How Abstract Concepts Are Represented in the Brain Across Cultures and Languages

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

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

Vargas is continuing fundamental research in neural and semantic organization initiated by Marcel Just, the D.O. Hebb University Professor of Psychology. Just began this process more than 30 years ago by scanning the brains of participants using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

His research team began by identifying the regions of the brain that light up for concrete objects, like an apple, and later moved to abstract concepts from physics like force and gravity.

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

“The lab’s research is progress to study universalities of not only single concept representations, but also representations of larger bodies of knowledge such as scientific and technical knowledge,” Just said. “Cultures and languages can give us a particular perspective of 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 leverage when thinking about abstract information, but how people use these tools varies depending on culture and the meaning of the word.

Read more: Neuroscience News

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