Transient Neural Activation of Abstract Relations on an Incidental Analogy Task

J Cogn Neurosci. 2021 Jan;33(1):77-88. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01622. Epub 2020 Aug 19.


Although a large proportion of the lexicon consists of abstract concepts, little is known about how they are represented by the brain. Here, we investigated how the mind represents relations shared between sets of mental representations that are superficially unrelated, such as car-engine and dog-tongue, but that nonetheless share a more general, abstract relation, such as whole-part. Participants saw a pair of words on each trial and were asked to indicate whether they could think of a relation between them. Importantly, they were not explicitly asked whether different word pairs shared the same relation, as in analogical reasoning tasks. We observed representational similarity for abstract relations in regions in the "conceptual hub" network, even when controlling for semantic relatedness between word pairs. By contrast, we did not observe representational similarity in regions previously implicated in explicit analogical reasoning. A given relation was sometimes repeated across sequential word pairs, allowing us to test for behavioral and neural priming of abstract relations. Indeed, we observed faster RTs and greater representational similarity for primed than unprimed trials, suggesting that mental representations of abstract relations are transiently activated on this incidental analogy task. Finally, we found a significant correlation between behavioral and neural priming across participants. To our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate relational priming using functional neuroimaging and to show that neural representations are strengthened by relational priming. This research shows how abstract concepts can be brought to mind momentarily, even when not required for task performance.

MeSH terms

  • Brain
  • Concept Formation
  • Humans
  • Problem Solving*
  • Semantics*
  • Task Performance and Analysis