Taxonomic and thematic semantic systems

Daniel Mirman, Jon Frederick Landrigan, Allison E. Britt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Object concepts are critical for nearly all aspects of human cognition, from perception tasks like object recognition, to understanding and producing language, to making meaningful actions. Concepts can have 2 very different kinds of relations: similarity relations based on shared features (e.g., dog-bear), which are called "taxonomic" relations, and contiguity relations based on co-occurrence in events or scenarios (e.g., dog-leash), which are called "thematic" relations. Here, we report a systematic review of experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience evidence of this distinction in the structure of semantic memory. We propose 2 principles that may drive the development of distinct taxonomic and thematic semantic systems: differences between which features determine taxonomic versus thematic relations, and differences in the processing required to extract taxonomic versus thematic relations. This review brings together distinct threads of behavioral, computational, and neuroscience research on semantic memory in support of a functional and neural dissociation, and defines a framework for future studies of semantic memory.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)499-520
Number of pages22
JournalPsychological Bulletin
Issue number5
Early online date31 May 2017
Publication statusPublished - May 2017


  • individual differences
  • semantic memory
  • thematic semantics

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