Differing contributions of inferior prefrontal and anterior temporal cortex to concrete and abstract conceptual knowledge.
ABSTRACT: Semantic cognition is underpinned by regions involved in representing conceptual knowledge and executive control areas that provide regulation of this information according to current task requirements. Using distortion-corrected fMRI, we investigated the contributions of these two systems to abstract and concrete word comprehension. We contrasted semantic decisions made either with coherent contextual support, which encouraged retrieval of a rich conceptual representation, or with irrelevant contextual information, which instead maximised demands on control processes. Inferior prefrontal cortex was activated more when decisions were made in the presence of irrelevant context, suggesting that this region is crucial for the semantic control functions required to select appropriate aspects of meaning in the face of competing information. It also exhibited greater activation for abstract words, which reflects the fact that abstract words tend to have variable, context-dependent meanings that place higher demands on control processes. In contrast, anterior temporal regions (ATL) were most active when decisions were made with the benefit of a coherent context, suggesting a representational role. There was a graded shift in concreteness effects in this region, with dorsolateral areas particularly active for abstract words and ventromedial areas preferentially activated by concrete words. This supports the idea that concrete concepts are closely associated with visual experience and abstract concepts with auditory-verbal information; and that sub-regions of the ATL display graded specialisation for these two types of knowledge. Between these two extremes, we identified significant activations for both word types in ventrolateral ATL. This area is known to be involved in representing knowledge for concrete concepts; here we established that it is also activated by abstract concepts. These results converge with data from rTMS and neuropsychological investigations in demonstrating that representational content and task demands influence recruitment of different areas in the semantic network.
Project description:Size is an important visuo-spatial characteristic of the physical world. In language processing, previous research has demonstrated a processing advantage for words denoting semantically "big" (e.g., jungle) versus "small" (e.g., needle) concrete objects. We investigated whether semantic size plays a role in the recognition of words expressing abstract concepts (e.g., truth). Semantically "big" and "small" concrete and abstract words were presented in a lexical decision task. Responses to "big" words, regardless of their concreteness, were faster than those to "small" words. Critically, we explored the relationship between semantic size and affective characteristics of words as well as their influence on lexical access. Although a word's semantic size was correlated with its emotional arousal, the temporal locus of arousal effects may depend on the level of concreteness. That is, arousal seemed to have an earlier (lexical) effect on abstract words, but a later (post-lexical) effect on concrete words. Our findings provide novel insights into the semantic representations of size in abstract concepts and highlight that affective attributes of words may not always index lexical access.
Project description:The vast majority of brain-injured patients with semantic impairment have better comprehension of concrete than abstract words. In contrast, several patients with semantic dementia (SD), who show circumscribed atrophy of the anterior temporal lobes bilaterally, have been reported to show reverse imageability effects, that is, relative preservation of abstract knowledge. Although these reports largely concern individual patients, some researchers have recently proposed that superior comprehension of abstract concepts is a characteristic feature of SD. This would imply that the anterior temporal lobes are particularly crucial for processing sensory aspects of semantic knowledge, which are associated with concrete not abstract concepts. However, functional neuroimaging studies of healthy participants do not unequivocally predict reverse imageability effects in SD because the temporal poles sometimes show greater activation for more abstract concepts. The authors examined a case-series of 11 SD patients on a synonym judgment test that orthogonally varied the frequency and imageability of the items. All patients had higher success rates for more imageable as well as more frequent words, suggesting that (1) the anterior temporal lobes underpin semantic knowledge for both concrete and abstract concepts, (2) more imageable items--perhaps because of their richer multimodal representations--are typically more robust in the face of global semantic degradation and (3) reverse imageability effects are not a characteristic feature of SD.
Project description:Neuroimaging and neuropsychological experiments suggest that modality-preferential cortices, including motor- and somatosensory areas, contribute to the semantic processing of action related concrete words. Still, a possible role of sensorimotor areas in processing abstract meaning remains under debate. Recent fMRI studies indicate an involvement of the left sensorimotor cortex in the processing of abstract-emotional words (e.g., "love") which resembles activation patterns seen for action words. But are the activated areas indeed necessary for processing action-related and abstract words? The current study now investigates word processing in two patients suffering from focal brain lesion in the left frontocentral motor system. A speeded Lexical Decision Task on meticulously matched word groups showed that the recognition of nouns from different semantic categories - related to food, animals, tools, and abstract-emotional concepts - was differentially affected. Whereas patient HS with a lesion in dorsolateral central sensorimotor systems next to the hand area showed a category-specific deficit in recognizing tool words, patient CA suffering from lesion centered in the left supplementary motor area was primarily impaired in abstract-emotional word processing. These results point to a causal role of the motor cortex in the semantic processing of both action-related object concepts and abstract-emotional concepts and therefore suggest that the motor areas previously found active in action-related and abstract word processing can serve a meaning-specific necessary role in word recognition. The category-specific nature of the observed dissociations is difficult to reconcile with the idea that sensorimotor systems are somehow peripheral or 'epiphenomenal' to meaning and concept processing. Rather, our results are consistent with the claim that cognition is grounded in action and perception and based on distributed action perception circuits reaching into modality-preferential cortex.
