For a cognitive neuroscience of concepts: Moving beyond the grounding issue


Leshinskaya, A., & Caramazza, A. (2016). For a cognitive neuroscience of concepts: Moving beyond the grounding issue. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review , 1-11.


Cognitive neuroscience research on conceptual knowledge often is discussed with respect to “embodiment” or “grounding.” We tried to disentangle at least three distinct claims made using these terms. One of these, the view that concepts are entirely reducible to sensory-motor representations, is untenable and diminishing in the literature. A second is the view that concepts and sensory-motor representations “interact,” and a third view addresses the question of how concepts are neurally organized—the neural partitions among concepts of different kinds, and where these partitions are localized in cortex. We argue that towards the second and third issues, much fruitful research can be pursued, but that no position on them is specifically related to “grounding.” Furthermore, to move forward on them, it is important to precisely distinguish different kinds of representations—conceptual vs. sensory-motor—from each other theoretically and empirically. Neuroimaging evidence often lacks such specificity. We take an approach that distinguishes conceptual from sensory-motor representations by virtue of two properties: broad generality and tolerance to the absence of sensory-motor associations. We review three of our recent experiments that employ these criteria in order to localize neural representations of several specific kinds of nonsensory attributes: functions, intentions, and belief traits. Building on past work, we find that neuroimaging evidence can be used fruitfully to distinguish interesting hypotheses about neural organization. On the other hand, most such evidence does not speak to any clear notion of “grounding” or “embodiment,” because these terms do not make clear, specific, empirical predictions. We argue that cognitive neuroscience will proceed most fruitfully by relinquishing these terms.

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Last updated on 07/01/2016