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.
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 is still one of scientific debate and exciting developments, and the Psychonomic Society is contributing to this debate in many ways. A special issue of the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review (described below) will launch by 13 June, which is summarized below with a link to all articles in it.
In addition, this post kicks off another digital event of a week-long online discussion of that special issue and the notion of #symbodiment more generally.
#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
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: (some links are not active as of 12 June 2016 but are expected to go live shortly)
Arguments about the nature of concepts: Symbols, embodiment, and beyond
Bradford Z. Mahon and Gregory Hickok
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
Anna Leshinskaya and Alfonso Caramazza
Jamie Reilly, Jonathan E. Peelle, Amanda Garcia, and Sebastian J. Crutch
Putting Concepts in Context
Eiling Yee and Sharon L. Thompson-Schill
Rolf A. Zwaan
Gregory L. Murphy
Raffaella I. Rumiati amd Francesco Foroni
Stephen J. Gotts
Anja Jamrozik, Marguerite McQuire, Eileen R. Cardillo, Anjan Chatterjee
The Amodal Brain and the Offloading Hypothesis
Jeffrey R. Binder
Lawrence W. Barsalou