Emotion in stories: Facial EMG evidence for both mental simulation and moral evaluation

B. 't Hart, M.E. Struiksma, A. van Boxtel, J.J.A. van Berkum

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Facial electromyography research shows that corrugator supercilii (“frowning muscle”) activity tracks the emotional valence of linguistic stimuli. Grounded or embodied accounts of language processing take such activity to reflect the simulation or “reenactment” of emotion, as part of the retrieval of word meaning (e.g., of “furious”) and/or of building a situation model (e.g., for “Mark is furious”). However, the same muscle also expresses our primary emotional evaluation of things we encounter. Language-driven affective simulation can easily be at odds with the reader's affective evaluation of what language describes (e.g., when we like Mark being furious). To examine what happens in such cases, we independently manipulated simulation valence and moral evaluative valence in short narratives. Participants first read about characters behaving in a morally laudable or objectionable fashion: this immediately led to corrugator activity reflecting positive or negative affect. Next, and critically, a positive or negative event befell these same characters. Here, the corrugator response did not track the valence of the event, but reflected both simulation and moral evaluation. This highlights the importance of unpacking coarse notions of affective meaning in language processing research into components that reflect simulation and evaluation. Our results also call for a re-evaluation of the interpretation of corrugator EMG, as well as other affect-related facial muscles and other peripheral physiological measures, as unequivocal indicators of simulation. Research should explore how such measures behave in richer and more ecologically valid language processing, such as narrative; refining our understanding of simulation within a framework of grounded language comprehension.
Original languageEnglish
Article number613
Number of pages13
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • embodiment and grounded cognition
  • emotion
  • evaluation
  • facial EMG
  • language comprehension
  • language processing
  • narrative comprehension


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