesting a strict link between motor and conceptual knowledge in cognitive representation of tools. However, the involvement of motor information in further semantic processing has not been elucidated. In three experiments, we aimed to ascertain whether motor information provided by observation of actions could affect processing of conceptual knowledge about tools. In Experiment 1, healthy participants judged whether pairs of tools evoking different functional handgrips had the same function. In Experiment 2 participants judged whether tools were paired with appropriate recipients. Finally, in Experiment 3 we again required functional judgments as in Experiment 1, but also included in the set of stimuli pairs of objects having different function and similar functional handgrips. In all experiments, pictures displaying either functional grasping (aimed to use tools) or structural grasping (just aimed to move tools independently from their use) were presented before each stimulus pair. The results demonstrated that, in comparison with structural grasping, observing functional grasping facilitates judgments about tools’ function when objects did not imply the same functional manipulation (Experiment 1), whereas worsened such judgments when objects shared functional grasp (Experiment 3). Instead, action observation did not affect judgments concerning tool–recipient associations (Experiment 2). Our findings support a task-dependent influence of motor information on high-order conceptual tasks and provide further insights into how motor and conceptual processing about tools can interact.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2016


  • Action observation
  • Functional actions
  • Motor knowledge
  • Semantic judgment
  • Structural actions
  • Tool objects

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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