Neural Representation of Abstract and Concrete Concepts: A Meta-Analysis of Neuroimaging Studies

Hum Brain Mapp. 2010 Oct;31(10):1459-68. doi: 10.1002/hbm.20950.


A number of studies have investigated differences in neural correlates of abstract and concrete concepts with disagreement across results. A quantitative, coordinate-based meta-analysis combined data from 303 participants across 19 functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) studies to identify the differences in neural representation of abstract and concrete concepts. Studies that reported peak activations in standard space in contrast of abstract > concrete or concrete > abstract concepts at a whole brain level in healthy adults were included in this meta-analysis. Multilevel kernel density analysis (MKDA) was performed to identify the proportion of activated contrasts weighted by sample size and analysis type (fixed or random effects). Meta-analysis results indicated consistent and meaningful differences in neural representation for abstract and concrete concepts. Abstract concepts elicit greater activity in the inferior frontal gyrus and middle temporal gyrus compared to concrete concepts, while concrete concepts elicit greater activity in the posterior cingulate, precuneus, fusiform gyrus, and parahippocampal gyrus compared to abstract concepts. These results suggest greater engagement of the verbal system for processing of abstract concepts and greater engagement of the perceptual system for processing of concrete concepts, likely via mental imagery.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Diagnostic Imaging / methods*
  • Humans
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic / methods
  • Thinking / physiology*