And finally, flying pigs teaches us that when you engage your visual system to understand language, you do so creatively and constructively. You can take previously experienced percepts (such as what pigs look like) and actions (such as flying) and form new combinations out of them. What flying pigs means depends on merging together independent experiences, because you have probably never experienced anything in the real world that corresponds to flying pigs (unless you spent a lot of time at Pink Floyd concerts in the 1970s). That makes flying pigs an extreme case, but even when language refers to a corresponding real-world entity—even in mundane cases—you still have to build up a simulation creatively.
Consider the totally boring expression yellow trucker hat. Now, surely there exist yellow trucker hats in the world. You have probably seen one, whether or not you were so moved by the experience as to remember it. But unless you have a specific stored representation of a particular yellow trucker hat, the mental images that you evoke to interpret this string of ordinary words have to be fabricated on the spot. And to do this, you combine your mental representation of trucker hat with the relevant visual effects of the word yellow. When words are combined—whether or not the things they refer to exist in the real world—language users make mental marriages of their corresponding mental representations.
The next step is to put the idea of embodied simulation under a microscope and really put it to the test. But how? The currency of science is observable, replicable observations that confirm or disconfirm predictions, but, as I noted earlier, meaning doesn’t lend itself willingly to this kind of approach because it’s quite hard to observe. So, what to do? Facing this quandary as you are, you’re in pretty much the same place where the field of cognitive science was in about the year 2000. There was this exciting, potentially groundbreaking idea about simulation and meaning, and yet we had no idea how to test it.
And that’s when the ground shifted. Right about at the same time, a handful of trailblazing scientists started to develop experimental tools to investigate the embodied simulation hypothesis empirically. They flashed pictures in front of people’s faces, they made them grab onto exotically shaped handles, they slid them into fMRI scanners, and they used high-speed cameras to track their eyes. Some of these approaches failed completely. But the ones that worked rocketed meaning onto the front page of cognitive science. And they provided us with instruments that now allow us to scrutinize humans in the act of making meaning.