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Abstract concepts in grounded cognition

By D. Lakens


When people think about highly abstract concepts, they draw upon concrete experiences to structure their thoughts. For example, black knights in fairytales are evil, and knights in shining armor are good. The sensory experiences black and white are used to represent the abstract concepts of good and evil. These and similar metaphors are not only used to intentionally communicate the meaning of abstract concepts, but also underlie abstract conceptual thought. Several views on the representation of concepts have emerged over the last decennium which all share the idea that conceptual processing is perceptual in nature. According to these grounded approaches to cognition, conceptual thought consists of representations built on concrete sensory information. Even though people cannot directly see, hear or touch abstract concepts, perceptual information is theorized to play an essential role in abstract conceptual thought. The current thesis investigates to which extent people use perceptual information to think about abstract concepts. The studies reveal that sensory experiences structure abstract thoughts. Chapter 2 proposes that many of our concrete experiences with moral situations are directly related to symmetrical or balanced distributions of rewards and other outcomes, and aims to shows that thinking about moral or immoral words activates associations with perceptual symmetry. People were asked to guess which of two Chinese ideographs correctly translated moral and immoral Dutch words. As expected, they chose more symmetric ideographs for moral words, and more asymmetric ideographs for immoral words. Chapter 3 focuses on the concept of time, which has been shown to be represented with the past at our left, and the future at our right. Since the auditory modality shows a similar sensitivity to spatial information as the visual modality, the previously observed structuring of time in space was assumed to extend to the auditory modality. Past and future related words were presented to participants over headphones. Words were louder in the left or right ear, and people were asked to indicate in which ear they judged the words to be louder. Critical experimental trials were presented equally loud in both ear. Participants thought future related words in these critical trials were louder in the right ear more often than past related words. Chapter 4 shows that sensory dimensions structure abstract dimensions. Black and white represent bad and good. White in isolation, however, is rather neutral. It seems that perceptual information such as the color white does is not intrinsically positive, but can be used in opposition to black to represent the opposition between good and evil. Together, these chapters show that perceptual information influences abstract conceptual processing, even for highly abstract concepts that lack perceptual characteristics. Future research could focus on how the learning of abstract concepts by children can be facilitated by perceptually representing their meaning. Furthermore, metaphors cannot only facilitate, but also constrain moral reasoning, an aspect which has not been investigated. Abstract thought is one of the most sophisticated abilities of human beings, and acknowledging the importance of perceptual representations will substantially improve our understanding of abstract reasoning

Publisher: Utrecht University
Year: 2010
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