Chapter 1: Introduction

The process by which people understand the meaning of words is known as conceptual (or semantic) processing. The scientific study of this ability since the 1960s was first characterised by categorical taxonomies. That is, concepts were described using lists of features containing some properties that were deemed necessary and other properties deemed sufficient (Fillmore, 1975). For instance, necessary features of a dog might include having a tail, paws, barking, etc. In turn, being identified as a dog was a sufficient condition for being a mammal. Although useful, this ‘checklist’ approach was not devoid of shortcomings. For instance, a dog in real life can actually lack any of the aforementioned ‘necessary’ conditions. Furthermore, some of the necessary features are more paradigmatic than others for a given category. For instance, barking is more paradigmatic of a dog than having ears. In addition, the some sufficient conditions are more paradigmatic than others. For instance, a dog is more paradigmatic of the mammal category than a platypus. These shortcomings were addressed by the Prototype Theory, which posited that concepts were organised around core concepts, or prototypes. Thus, the Prototype Theory accounted for the prototypical position of barking among the necessary features of dogs, and for the less prominent position of ears among the same features. Similarly, Prototype Theory helped explain the prototypical position of dogs in the category of mammals (Rosch, 1975a). Furthermore, the nuanced category membership offered by Prototype Theory aptly accounted for subtle differences among abstract concepts. For instance, Coleman and Kay (1981) delved into the concept of lie, which has many variants and can only be properly considered in light of the context. For instance, a white lie intended to spare suffering may not always be classified as a lie.

A different group of cognitive psychologists approached conceptual processing differently, contending that the complex hierarchies associated with Prototype Theory might be unnecessary. Instead, A. M. Collins and Loftus (1975) argued that the language system encoded in people’s minds provides access to the meaning of concepts by means of abstract, symbolic relationships, or Spreading Activation (Loftus, 1975). This claim was in turn regarded by the proponents of Prototype Theory as a post-hoc explanation lacking precision (Rosch, 1975b).

Around two decades later, the field of embodied cognition emerged, organised around the tenet of neural reuse (Barsalou, 1999a, 2003; Pulvermüller, 1999). Specifically, proponents of embodied cognition in conceptual processing contended that the brain regions in charge of perception and action contributed to the understanding of words by providing simulations, or reenactments (M. L. Anderson, 2010; Barsalou, 2016). In this way, brain regions were reused during conceptual processing, a mechanism that would be spatially efficient.


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Pablo Bernabeu, 2022. Licence: CC BY 4.0.

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