Project description:Studies show that semantic effects may be task-specific, and thus, that semantic representations are flexible and dynamic. Such findings are critical to the development of a comprehensive theory of semantic processing in visual word recognition, which should arguably account for how semantic effects may vary by task. It has been suggested that semantic effects are more directly examined using tasks that explicitly require meaning processing relative to those for which meaning processing is not necessary (e.g., lexical decision task). The purpose of the present study was to chart the processing of concrete versus abstract words in the context of a global co-occurrence variable, semantic neighborhood density (SND), by comparing word recognition response times (RTs) across four tasks varying in explicit semantic demands: standard lexical decision task (with non-pronounceable non-words), go/no-go lexical decision task (with pronounceable non-words), progressive demasking task, and sentence relatedness task. The same experimental stimulus set was used across experiments and consisted of 44 concrete and 44 abstract words, with half of these being low SND, and half being high SND. In this way, concreteness and SND were manipulated in a factorial design using a number of visual word recognition tasks. A consistent RT pattern emerged across tasks, in which SND effects were found for abstract (but not necessarily concrete) words. Ultimately, these findings highlight the importance of studying interactive effects in word recognition, and suggest that linguistic associative information is particularly important for abstract words.
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: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.
Project description:Previously, multi-voxel pattern analysis has been used to decode words referring to concrete object categories. In this study we investigated if single-trial-based brain activity was sufficient to distinguish abstract (e.g., mercy) versus concrete (e.g., barn) concept representations. Multiple neuroimaging studies have identified differences in the processing of abstract versus concrete concepts based on the averaged activity across time by using univariate methods. In this study we used multi-voxel pattern analysis to decode functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data when participants perform a semantic similarity judgment task on triplets of either abstract or concrete words with similar meanings. Classifiers were trained to identify individual trials as concrete or abstract. Cross-validated accuracies for classifying trials as abstract or concrete were significantly above chance (P < 0.05) for all participants. Discriminating information was distributed in multiple brain regions. Moreover, accuracy of identifying single trial data for any one participant as abstract or concrete was also reliably above chance (P < 0.05) when the classifier was trained solely on data from other participants. These results suggest abstract and concrete concepts differ in representations in terms of neural activity patterns during a short period of time across the whole brain.
Project description:How do we represent information without sensory features? How are abstract concepts like "freedom", devoid of external perceptible referents, represented in the brain? Here, to address the role of sensory information in the neural representation of concepts, we used fMRI to investigate how people born blind process concepts whose referents are imperceptible to them because of their visual nature ("rainbow", "red"). Activity for these concepts was compared to that of sensorially-perceptible referents ("rain"), classical abstract concepts ("justice") and concrete concepts ("cup"), providing a gradient between fully concrete and fully abstract concepts in the blind. We find that anterior temporal lobe (ATL) responses track concept perceptibility and objecthood: preference for imperceptible object concepts was found in dorsal ATL, for abstract (non-object, non-referential) concepts in lateral ATL, and for perceptible concepts in medial ATL. These findings point to a new division-of-labor among aspects of ATL in representing conceptual properties that are abstract in different ways.
Project description:Concrete and abstract words are thought to differ along several psycholinguistic variables, such as frequency and emotional content. Here, we consider another variable, semantic neighborhood density, which has received much less attention, likely because semantic neighborhoods of abstract words are difficult to measure. Using a corpus-based method that creates representations of words that emphasize featural information, the current investigation explores the relationship between neighborhood density and concreteness in a large set of English nouns. Two important observations emerge. First, semantic neighborhood density is higher for concrete than for abstract words, even when other variables are accounted for, especially for smaller neighborhood sizes. Second, the effects of semantic neighborhood density on behavior are different for concrete and abstract words. Lexical decision reaction times are fastest for words with sparse neighborhoods; however, this effect is stronger for concrete words than for abstract words. These results suggest that semantic neighborhood density plays a role in the cognitive and psycholinguistic differences between concrete and abstract words, and should be taken into account in studies involving lexical semantics. Furthermore, the pattern of results with the current feature-based neighborhood measure is very different from that with associatively defined neighborhoods, suggesting that these two methods should be treated as separate measures rather than two interchangeable measures of semantic neighborhoods.
Project description:Schizophrenia symptoms can be conceptualized in terms of a breakdown of a balance between 1) activating, retrieving, and matching stored representations to incoming information (semantic memory-based processing) and 2) fully integrating activated semantic representations with one another and with other types of representations to form a gestalt representation of meaning (semantic integration). Semantic memory-based processes are relatively more dependent on inferior frontal and temporal cortices, whereas particularly demanding integrative processes additionally recruit the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and sometimes parietal cortices. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine whether the modulation of temporal/inferior frontal cortices and the DLPFC can be neuroanatomically dissociated in schizophrenia, as semantic integration demands increase. Integration demands were manipulated by varying the nature (concrete vs. abstract) and the congruity (incongruous vs. congruous) of words within sentences.Sixteen right-handed schizophrenia patients and 16 healthy volunteers, matched on age and parental socioeconomic status, underwent event-related fMRI scanning while they read sentences. Blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) effects were contrasted to words within sentences that were 1) concrete versus abstract and 2) semantically incongruous versus congruous with their preceding contexts.In both contrasts, large networks mediating the activation and retrieval of verbal and imagistic representations were normally modulated in patients. However, unlike control subjects, patients failed to recruit the DLPFC, medial frontal and parietal cortices to incongruous (relative to congruous) sentences, and failed to recruit the DLPFC to concrete (relative to abstract) sentences.As meaning is built from language, schizophrenia patients demonstrate a neuroanatomical dissociation in the modulation of temporal/inferior frontal cortices and the DLPFC.