Word meaning with and without consciousness: Insights from metaphorical priming


Cognitive Science


November, 2017


Bottini, R., Casasanto, D., Nadalini, A., and Crepaldi, D.

What is the role of consciousness in computing word meaning? Unconscious priming experiments show that words can prime other words with related meanings (cat-dog), and these priming effects are assumed to reflect the activation of conceptual knowledge in semantic memory. Alternatively, however, unconscious priming effects could reflect predictive relationships between wordforms, since words that are semantically related are also related in language use (i.e., we learn to use a word in some linguistic contexts but not others). Therefore, unconscious “semantic” priming effects could actually be explained by wordform-wordform relationships at the lexical level, without necessarily invoking the activation of representations at the conceptual level. To distinguish wordform-based and concept-based accounts of priming we conducted an experiment in which temporal words (e.g., earlier, later) were preceded by spatial words that were processed either consciously or unconsciously. Time is typically conceptualized as a spatial continuum extending along either the sagittal (front-back) or the lateral (left-right) axis, but only the sagittal space-time mapping is metaphorically encoded in language (e.g. the future is ahead, not to the right). Results showed that temporal words were primed both by sagittal words (back, front) and lateral words (left, right) when primes were perceived consciously, as predicted by both wordform-based and concept-based accounts. Yet, only sagittal words produced an unconscious priming effect, as predicted by the wordform-based account. Unconscious word processing appears to be limited to relationships between words’forms, and consciousness may be needed to activate words’conceptual referents.