How Abstract Concepts Are Represented in the Brain in Different Cultures and Languages ​​- Neuroscience News

ali mohamed
ali mohamed10 June 2022Last Update : 2 years ago
How Abstract Concepts Are Represented in the Brain in Different Cultures and Languages ​​- Neuroscience News

Overview: Researchers are investigating the impact of different cultures and languages ​​on the development of abstract thoughts in the brain, reporting that those who have grown up in different cultures and speak different languages ​​form abstract concepts in the same brain region.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have explored the brain regions where concrete and abstract concepts materialize. A new study now examines whether people who grow up in different cultures and speak different languages ​​form these concepts in the same areas of the brain.

“We wanted to look at different languages ​​to see if our cultural backgrounds affect how we understand, how we perceive abstract ideas like justice,” said Roberto Vargas, a doctoral student in psychology at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and lead author. of the study.

Vargas continues fundamental research into neural and semantic organization initiated by Marcel Just, the DO Hebb University Professor of Psychology. This process began more than 30 years ago by scanning participants’ brains using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

His research team began by identifying the areas of the brain that light up to concrete objects, such as an apple, and later moved on to abstract physics concepts such as force and gravity.

The latest study took the evaluation of abstract concepts one step further by examining the areas of the brain that fire at abstract objects based on language. In this case, the researchers studied people whose first language is Mandarin or English.

“The lab’s research is an advance to study universalities of not only representations of singular concepts, but also representations of larger amounts of knowledge, such as scientific and technical knowledge,” Just said. “Cultures and languages ​​can give us a certain perspective on the world, but our mental filing cabinets are all very similar.”

According to Vargas, there is a fairly generalizable set of hardware, or network of brain regions, that people use when thinking about abstract information, but how people use these tools depends on the culture and the meaning of the word.

This was one of the first studies to examine the degree of commonality in the neural basis for representing abstract concepts across languages, while providing a framework for identifying language-specific differences in the meaning of individual abstract concepts.

During the study, Vargas and Just collected brain scans from 20 participants, with equal representation of those who speak English and Mandarin. Participants were given 28 individual abstract concepts spanning seven categories: social, emotion, metaphysics, law, religiosity, mathematics, and scientific.

While in the fMRI machine, participants thought for three seconds about a prompt from one of these categories, such as sacrilege in the religiosity category. Between each prompt, the participant would clear their mind by staring at a shrinking, blue ellipse for seven seconds.

The series was repeated six times to provide multiple data sets for statistical analysis and to train and test models.

The study shows that there is a common neural infrastructure between languages. While the underlying neural regions are similar, the way the regions light up is more specific to each individual.

“I think the more I do this line of research, the more I realize that people aren’t that unique in how they think about things,” Vargas said.

This shows the circumference of two heads
The latest study took the evaluation of abstract concepts one step further by examining the areas of the brain that fire at abstract objects based on language. Image is in the public domain

“We evolved with similar brains performing specific functions. It’s like muscles in the body. If you work in a profession that involves social interaction, the part of your brain that processes social information will be more activated and more diverse in connect the brain.”

The similarity for the mathematics-oriented concepts may lie in the high cross-language similarity between mathematics and science. The similarity in emotion and social concepts may lie in the common circumstances and relationships behind these concepts.

“These findings speak to the universal way brains of all cultures interact with abstract information,” Just said. “Despite each culture developing its own slightly different conceptions of the world, all brains organize the abstract concepts in the same way, using the same brain systems.”

This study, as well as previous work by Vargas and Just, was based on samples of fewer than 20 participants each. Vargas is hesitant to make larger sweeping statements about how this work applies in a larger cultural context because of the small sample size and comparison of only two languages.

He wants to continue this work, but take it in a new direction, focusing specifically on how abstract concepts manifest themselves in a sociological or cultural context.

“Now that I have an idea of ​​how abstract concepts are generalizable to individuals, I can start asking wild questions about abstract concepts in the context of our social world,” Vargas said.

Vargas will continue this work through two projects. One will examine how social identity influences decisions about reward and punishment. The second examines the way people think about concepts related to our social environment, such as policing and health care, and how these concepts differ between racial groups.

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About this neuroscience research news

Author: press office
Source: Carnegie Mellon University
Contact: Press Office – Carnegie Mellon University
Image: The image in the public domain

Original research: Open access.
“Similarities and differences in the neural representations of abstract concepts in English and Mandarin” by Roberto Vargas et al. Mapping the human brain


Similarities and differences in the neural representations of abstract concepts in English and Mandarin

Recent research suggests that there is a neural organization for representing abstract concepts that is common among English speakers.

To investigate the possible role of language on the representation of abstract concepts, multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) techniques were applied to fMRI data to compare the neural representations of 28 individual abstract concepts between native speakers of English and Mandarin.

Factor analyzes of the activation patterns of the 28 abstract concepts from both languages ​​characterized this commonality in terms of a set of four underlying neurosemantic dimensions, which indicate to what extent a concept verbally representedinternal to the person, contains social contentand is rules based

These common semantic dimensions (factors) underlying the 28 concepts provided a sufficient basis to reliably identify the individual abstract concepts by their neural signature in the other language with an average rank accuracy of 0.65 (p< .001).

While the neural dimensions used to represent abstract concepts are common in all languages, differences in the meaning of some individual concepts can be accommodated in terms of differential salience of particular dimensions.

These semantic dimensions constitute a set of neurocognitive resources for abstract concept representations within a larger set of regions responsible for general semantic processing.


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