Instrumental verbs are those which describe actions performed with the help of tools, e.g. fishing (using a fishing rod), cutting (using a knife or an axe), etc. A study conducted a few years ago by researchers of the HSE Neurolinguistics Laboratory (Malyutina S., Iskra E., Sevan D., & Dragoy O. (2014), The Effects of Instrumentality and Name Relation on Action Naming in Russian Speakers with Aphasia, Aphasiology, 28(10), 1178-1197), found that individuals with aphasia (speech impairment often caused by a stroke or head injury) showed better performance in tasks which involved retrieval of instrumental versus non-instrumental verbs (i.e. denoting actions performed without using a tool, e.g. swimming).
According to the researchers, this effect may be due to richer semantic representation of instrumental verbs which always imply an additional component, i.e. a tool, making it easier for the brain to process.
"We asked ourselves what neural mechanisms might be involved in the processing of instrumental versus non-instrumental verbs and decided to study the effect of instrumentality on brain activation in healthy subjects without speech disorders," says Olga Dragoy, Head of the Neurolinguistics Laboratory.
The study, using the German language, was conducted in collaboration with the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, Germany. The subjects were asked to match verbs, both instrumental and non-instrumental, with one of the two nouns – e.g. to choose which of the nouns, bread or blood was a better match to the verb cut , while the researchers performed functional neuroimaging.
The study's findings suggest that compared to instrumental verbs, processing non-instrumental verbs requires more extensive neural network activation and involves both the frontal and temporal lobes of the left hemisphere, areas traditionally associated with language and usually damaged in patients with aphasia. In aphasia, the damaged brain's limited ability for extensive neural activation may be the reason why such patients have problems with processing non-instrumental verbs, such as swimming , but find it much easier to deal with instrumental verbs, such as fishing .