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The embodied nature of medical concepts: image schemas and language for pain


Cognitive linguistics assumes that knowledge is both embodied and situated as far as it is acquired through our bodily interaction with the world in a specific environment (e.g. Barsalou in Lang Cogn Process 18:513–562, 2003; Connell et al. in PLoS One 7:3, 2012). Therefore, embodiment provides an explanation to the mental representation and linguistic expression of concepts. Among the first, we find multimodal conceptual structures, like image schemas, which are schematic representations of embodied experiences resulting from our conceptualization of the surrounding environment (Tercedor Sánchez et al. in J Spec Transl 18:187–205, 2012). Furthermore, the way we interact with the environment and its objects is dynamic and configures how we refer to concepts both by means of images and lexicalizations. In this article, we investigate how image schemas underlie verbal and visual representations. They both evoke concepts based on exteroception, interoception and proprioception which can be lexicalized through language. More specifically, we study (1) a multimodal corpus of medical texts to examine how image schemas lexicalize in the language of medicine to represent specialized concepts and (2) medical pictures to explore the depiction of image-schematic concepts, in order to account for the verbal and visual representation of embodied concepts. We explore the concept pain, a sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, using corpus analysis tools (Sketch Engine) to extract information about the lexicalization of underlying image schemas in definitions and defining contexts. Then, we use the image schemas behind medical concepts to consistently select images which depict our experience of pain and the way we understand it. Finally, such lexicalizations and visualizations will help us assess how we refer to pain both verbally and visually.

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  1. In this article capital letters have been used for IMAGE SCHEMAS, small capital letters for concepts and italics for terms.

  2. For an extensive list of image schemas, see Lakoff (1987) and Johnson (1987). For an in-depth discussion on the cognitive and neurobiological grounding of image schemata, see Rohrer (2009: 165–193).

  3. The image-schemas referred to in this article come originally from the work by Johnson (1987) and Lakoff (1987).

  4. Sketch Engine (Kilgarriff et al. 2004) is a corpus online application which enables queries within large corpora of texts and look into the semantic prosody of words by exploring their grammatical and collocational patterns.

  5. VariMed is a terminological database in the field of medicine intended for both researchers and lay people. Its main purposes are research and the popularization of medicine and medical language. It can be accessed at


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This work was carried out while Dr Prieto Velasco was a visiting researcher at the University of Manchester with the support of a research Grant by the Spanish Ministry of Education (CAS12/00005) in the framework of the R&D project VariMed (FFI2011-23120). I would like to express my gratitude to Dr Lynott and the colleagues of the Decision and Cognitive Sciences Research Centre and the Embodied Cognition Laboratory at the University of Manchester for their valuable and constructive suggestions to this research work.

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Correspondence to Juan Antonio Prieto Velasco.

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This article is part of the Special Section on “Embodied Social Cognition,” guest-edited by Fernando Marmolejo Ramos and Amedeo Dangiulli.

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Prieto Velasco, J.A., Tercedor Sánchez, M. The embodied nature of medical concepts: image schemas and language for pain . Cogn Process 15, 283–296 (2014).

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  • Image schemas
  • Embodiment
  • Knowledge visualization
  • Medical concepts