Taxonomic and thematic semantic systems

Psychol Bull. 2017 May;143(5):499-520. doi: 10.1037/bul0000092. Epub 2017 Mar 23.


Object concepts are critical for nearly all aspects of human cognition, from perception tasks like object recognition, to understanding and producing language, to making meaningful actions. Concepts can have 2 very different kinds of relations: similarity relations based on shared features (e.g., dog-bear), which are called "taxonomic" relations, and contiguity relations based on co-occurrence in events or scenarios (e.g., dog-leash), which are called "thematic" relations. Here, we report a systematic review of experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience evidence of this distinction in the structure of semantic memory. We propose 2 principles that may drive the development of distinct taxonomic and thematic semantic systems: differences between which features determine taxonomic versus thematic relations, and differences in the processing required to extract taxonomic versus thematic relations. This review brings together distinct threads of behavioral, computational, and neuroscience research on semantic memory in support of a functional and neural dissociation, and defines a framework for future studies of semantic memory. (PsycINFO Database Record

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Concept Formation / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Individuality*
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Semantics*