Alongside language and bipedal locomotion, tool use is a characterizing activity of human beings. Current theories in the field embrace two contrasting approaches: “manipulation-based” theories, which are anchored in the embodied-cognition view, explain tool use as deriving from past sensorimotor experiences, whereas “reasoning-based” theories suggest that people reason about object properties to solve everyday-life problems. Here, we present results from two eye-tracking experiments in which we manipulated the visuo-perceptual context (thematically consistent vs. inconsistent object-tool pairs) and the goal of the task (free observation or looking to recognise). We found that participants exhibited reversed tools’ visual-exploration patterns, focusing on the tool’s manipulation area under thematically consistent conditions and on its functional area under thematically inconsistent conditions. Crucially, looking at the tools with the aim of recognising them produced longer fixations on the tools’ functional areas irrespective of thematic consistency. In addition, tools (but not objects) were recognised faster in the thematically consistent conditions. These results strongly support reasoning-based theories of tool use, as they indicate that people primarily process semantic rather than sensorimotor information to interact with the environment in an agent’s consistent-with-goal way. Such a pre-eminence of semantic processing challenges the mainstream embodied-cognition view of human tool use.
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