Activity in frontocentral motor regions is routinely reported when individuals process action words and is often interpreted as the implicit simulation of the word content. We hypothesized that these neural responses are not invariant components of action word processing but are modulated by the context in which they are evoked. Using fMRI, we assessed the relative weight of stimulus features (i.e., the intrinsic semantics of words) and contextual factors, in eliciting word-related sensorimotor activity. Participants silently read action-related and state verbs after performing a mental rotation task engaging either a motor strategy (i.e., referring visual stimuli to their own bodily movements) or a visuospatial strategy. The mental rotation tasks were used to induce, respectively, a motor and a nonmotor “cognitive context” into the following silent reading. Irrespective of the verb category, reading in the motor context, compared with reading in the nonmotor context, increased the activity in the left primary motor cortex, the bilateral premotor cortex, and the right somatosensory cortex. Thus, the cognitive context induced by the preceding motor strategy-based mental rotation modulated word-related sensorimotor responses, possibly reflecting the strategy of referring a word meaning to one's own bodily activity. This pattern, common to action and state verbs, suggests that the context in which words are encountered prevails over the intrinsic semantics of the stimuli in mediating the recruitment of sensorimotor regions.

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