How ice hockey players and fans understand hockey talk

Nicole Ong, in collaboration with Scott Sinnett (at the University of Hawaii) and other members of the Motor Skills Lab, recently had an experiment accepted for publication in Acta Psychologica. In this experiment, we wanted to explore how people understand action-related sentences and how this understanding might rely on the motor system (in addition to verbal and visual systems).

When we think about understanding a sentence, we generally think of the process as cognitive. However, there is growing behavioural and neuroscientific evidence to suggest that when we observe or read about the actions of others, our own motor system is activated. This notion of "embodied cognition" has profound implications for psychological research, but also reveals some non-intuitive facts about how people process information in their daily life. For instance, consider how often you learn something from watching someone else? Or by reading about a procedure?

In this particular experiment, we compared motor experts (hockey players), with visual experts (hockey fans), and with novices. The participants were asked to read a sentence and respond with either foot pedals or a computer key if a subsequent picture was, in fact, described by the preceding sentence. These sentences/pictures contained a mix of everyday actions (e.g., opening a refrigerator) and hockey-specific actions (e.g., stopping quickly on skates). For everyday actions, action-matched pictures were identified more quickly than non-matching pictures, suggesting that an image of the action was primed by the sentence for all participants. For the hockey items, however, this priming effect was only found for hockey players and fans, suggesting that these underlying mental images are the product of experience, but this image could be the product of visual experience, motor experience, or both.