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, 24 (7), 1767-77

The Neural Representation of Abstract Words: The Role of Emotion

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The Neural Representation of Abstract Words: The Role of Emotion

Gabriella Vigliocco et al. Cereb Cortex.

Abstract

It is generally assumed that abstract concepts are linguistically coded, in line with imaging evidence of greater engagement of the left perisylvian language network for abstract than concrete words (Binder JR, Desai RH, Graves WW, Conant LL. 2009. Where is the semantic system? A critical review and meta-analysis of 120 functional neuroimaging studies. Cerebral Cortex. 19:2767-2796; Wang J, Conder JA, Blitzer DN, Shinkareva SV. 2010. Neural representation of abstract and concrete concepts: A meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies. Hum Brain Map. 31:1459-1468). Recent behavioral work, which used tighter matching of items than previous studies, however, suggests that abstract concepts also entail affective processing to a greater extent than concrete concepts (Kousta S-T, Vigliocco G, Vinson DP, Andrews M, Del Campo E. The representation of abstract words: Why emotion matters. J Exp Psychol Gen. 140:14-34). Here we report a functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment that shows greater engagement of the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with emotion processing (e.g., Etkin A, Egner T, Peraza DM, Kandel ER, Hirsch J. 2006. Resolving emotional conflict: A role for the rostral anterior cingulate cortex in modulating activity in the amygdala. Neuron. 52:871), in abstract processing. For abstract words, activation in this area was modulated by the hedonic valence (degree of positive or negative affective association) of our items. A correlation analysis of more than 1,400 English words further showed that abstract words, in general, receive higher ratings for affective associations (both valence and arousal) than concrete words, supporting the view that engagement of emotional processing is generally required for processing abstract words. We argue that these results support embodiment views of semantic representation, according to which, whereas concrete concepts are grounded in our sensory-motor experience, affective experience is crucial in the grounding of abstract concepts.

Keywords: abstract words; anterior cingulate cortex, emotion processing; fMRI; lexical decision; rostral ACC; semantic memory.

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