Naming a Lego world. The role of language in the acquisition of abstract concepts.
ABSTRACT: While embodied approaches of cognition have proved to be successful in explaining concrete concepts and words, they have more difficulties in accounting for abstract concepts and words, and several proposals have been put forward. This work aims to test the Words As Tools proposal, according to which both abstract and concrete concepts are grounded in perception, action and emotional systems, but linguistic information is more important for abstract than for concrete concept representation, due to the different ways they are acquired: while for the acquisition of the latter linguistic information might play a role, for the acquisition of the former it is instead crucial. We investigated the acquisition of concrete and abstract concepts and words, and verified its impact on conceptual representation. In Experiment 1, participants explored and categorized novel concrete and abstract entities, and were taught a novel label for each category. Later they performed a categorical recognition task and an image-word matching task to verify a) whether and how the introduction of language changed the previously formed categories, b) whether language had a major weight for abstract than for concrete words representation, and c) whether this difference had consequences on bodily responses. The results confirm that, even though both concrete and abstract concepts are grounded, language facilitates the acquisition of the latter and plays a major role in their representation, resulting in faster responses with the mouth, typically associated with language production. Experiment 2 was a rating test aiming to verify whether the findings of Experiment 1 were simply due to heterogeneity, i.e. to the fact that the members of abstract categories were more heterogeneous than those of concrete categories. The results confirmed the effectiveness of our operationalization, showing that abstract concepts are more associated with the mouth and concrete ones with the hand, independently from heterogeneity.
Project description:One of the most important challenges for embodied and grounded theories of cognition concerns the representation of abstract concepts, such as "freedom." Many embodied theories of abstract concepts have been proposed. Some proposals stress the similarities between concrete and abstract concepts showing that they are both grounded in perception and action system while other emphasize their difference favoring a multiple representation view. An influential view proposes that abstract concepts are mapped to concrete ones through metaphors. Furthermore, some theories underline the fact that abstract concepts are grounded in specific contents, as situations, introspective states, emotions. These approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, since it is possible that they can account for different subsets of abstract concepts and words. One novel and fruitful way to understand the way in which abstract concepts are represented is to analyze how sign languages encode concepts into signs. In the present paper we will discuss these theoretical issues mostly relying on examples taken from Italian Sign Language (LIS, Lingua dei Segni Italiana), the visual-gestural language used within the Italian Deaf community. We will verify whether and to what extent LIS signs provide evidence favoring the different theories of abstract concepts. In analyzing signs we will distinguish between direct forms of involvement of the body and forms in which concepts are grounded differently, for example relying on linguistic experience. In dealing with the LIS evidence, we will consider the possibility that different abstract concepts are represented using different levels of embodiment. The collected evidence will help us to discuss whether a unitary embodied theory of abstract concepts is possible or whether the different theoretical proposals can account for different aspects of their representation.
Project description:According to embodied and grounded theories, concepts are grounded in sensorimotor systems. The majority of evidence supporting these views concerns concepts referring to objects or actions, while evidence on abstract concepts is more scarce. Explaining how abstract concepts such as "freedom" are represented would thus be pivotal for grounded theories. According to some recent proposals, abstract concepts are grounded in both sensorimotor and linguistic experience, thus they activate the mouth motor system more than concrete concepts. Two experiments are reported, aimed at verifying whether abstract, concrete and emotional words activate the mouth and the hand effectors. In both experiments participants performed first a lexical decision, then a recognition task. In Experiment 1 participants responded by pressing a button either with the mouth or with the hand, in Experiment 2 responses were given with the foot, while a button held either in the mouth or in the hand was used to respond to catch-trials. Abstract words were slower to process in both tasks (concreteness effect). Across the tasks and experiments, emotional concepts had instead a fluctuating pattern, different from those of both concrete and abstract concepts, suggesting that they cannot be considered as a subset of abstract concepts. The interaction between type of concept (abstract, concrete and emotional) and effector (mouth, hand) was not significant in the lexical decision task, likely because it emerged only with tasks implying a deeper processing level. It reached significance, instead, in the recognition tasks. In both experiments abstract concepts were facilitated in the mouth condition compared to the hand condition, supporting our main prediction. Emotional concepts instead had a more variable pattern. Overall, our findings indicate that various kinds of concepts differently activate the mouth and hand effectors, but they also suggest that concepts activate effectors in a flexible and task-dependent way.
