In the language sciences, words like “freedom”, “justice”, and “peace” are classified as abstract concepts, because – unlike concrete words like “car” and “elephant” – they don’t refer to objects in the physical world. Recent studies reveal that in fact abstract concepts are rooted in our experience of emotion and social interaction, and maybe less abstract than one may think!
The traditional view
Traditionally, philosophers and linguists distinguish two types of words: abstract words referring to concepts like thoughts, emotions, and social values (e.g.: “idea”, “love”, “brotherhood”) and concrete words referring to objects such as animals, plants, foods, and tools. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato (4th century B.C.) already theorized a separation between the body in the physical world and the intangible world of ideas. Inspired by his thoughts, the classical view stresses that abstract concepts lack a link to direct physical referent objects and cannot be experienced through interacting with the physical environment. Therefore, language users learn abstract meanings by engaging in conversation and reading texts and rely on symbolic knowledge, rather than on physical experience. This explains why children learn words that refer to abstract concepts at relatively later stages of language acquisition, possibly when they become better at reading.
The missing piece: The role of emotions
Of course, if we stubbornly tried to characterise the word “freedom” based on the properties of physical objects in the world, we would obviously fail. However, the idea of “freedom” may evoke the images of a lion released from a cage, a person out of handcuffs and prison (or just free from anxiety and pain), a community breaking free from an oppressor, and the expression of one’s own ideas in one’s own words. In these contexts, the word ‘freedom’ is used to bring to mind bodily sensations (being physically free from something or someone), actions (the act of freeing), as well as mental and emotional states (the feeling of being spiritually and intellectually free). Another abstract concept, like “peace”, means a harmonious relationship with the inner self and/or others, as well as between social groups and countries. Therefore, its meaning is again closely tied to mental, interpersonal and emotional dimensions (e.g., feeling quiet, relaxed, serene, etc.). Emotional experience and social interaction then become crucial to learning and understanding abstract words.
Recent psycholinguistic research suggests that this may indeed be the case. For instance, abstract words are learnt earlier, recognised faster, and better remembered if their meanings convey affective values, such as “happiness”, “love, “anger”, “fear”, and “joy”, than words with more neutral meanings (e.g.: relation, validity). When people are asked to judge the meaning of abstract words, like “justice”, “beauty”, “thought”, and “honour”, their decisions are faster if a clear association between the abstract meaning of a concept can be established with feelings, mental activity, emotions, and social relationships. In turn, concrete concepts will rely more strongly on visual, olfactive, tactile, and auditory attributes (e.g., a car is defined by the visual shape, colour, and noise of the engine, for example).
The processing differences highlighted by existing studies show that there are different underlying ways to represent concepts in the brain.
How does the brain represent abstract concepts?
The prediction from the traditional view (that accessing abstract concepts requires exposure to language) is that abstract concepts will activate brain regions supporting linguistic processing and symbol meaning. Indeed, activity in the language regions of the brain increases when abstract words are processed, as compared with concrete ones. However, recent brain imaging has further revealed that abstract words with emotional attributes like “happiness” recruit brain regions implicated in emotional processing. Also, abstract words with interpersonal meanings like “honour” elicit increased brain activation in regions that are involved in social activities. Patients with brain damage in these respective areas may have difficulties grasping the meanings of emotional and social words. In sum, words once regarded as being abstract may actually be deeply rooted in our bodies’ interaction with emotions, actions, and social experiences. Increasing evidence indicates that alongside symbolic linguistic knowledge, our experience with both internal states such as emotions, and the external physical and social world may play a role in the acquisition and comprehension of abstract meanings. Even sophisticated mathematical knowledge, culminating in abstract algebraic concepts like “fraction” or “logarithm”, may involve to some extent the experience with concepts of quantity that we gain as children by counting with the fingers of our own hands. In a way, then, abstract concepts are actually more concrete than one may think. Does that mean Plato’s classical theory is finally out of fashion, after 2500 years? Probably not. Some concepts, like prime numbers, are simply too abstract for that. In sum, a symbolic system is essential for abstract concepts to have abstract meanings.
Bi, Y. (2021). Dual coding of knowledge in the human brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 25(10), 883–895. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2021.07.006
Carota, F., Nili, H., Pulvermüller, F., Kriegeskorte, N. (2020) Distinct fronto-temporal substrates of distributional and taxonomic similarity among words: evidence from RSA of BOLD signals. Neuroimage. 2021 Jan 1;224:117408. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.117408