Tech. Science. Culture.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

This Test Proves That Language Forces Your Brain To Create Simulations

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Ever heard of "fictive motion"? It's used in sentences like "The road runs along the coast" or "Bad times are approaching." You may think it's just a pretty turn of phrase, but it's really a way to force your brain into a simulation, and this test proves it.

Fictive motion, attributing motion to objects that can't move, pops up so often that we don't even really notice it. When we read about how a field of flowers "climbs" the slope of a hill, we imagine the climb. Researcher Teenie Matlock managed to prove this when she gave people a quick test. First, she had volunteers read one of two short stories. The first one described a small, round desert, about 30 miles wide, with a road, called Route 49, that began on its north side and ended on its south side. A woman made the short trip across the desert in her car in about 20 minutes, exclaiming at the end about how short the trip was. The other story was identical, except the desert was 400 miles long, and the woman took hours to cross it, lamenting at the end about how long the drive was.

I know. It's a real page-turner. But Matlock wasn't going for a compelling narrative. The entire thing was a set-up to time one reaction. After their exposure to literature, the volunteers were asked to answer whether the statement "Route 49 crosses the desert," was true or not. Those who had read about the long drive took about half a second longer to answer the question than those who had read about the short drive. This was not the case when a different group of volunteers was asked to assess the validity of the statement "Route 49 is in the desert."


Matlock believes that the small hesitation that the large-desert readers had when they assessed question because, in their head, they were traveling along the road as it crossed a large desert. They were simulating the motion of a thing that didn't move — except in figures of speech. So when we use fictional actions, we might be doing more than painting a lovely picture. We might be forcing the people listening us to create simulations in their heads.

And so we are, arguably, wasting their time.

[Via Louder Than Words]