The meaning of “life” and other abstract words: Insights from neuropsychology

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Abstract

There are a number of long-standing theories on how the cognitive processing of abstract words, like “life”, differs from that of concrete words, like “knife”. This review considers current perspectives on this debate, focusing particularly on insights obtained from patients with language disorders and integrating these with evidence from functional neuroimaging studies. The evidence supports three distinct and mutually compatible hypotheses. (1) Concrete and abstract words differ in their representational substrates, with concrete words depending particularly on sensory experiences and abstract words on linguistic, emotional and magnitude-based information. Differential dependence on visual vs. verbal experience is supported by evidence for graded specialisation in the anterior temporal lobes for concrete vs. abstract words. In addition, concrete words have richer representations, in line with better processing of these words in most aphasic patients and, in particular, patients with semantic dementia. (2) Abstract words place greater demands on executive regulation processes because they have variable meanings that change with context. This theory explains abstract word impairments in patients with semantic-executive deficits and is supported by neuroimaging studies showing greater response to abstract words in inferior prefrontal cortex. (3) The relationships between concrete words are governed primarily by conceptual similarity while those of abstract words depend on association to a greater degree. This theory, based primarily on interference and priming effects in aphasic patients, is the most recent to emerge and the least well-understood. I present analyses indicating that patterns of lexical co-occurrence may be important in understanding these effects.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Neuropsychology
Early online date23 Feb 2015
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2016

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