Project description:Recent theories propose that abstract concepts, compared to concrete ones, might activate to a larger extent interoceptive, social and linguistic experiences. At the same time, recent research has underlined the importance of investigating how different sub-kinds of abstract concepts are represented. We report a pre-registered experiment, preceded by a pilot study, in which we asked participants to evaluate the difficulty of 3 kinds of concrete concepts (natural objects, tools, and food concepts) and abstract concepts (Philosophical and Spiritual concepts, PS, Physical Space Time and Quantity concepts, PSTQ, and Emotional, Mental State and Social concepts, EMSS). While rating the words, participants were assigned to different conditions designed to interfere with conceptual processing: they were required to squeeze a ball (hand motor system activation), to chew gum (mouth motor system activation), to self-estimate their heartbeats (interoception), and to perform a motor articulatory task (inner speech involvement). In a control condition they simply rated the difficulty of words. A possible interference should result in the increase of the difficulty ratings. Bayesian analyses reveal that, compared to concrete ones, abstract concepts are more grounded in interoceptive experience and concrete concepts less in linguistic experience (mouth motor system involvement), and that the experience on which different kinds of abstract and concrete concepts differs widely. For example, within abstract concepts interoception plays a major role for EMSS and PS concepts, while the ball squeezing condition interferes more for PSTQ concepts, confirming that PSTQ are the most concrete among abstract concepts, and tap into sensorimotor manual experience. Implications of the results for current theories of conceptual representation are discussed.
Project description:This study explores the impact of the extensive use of an oral device since infancy (pacifier) on the acquisition of concrete, abstract, and emotional concepts. While recent evidence showed a negative relation between pacifier use and children's emotional competence (Niedenthal et al., 2012), the possible interaction between use of pacifier and processing of emotional and abstract language has not been investigated. According to recent theories, while all concepts are grounded in sensorimotor experience, abstract concepts activate linguistic and social information more than concrete ones. Specifically, the Words As Social Tools (WAT) proposal predicts that the simulation of their meaning leads to an activation of the mouth (Borghi and Binkofski, 2014; Borghi and Zarcone, 2016). Since the pacifier affects facial mimicry forcing mouth muscles into a static position, we hypothesize its possible interference on acquisition/consolidation of abstract emotional and abstract not-emotional concepts, which are mainly conveyed during social and linguistic interactions, than of concrete concepts. Fifty-nine first grade children, with a history of different frequency of pacifier use, provided oral definitions of the meaning of abstract not-emotional, abstract emotional, and concrete words. Main effect of concept type emerged, with higher accuracy in defining concrete and abstract emotional concepts with respect to abstract not-emotional concepts, independently from pacifier use. Accuracy in definitions was not influenced by the use of pacifier, but correspondence and hierarchical clustering analyses suggest that the use of pacifier differently modulates the conceptual relations elicited by abstract emotional and abstract not-emotional. While the majority of the children produced a similar pattern of conceptual relations, analyses on the few (6) children who overused the pacifier (for more than 3 years) showed that they tend to distinguish less clearly between concrete and abstract emotional concepts and between concrete and abstract not-emotional concepts than children who did not use it (5) or used it for short (17). As to the conceptual relations they produced, children who overused the pacifier tended to refer less to their experience and to social and emotional situations, use more exemplifications and functional relations, and less free associations.
Project description:Some explanations of abstract word learning suggest that these words are learnt primarily from the linguistic input, using statistical co-occurrences of words in language, whereas concrete words can also rely on non-linguistic, experiential information. According to this hypothesis, we expect that, if the learner is not able to fully exploit the information in the linguistic input, abstract words should be affected more than concrete ones. Embodied approaches instead argue that both abstract and concrete words can rely on experiential information and, therefore, there might not be any linguistic primacy. Here, we test the role of linguistic input in the development of abstract knowledge with children with developmental language disorder (DLD) and typically developing children aged 8-13. We show that DLD children, who by definition have impoverished language, do not show a disproportionate impairment for abstract words in lexical decision and definition tasks. These results indicate that linguistic information does not have a primary role in the learning of abstract concepts and words; rather, it would play a significant role in semantic development across all domains of knowledge.This article is part of the theme issue 'Varieties of abstract concepts: development, use and representation in the brain'.
Project description:words refer to concepts that cannot be directly experienced through our senses (e.g. truth, morality). How we ground the meanings of abstract words is one of the deepest problems in cognitive science today. We investigated this question in an experiment in which 62 participants were asked to communicate the meanings of words (20 abstract nouns, e.g. impulse; 10 concrete nouns, e.g. insect) to a partner without using the words themselves (the taboo task). We analysed the speech and associated gestures that participants used to communicate the meaning of each word in the taboo task. Analysis of verbal and gestural data yielded a number of insights. When communicating about the meanings of abstract words, participants' speech referenced more people and introspections. In contrast, the meanings of concrete words were communicated by referencing more objects and entities. Gesture results showed that when participants spoke about abstract word meanings their speech was accompanied by more metaphorical and beat gestures, and speech about concrete word meanings was accompanied by more iconic gestures. Taken together, the results suggest that abstract meanings are best captured by a model that allows dynamic access to multiple representation systems.This article is part of the theme issue 'Varieties of abstract concepts: development, use and representation in the brain'.
