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The Social Nature of Abstract Concepts


Why do we pre-activate our mouths when we think about concepts such as fantasy and liberty?  A joint Sapienza-CNR Research Team has published a study on the development of abstract concepts and the involvement of the motor system related to linguistic production.

The ability to develop and use abstract concepts such as “fantasy” and “liberty” is one of mankind’s most sophisticated abilities, something that differentiates us from all other primates. 

A research team coordinated by Prof. Anna Borghi from the Sapienza Department of Dynamic and Clinical Psychology, together with Laura Barca and Luca Tummolini from the National Research Council Institute for Cognition Sciences and Technology (CNR_ISTC) and Ferdinand Binkofski from the Aachen University Hospital, have demonstrated that the development of abstract concepts involves the motor system related to linguistic production (our mouths) more so than in the development of concrete concepts, even when a verbal response is not necessary.

“In order to understand a concrete concept such as chair,” explains Professor Borghi, “we must have seen many chairs, but to comprehend an abstract concept such as liberty, which aggregates very different experiences (running in fields, leaving prison, etc.), the contributions given by others provide us with explanations that are fundamental and allow us to formulate questions. Consequently, when we think about an abstract object we summon our linguistic experience, both that related to learning about the concept and that related to the others who have helped us understand this concept. That is why we activate the motor system related to our mouths.”

The study, which has been published on a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Science, employed the results of a test conducted on a sample of individual adults who had been given specific tasks. In measuring the reaction time of the participants, the team observed that the development of abstract concepts was easier when the participants had to give the answer by pressing a button with their mouths.

This result led the research team to initiate a new experiment on eight-year-old children. By measuring their response times on a word categorisation test, the scientists observed that children who had used a pacifier beyond three years of age were slower in answering questions about abstract concepts than those who had interrupted the use of pacifiers earlier. This suggests that limiting orofacial mobility during the acquisition of linguistic and social competences selectively slows down the acquisition of abstract concepts. The authors of the study indicate that this is due to a mechanism referred to as “social metacognition.”

“Individuals are aware of the difficulty of using complex concepts such as abstract ones,” points out CNR Researcher Luca Tummolini, “and need the help of others. Therefore, the activation of our mouths is preparatory to this need to request information.”

This means that the development of an extremely complex ability, such as that of using abstract concepts, is founded and benefits for the pre-eminently social nature of our species. This study both advances and confirms what had been hypothesised by previous studies employing MRI, transcranial stimulation and behavioural studies.

The article has been published on a special issue of the journal that is entirely dedicated to abstract concepts to demonstrate how, through different methodologies and techniques, the various types of abstract concepts (emotions, numbers, mental states, aesthetic and moral notions) are distributed and represented in different brain areas, as well as the fact that abstract concepts employ more internal processes (interoceptive, metacognition, emotion) than those related to concrete experience related to the use of language and sociality. 


Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Science Varieties of Abstract Concepts: Development, Use, and Representation in the Brain; Anna M. Borghi, Laura Barca, Ferdinand Binkofski and Luca Tummolini – special issue


Abstract Concepts, Language and Sociality: from acquisition to inner speech. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 373, 20170134. (doi:10.1098/rstb.2017.0134) Anna M. Borghi, Laura Barca, Ferdinand Binkofski and Luca Tummolini - article