Abstract

All it takes is a face-to-face conversation in a noisy environment to realize that viewing a speaker's lip movements contributes to speech comprehension. What are the processes underlying the perception and interpretation of visual speech? Brain areas that control speech production are also recruited during lipreading. This finding raises the possibility that lipreading may be supported, at least to some extent, by a covert unconscious imitation of the observed speech movements in the observer's own speech motor system—a motor simulation. However, whether, and if so to what extent, motor simulation contributes to visual speech interpretation remains unclear. In two experiments, we found that several participants with congenital facial paralysis were as good at lipreading as the control population and performed these tasks in a way that is qualitatively similar to the controls despite severely reduced or even completely absent lip motor representations. Although it remains an open question whether this conclusion generalizes to other experimental conditions and to typically developed participants, these findings considerably narrow the space of hypothesis for a role of motor simulation in lipreading. Beyond its theoretical significance in the field of speech perception, this finding also calls for a re-examination of the more general hypothesis that motor simulation underlies action perception and interpretation developed in the frameworks of motor simulation and mirror neuron hypotheses.

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