Project description:The problem of representation of abstract concepts, such as 'freedom' and 'justice', has become particularly crucial in recent years, owing to the increased success of embodied and grounded views of cognition. We will present a novel view on abstract concepts and abstract words. Since abstract concepts do not have single objects as referents, children and adults might rely more on input from others to learn them; we, therefore, suggest that linguistic and social experience play an important role for abstract concepts. We will discuss evidence obtained in our and other laboratories showing that processing of abstract concepts evokes linguistic interaction and social experiences, leading to the activation of the mouth motor system. We will discuss the possible mechanisms that underlie this activation. Mouth motor system activation can be due to re-enactment of the experience of conceptual acquisition, which occurred through the mediation of language. Alternatively, it could be due to the re-explanation of the word meaning, possibly through inner speech. Finally, it can be due to a metacognitive process revealing low confidence in the meaning of our concepts. This process induces in us the need to rely on others to ask/negotiate conceptual meaning. We conclude that with abstract concepts language works as a social tool: it extends our thinking abilities and pushes us to rely on others to integrate our knowledge.This article is part of the theme issue 'Varieties of abstract concepts: development, use, and representation in the brain'.
Project description:Much is known about the acquisition of phonological competence and lexical categories, but there has been substantially less research into word meaning development. In an attempt to contribute to this debate, a group of 24 children aged 4-11 were asked to define a set of words, as were a group of 12 adult controls. The stimuli included both concrete and abstract words, in particular words exhibiting a rare form of polysemy known as copredication, which permits the simultaneous attribution of concrete and abstract senses to a single nominal, creating an 'impossible' entity. The results were used to track the developmental trajectory of copredication, previously unexplored in the language acquisition literature.
Project description:Conceptual representations are perceptually grounded, but when investigating which perceptual modalities are involved, researchers have typically restricted their consideration to vision, touch, hearing, taste and smell. However, there is another major modality of perceptual information that is distinct from these traditional five senses; that is, interoception, or sensations inside the body. In this paper, we use megastudy data (modality-specific ratings of perceptual strength for over 32 000 words) to explore how interoceptive information contributes to the perceptual grounding of abstract and concrete concepts. We report how interoceptive strength captures a distinct form of perceptual experience across the abstract-concrete spectrum, but is markedly more important to abstract concepts (e.g. hungry, serenity) than to concrete concepts (e.g. capacity, rainy). In particular, interoception dominates emotion concepts, especially negative emotions relating to fear and sadness, moreso than other concepts of equivalent abstractness and valence. Finally, we examine whether interoceptive strength represents valuable information in conceptual content by investigating its role in concreteness effects in word recognition, and find that it enhances semantic facilitation over and above the traditional five sensory modalities. Overall, these findings suggest that interoception has comparable status to other modalities in contributing to the perceptual grounding of abstract and concrete concepts.This article is part of the theme issue 'Varieties of abstract concepts: development, use and representation in the brain'.
Project description:The neural principles behind semantic category representation are still under debate. Dominant theories mostly focus on distinguishing concrete from abstract concepts but, in such theories, divisions into categories of concrete concepts are more developed than for their abstract counterparts. An encompassing theory on semantic category representation could be within reach when charting the semantic attributes that are capable of describing both concept types. A good candidate are the three semantic dimensions defined by Osgood (potency, valence, arousal). However, to show to what extent they affect semantic processing, specific neuroimaging tools are required. Electroencephalography (EEG) is on par with the temporal resolution of cognitive behavior and source reconstruction. Using high-density set-ups, it is able to yield a spatial resolution in the scale of millimeters, sufficient to identify anatomical brain parcellations that could differentially contribute to semantic category representation. Cognitive neuroscientists traditionally focus on scalp domain analysis and turn to source reconstruction when an effect in the scalp domain has been detected. Traditional methods will potentially miss out on the fine-grained effects of semantic features as they are possibly obscured by the mixing of source activity due to volume conduction. For this reason, we have developed a mass-univariate analysis in the source domain using a mixed linear effect model. Our analyses reveal distinct networks of sources for different semantic features that are active during different stages of lexico-semantic processing of single words. With our method we identified differences in the spatio-temporal activation patterns of abstract and concrete words, high and low potency words, high and low valence words, and high and low arousal words, and in this way shed light on how word categories are represented in the brain.