Contextual processing of abstract concepts reveals neural representations of nonlinguistic semantic content

Christine D. Wilson-Mendenhall, W. Kyle Simmons, Alex Martin, Lawrence W. Barsalou

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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Concepts develop for many aspects of experience, including abstract internal states and abstract social activities that do not refer to concrete entities in the world. The current study assessed the hypothesis that, like concrete concepts, distributed neural patterns of relevant nonlinguistic semantic content represent the meanings of abstract concepts. In a novel neuroimaging paradigm, participants processed two abstract concepts (convince, arithmetic) and two concrete concepts (rolling, red) deeply and repeatedly during a concept-scene matching task that grounded each concept in typical contexts. Using a catch trial design, neural activity associated with each concept word was separated from neural activity associated with subsequent visual scenes to assess activations underlying the detailed semantics of each concept. We predicted that brain regions underlying mentalizing and social cognition (e.g., medial prefrontal cortex, superior temporal sulcus) would become active to represent semantic content central to convince, whereas brain regions underlying numerical cognition (e.g., bilateral intraparietal sulcus) would become active to represent semantic content central to arithmetic. The results supported these predictions, suggesting that the meanings of abstract concepts arise from distributed neural systems that represent concept-specific content.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)920-935
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes


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