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David Kemmerer, assistant professor of psychological sciences and linguists, talks about how the brain processes prepositions. (60 seconds)
David Kemmerer talks about the implications of new research that shows how the human brain processes prepositions differently. (52 seconds)

Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences
Department of Psychological Sciences
University of Iowa College of Medicine

January 25, 2005

Thinking of prepositions turns brain 'on' in different ways

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Parts of the human brain think about the same word differently, at least when it comes to prepositions, according to new language research in stroke patients conducted by scientists at Purdue University and the University of Iowa.

David Kemmerer
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People who speak English often use the same prepositions, words such as "on," "in," "around" and "through," to indicate time as well as location. For example, compare "I will meet you 'at' the store," to "I will meet you 'at' 3 p.m." These examples show how time may be thought of metaphorically in terms of space.

Just because it's the same word, however, doesn't mean the brain thinks about it the same way, said David Kemmerer, an assistant professor of psychological sciences and linguistics at Purdue's College of Liberal Arts.

"There has been a lot of cognitive neuroscience research about how the brain processes language pertaining to concrete things, such as animals or tools," said Kemmerer, who also is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Iowa's Department of Neurology, where this research was conducted. "This is the first cognitive neuroscience study to investigate brain regions for spatial and temporal relations – those involving time – used in language.

"I was interested in whether these spatial or temporal prepositions can be dissociated in individuals with brain damage. One might think that if a person's knowledge of the word 'at' to describe location is impaired, then his or her ability to use that same preposition to describe time would be disrupted. But we found the words implying time are processed independently."

This research was conducted at the Benton Neuropsychology Laboratory in Iowa's Carver College of Medicine and was funded by the Purdue Research Foundation and the National Institute for Neurological Disease and Stroke. Kemmerer's paper is available online at Neuropsychologia.

"This study has potential implications for neurology," Kemmerer said. "A clinician could use information about how brain injuries in stroke patients affect specific speech components to develop therapies to help their patients."

The four patients in Kemmerer's study were used because of similar brain injuries, such as lesions from stroke, in the perisylvian region, which is responsible for language processing. Kemmerer found the stroke subjects who passed the language tests asking about prepositions relevant to time subsequently failed when these same words reflected spatial meanings. For example, the subjects were asked to choose the correct preposition for scenarios such as, "The baseball is 'on/in/against' the glove." Two subjects did not select "in" as the correct answer. However, they did select "in" as the correct preposition for "It happened 'through/on/in' 1859."

The other two subjects' test performances were the opposite.

Kemmerer's earlier research with Daniel Tranel, professor of neurology at Iowa's Carver College of Medicine, had confirmed that the left inferior prefrontal and left inferior parietal regions of the brain play a crucial role in processing spatial prepositions. The previous research with Tranel was published in October's Cognitive Neuropsychology.

This work, which has explored how different types of words are retrieved by different parts of the brain, is part of a larger-scale investigation being carried out by Tranel and his colleagues at the University of Iowa.

"For example, we have identified the anterior left temporal lobe as being critical for proper nouns, whereas the left inferior prefrontal/premotor region is important for verbs," Tranel said. "The collaboration between myself, a neuropsychologist, and professor Kemmerer, a neurolinguist, has yielded important breakthroughs in understanding how the brain operates language, due to the unique perspectives that these researchers bring to a common research agenda."

Three of the patients in Kemmerer's recent study also had damage to their brains' left hemispheres, in an area known as the parietal lobe, which houses the supramarginal gyrus. This area is involved in spatial meaning, and it is the part of the brain that guides action. For example, the supramarginal gyrus coordinates how a person moves his or her hand toward a glass of water. Previous research with normal brains identifies this area as important also in the knowledge and meaning of prepositions.

The patients with damage to the supramarginal gyrus did not score high on the tasks that evaluated their knowledge of prepositions that dealt with space. In comparison, the fourth patient, who did not have similar damage to this region of the brain, was able to demonstrate complete knowledge of spatial prepositions.

Kemmerer's next step will be looking at how the brain processes these prepositions in other languages.

"If this is true in English, then what about the 6,000 other known languages in the world? This time-and-space metaphor is used from language to language, but how the metaphor is used does vary," he said.

In English, months of the year are treated as containers. People say "in January" or "in February." Other languages treat months as surfaces. For example, "on January" or "on February." Despite the difference, there is a metaphor at work, Kemmerer said.

"The cross-linguistic ubiquity of the metaphor suggests that people are naturally inclined to conceptualize time in terms of space," he said. "Nevertheless, the neuropsychological data suggest that people don't need to invoke the metaphor every time they use prepositions to talk about time. Just as the word 'breakfast' doesn't require one to think of a morning meal in terms of breaking a fast, so the sentence 'She arrived at 1:30' doesn't require one to think of time as a series of points on a line."

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Sources: David Kemmerer, (765) 494-3826, Kemmerer@purdue.edu

Daniel Tranel, (319) 384-6050, daniel-tranel@uiowa.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


Note to Journalists: An electronic copy of Kemmerer's paper is available by contacting Amy Patterson-Neubert, Purdue News Service, at (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu.


New research by David Kemmerer, an assistant professor of psychological sciences and linguistics at Purdue, shows that parts of the brain think about the same word differently, at least when it comes to prepositions. Kemmerer was interested in whether spatial or temporal prepositions, such as "at the corner" and "at 1:30," can be dissociated in individuals with brain damage from a stroke. Kemmerer found the words implying time are processed independently. (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)

A publication-quality photo is available at https://ftp.purdue.edu/pub/uns/+2005/kemmerer-research.jpg



The spatial and temporal meanings of English prepositions can be independently impaired

David Kemmerer

English uses the same prepositions to describe both spatial and temporal relationships (e.g., at the corner, at 1:30), and other languages worldwide exhibit similar patterns. These space-time parallelisms have been explained by the Metaphoric Mapping Theory, which maintains that humans have a cognitive predisposition to structure temporal concepts in terms of spatial schemas through the application of a TIME IS SPACE metaphor. Evidence comes from (among other sources) historical investigations showing that languages consistently develop in such a way that expressions that originally have only spatial meanings are generally extended to take on analogous temporal meanings. It is not clear, however, if the metaphor activity influences the way that modern adults process prepositional meanings during language use. To explore this question, a series of experiments was conducted with four brain-damaged subjects with left perisylvian lesions. Two subjects exhibited the following disassociation: they failed a test that assesses knowledge of the spatial meanings of prepositions, but passed a test that assesses knowledge of the corresponding temporal meanings of the same prepositions. This result suggests that understanding the temporal meanings of prepositions does not necessarily require establishing structural alignments with their spatial correlates. Two other subjects exhibited the opposite disassociation: They performed better on the spatial test on than on the temporal test. Overall, these findings support the view that although the spatial and temporal meanings of prepositions are historically linked by virtue of the TIME IS SPACE metaphor, they can be (and may normally be) represented and processed independently of each other in the brains of modern adults.


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