Grounding conceptual knowledge in modality-specific systems

Trends Cogn Sci. 2003 Feb;7(2):84-91. doi: 10.1016/s1364-6613(02)00029-3.


The human conceptual system contains knowledge that supports all cognitive activities, including perception, memory, language and thought. According to most current theories, states in modality-specific systems for perception, action and emotion do not represent knowledge - rather, redescriptions of these states in amodal representational languages do. Increasingly, however, researchers report that re-enactments of states in modality-specific systems underlie conceptual processing. In behavioral experiments, perceptual and motor variables consistently produce effects in conceptual tasks. In brain imaging experiments, conceptual processing consistently activates modality-specific brain areas. Theoretical research shows how modality-specific re-enactments could produce basic conceptual functions, such as the type-token distinction, categorical inference, productivity, propositions and abstract concepts. Together these empirical results and theoretical analyses implicate modality-specific systems in the representation and use of conceptual knowledge.