Organizational Principles of Abstract Words in the Human Brain

Cereb Cortex. 2018 Dec 1;28(12):4305-4318. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhx283.


words constitute nearly half of the human lexicon and are critically associated with human abstract thoughts, yet little is known about how they are represented in the brain. We tested the neural basis of 2 classical cognitive notions of abstract meaning representation: by linguistic contexts and by semantic features. We collected fMRI BOLD responses for 360 abstract words and built theoretical representational models from state-of-the-art corpus-based natural language processing models and behavioral ratings of semantic features. Representational similarity analyses revealed that both linguistic contextual and semantic feature similarity affected the representation of abstract concepts, but in distinct neural levels. The corpus-based similarity was coded in the high-level linguistic processing system, whereas semantic feature information was reflected in distributed brain regions and in the principal component space derived from whole-brain activation patterns. These findings highlight the multidimensional organization and the neural dissociation between linguistic contextual and featural aspects of abstract concepts.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Semantics*
  • Young Adult