From #symbodiment to STEM: Debates about the nature of meaning and representations

How are the meanings of words, events and objects represented and organized in the brain?

When we think of a dog, what representation are we invoking? Is there such thing as an abstract dogness—the doggiest of all dogs—or do we merely remember one of many stored exemplars of dogs that we have encountered in our lives? (If you ask Google to show you the doggiest dog, you get a number of interesting exemplars.)

And what about more abstract concepts, such as God? We have recently posted about a study that shows that God is really up there: Even abstract words like “God” and “Satan” have associated directions that incidentally help people to complete both semantic and spatial tasks. People intuitively look upward after reading “God” and downward after reading “Satan”.

Those connections between abstract conceptual knowledge and seemingly unrelated, lower-level perception and cognition have given rise to the notion of embodied cognition. The core idea of embodied cognition is that many aspects of human cognition involve parts of the body other than the brain—we think with our hands and feet in addition to our cortex.

#symbodiment, in other words.

One very popular and influential embodied theory of cognition is the motor theory of speech: on that notion, speech perception is not fundamentally driven by analysis of speech sounds. Instead, we perceive speech gestures. To hear someone say “bat” is not to know the “b”, “a”, and “t” sounds put together; it is to understand the mouth movements that are required to say “bat”. The motor theory of speech is an “embodied” theory because how the brain perceives speech cannot be separated from how the brain and body together produce speech. Initial evidence for this theory was impressive in its detail: for example, fMRI evidence revealed that the part of the cortex devoted to moving the lips is more active when listening to “pa” than when listening to “ta”; likewise, the tongue cortex was found to be more active when listening to “ta” than to “pa”—it is as if our lips and tongues are doing part of the listening to language.  However, this finding has recently undergone re-evaluation, as we showed in a post on this site. In a nutshell, the initial fMRI-based support for the motor theory of speech has failed to replicate in a very carefully controlled study with greater statistical and methodological power. The most recent evidence, therefore, casts some doubt on at least one aspect of embodied cognition.So what is the current status of embodiment? How are the meanings of words, events and objects represented and organized in the brain?

The issue continues to be debated and is a source of exciting developments, and the Psychonomic Society is contributing to this debate in many ways:

#symbodiment: A week of online discussion

The following posts will contribute to the #symbodiment digital event (links will go live here as posts are being published):

  • Brad Mahon and Greg Hickok provide an overview of the #symbodiment landscape. They focus on neuroscientific evidence of the category-specific manner in which concepts are organized in the brain.
  • Mike Kaschak reviews the success of the embodied-cognition approach and compares it to the ostensibly-opposing symbolic approach. Perhaps the opposition is more apparent than real?
  • Gary Lupyan examines the semantics of the research presented in the special issue and concludes that use of the word “concept” is inadvisable. He offers several reasons why we should not worry about representation of concepts but instead talk about meaning.
  • Peter Killeen takes issue with some of the critics of embodied cognition and offers a spirited rebuttal.
  • Anja Jamrozik is a contributing author to the special issue of the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review and responds to the other four comments.

Please feel free to contribute to the discussion all week and beyond—if this digital event continues to stimulate interest, as it already has, we can schedule further #symbodiment discussion in subsequent weeks.

#symbodiment: Special Issue of the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review

Arguments about the nature of concepts: Symbols, embodiment, and beyond

This volume brings together the most recent theoretical developments from the leaders in the field, representing a range of viewpoints on issues of fundamental significance to a theory of meaning representation. This volume represents the ‘next generation’ of theories of meaning representation. Providing a new vantage point from which to survey the present landscape, and to scout the new directions in which the field will likely move.

Table of Contents: 

Arguments about the nature of concepts: Symbols, embodiment, and beyond
Bradford Z. Mahon and Gregory Hickok

The Poverty of Embodied Cognition
Stephen D. Goldinger, Megan H. Papesh, Anthony S. Barnhart, Whitney A. Hansen, and Michael C. Hout

GRAPES – Grounding Representations in Action, Perception, and Emotion Systems:  How object properties and categories are represented in the human brain
Alex Martin

For a cognitive neuroscience of concepts: moving beyond the grounding issue

Anna Leshinskaya and Alfonso Caramazza

Linking Somatic and Symbolic Representation in Semantic Memory: The Dynamic Multilevel Reactivation Framework
Jamie Reilly, Jonathan E. Peelle, Amanda Garcia, and Sebastian J. Crutch

Are the motor features of verb meanings represented in the precentral motor cortices?  Yes, but within the context of a flexible, multilevel architecture for conceptual knowledge
David Kemmerer

Putting Concepts in Context

Eiling Yee and Sharon L. Thompson-Schill

Situation models, mental simulations, and abstract concepts in discourse comprehension
Rolf A. Zwaan

Is There an Exemplar Theory of Concepts?
Gregory L. Murphy

We are what we eat: How food is represented in our mind/brain
Raffaella I. Rumiati amd Francesco Foroni

Incremental Learning of Perceptual and Conceptual Representations and the Puzzle of Neural Repetition Suppression
Stephen J. Gotts

Only time will tell – why temporal information is essential for our neuroscientific understanding of semantics
Olaf Hauk

Metaphor: bridging embodiment to abstraction
Anja Jamrozik, Marguerite McQuire, Eileen R. Cardillo, Anjan Chatterjee

The Amodal Brain and the Offloading Hypothesis

Edouard Machery

In Defense of Abstract Conceptual Representations
Jeffrey R. Binder

Three Symbol Ungrounding Problems: Abstract Concepts and the Future of Embodied Cognition
Guy Dove

On Staying Grounded and Avoiding Quixotic Dead Ends

Lawrence W. Barsalou

You may also like