Journal Article

Abstract and concrete concepts have structurally different representational frameworks

Sebastian J. Crutch and Elizabeth K. Warrington

in Brain

Published on behalf of The Guarantors of Brain

Volume 128, issue 3, pages 615-627
Published in print March 2005 | ISSN: 0006-8950
Published online November 2004 | e-ISSN: 1460-2156 | DOI:
Abstract and concrete concepts have structurally different representational frameworks

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The architecture supporting our conceptual knowledge of abstract words has remained almost entirely unexplored. By contrast, a vast neuropsychological, neurolinguistic and neuroimaging literature has addressed questions relating to the structure of the semantic system underpinning our knowledge of concrete items (e.g. artefacts and animals). In the context of semantic refractory access dysphasia, a series of experiments exploring and comparing abstract and concrete word comprehesion are described. We demonstrate that semantically associated abstract words reliably interfere with one another significantly more than semantically synonymous abstract words, while concrete words show the reverse pattern. We report the first evidence that abstract and concrete word meanings are based in representational systems that have qualitatively different properties. More specifically, we show that abstract concepts, but not concrete concepts, are represented in an associative neural network. Furthermore, our patient was found to have significantly greater difficulty in identifying high frequency than low frequency abstract words. This observation constitutes the first evidence of an inverse word frequency effect. Our results challenge the generality of many existing models of human conceptual knowledge, which derive their structure from experimental findings in the concrete domain alone.

Keywords: semantic refractory access dysphasia; conceptual knowledge; abstract concepts; concrete concepts; RSI = response-stimulus interval

Journal Article.  8868 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Neurology ; Neuroscience

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