(ORDO NEWS) — The researchers studied how abstract concepts are represented in the brains of people from different cultures and languages and found that there is a common neural infrastructure between languages. While the underlying neural regions are similar, the way these regions light up is more specific to each individual.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have studied the areas of the brain where concrete and abstract concepts materialize. A new study examines whether people who grew up in different cultures and speak different languages form these concepts in the same areas of the brain.
“We wanted to explore different languages to see if our cultural background influences how we understand, how we perceive abstract ideas like justice,” said Roberto Vargas, a PhD candidate in psychology at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. and lead author of the study.
Vargas continues fundamental research in the field of neural and semantic organization, begun by Marcel Yust, Professor of Psychology at the University of D.O. Hebb. Yust began this process more than 30 years ago by scanning participants’ brains with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.
His research team began by identifying areas of the brain that light up when perceiving specific objects, such as an apple, and then moved on to abstract concepts from physics, such as force and gravity.
The latest study takes abstract concept assessment one step further by examining the areas of the brain that light up when perceiving abstract objects based on language. In this case, the researchers studied people whose first language is Mandarin or English.
“The lab’s research aims to explore the universality of not only representations of individual concepts, but also representations of larger bodies of knowledge, such as scientific and technical knowledge,” Just said. “Cultures and languages may give us a different way of looking at the world, but our mental filing cabinets are all very similar.”
There is a fairly generalized set of hardware, or network of brain regions, that people use when thinking about abstract information, Vargas says, but how people use these tools depends on culture and the meaning of the word.
This is one of the first studies that examined the degree of commonality of the neural bases for the representation of abstract concepts in different languages, and at the same time created the basis for identifying linguistic differences in the meaning of individual abstract concepts.
In the study, Vargas and Just performed brain scans on 20 participants, with an equal number of English and Mandarin speakers. The participants were asked 28 separate abstract concepts that covered seven categories: social, emotions, metaphysics, law, religiosity, mathematics and science.
While in the fMRI machine, participants spent three seconds thinking about a cue from one of these categories, such as sacrilege in the category of religiosity.
Between each prompt, the participant cleared their mind by looking at the shrinking blue ellipse for seven seconds. The series was repeated six times to obtain multiple datasets for statistical analysis and for training and testing the models.
The study shows that there is indeed a common neural infrastructure between languages. While the underlying neural regions are similar, the way these regions light up is more specific to each individual.
“The more I do this line of research, the more I realize that people are not that unique in the way they think about things,” Vargas said.
“We have evolved with similar brains that perform certain functions. It’s like muscles in the body. If you are in a profession that involves social interaction, then the part of your brain that processes social information will be activated to a greater extent and will have more diverse connections throughout brain.”
The similarity of mathematics-oriented concepts may be due to the high cross-linguistic similarity between mathematics and the natural sciences. Similarities in the concepts of emotion and social concepts may lie in the general circumstances and relationships that underlie these concepts.
“These results speak to the universal way that the brains of all cultures work with abstract information,” Just said.
“Even though each culture develops its own slightly different conceptions of the world, all brains organize abstract concepts in the same way, using the same brain systems.”
This study, like previous work by Vargas and Jast, was based on samples of less than 20 participants each. Vargas is hesitant to make any sweeping claims about how this work applies in a broader 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 on how abstract concepts appear in a sociological or cultural context.
“Now that I have an idea of how abstract concepts generalize between people, I can start asking wild questions about abstract concepts in the context of our social world,” Vargas said.
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