Uncovering the secrets of the brain – News

May 27, 2022

New research explores how abstract concepts are represented in the brain across cultures and languages

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have explored the regions of the brain where concrete and abstract concepts materialize. A new study is now exploring whether people who grow up in different cultures and speak different languages ​​form these concepts in the same brain regions.

“We wanted to look across languages ​​to see if our cultural backgrounds influence how we understand, how we perceive abstract ideas like justice,” said Roberto Vargas, a doctoral student in psychology at Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and author principal on the study.

Vargas continues the basic research in neural and semantic organization initiated by Marcel Just, professor of psychology at DO Hebb University. Just began this process more than 30 years ago by scanning participants’ brains using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. His research team started by identifying brain regions that light up for concrete objects, like an apple, and then moved on to abstract physics concepts like force and gravity.

The latest study took the assessment of abstract concepts one step further by exploring the regions of the brain that trigger language-based abstract objects. In this case, the researchers studied people whose first language is Mandarin or English.

“The lab’s research is a step forward to study the universalities of not only single concept representations, but also representations of larger sets of knowledge such as scientific and technical knowledge,” Just said. “Cultures and languages ​​can give us a particular perspective of the world, but our mental filing cabinets are all very similar.”

According to Vargas, there is a fairly generalizable set of hardware, or network of brain regions, that people tap into when thinking about abstract information, but how people use these tools varies depending on culture and sense of purpose. word.

This was one of the first studies to examine the degree of similarity in the neural basis of abstract concept representation across languages ​​while providing a framework for identifying language-specific differences in the meaning of abstract concepts. individual.

During the study, Vargas and Just collected brain scans from 20 participants, with an equal representation of those who speak English and Mandarin. Participants were given 28 individual abstract concepts that spanned seven categories: social, emotional, metaphysical, legal, religious, mathematical, and scientific. While in the fMRI machine, participants pondered a prompt from one of these categories, such as sacrilege in the religiosity category, for three seconds. Between each prompt, the participant cleared their mind by staring at a shrinking blue ellipse for seven seconds. The series was repeated six times to provide multiple data sets for statistical analyzes and to train and test models.

The study shows that a common neural infrastructure exists between languages. While the underlying neural regions are similar, the way the areas light up is more specific to each individual.

“I think the more I do this line of research, the more I realize that humans aren’t that unique in the way they think about things,” Vargas said. “We evolved with similar brains that perform specific functions. It’s like the muscles of the body. If you’re in a profession that involves social interaction, the part of your brain that processes social information will be more activated and will connect more diversely across the brain.”

The similarity of math-focused concepts may lie in the great similarity between the languages ​​of math and science. The similarity of emotional and social concepts may lie in the common circumstances and relationships behind these concepts.

“These findings speak to the universal way brains across cultures process abstract information,” Just said. “Although each culture develops its own somewhat different conceptions of the world, all brains organize abstract concepts in the same way, using the same brain systems.”

This study, as well as earlier work by Vargas and Just, was based on samples of fewer than 20 participants each. Vargas is reluctant to make broader statements about how this work applies in a larger cultural context due to the small sample size and the comparison of only two languages. He wants to continue this work but take it in a new direction, focusing specifically on how abstract concepts manifest in a sociological or cultural context.

“Now that I have a sense of how abstract concepts are generalizable across individuals, I can start asking wild questions about abstract concepts in the context of our social world,” Vargas said.

Vargas will continue this work through two projects. One will examine how social identity affects decisions about reward and punishment. The second examines how people think about concepts related to our societal environment, such as the police and health care, and how these concepts differ across racial groups. Vargas will use a recent Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship to pursue these goals.

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