Top Cogn Sci
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Abstract concepts typically are defined in terms of lacking physical or perceptual referents. We argue instead that they are not devoid of perceptual information because knowledge of real-world situations is an important component of learning and using many abstract concepts. Although the relationship between perceptual information and abstract concepts is less straightforward than for concrete concepts, situation-based perceptual knowledge is part of many abstract concepts. In Experiment 1, participants made lexical decisions to abstract words that were preceded by related and unrelated pictures of situations. For example, share was preceded by a picture of two girls sharing a cob of corn. When pictures were presented for 500 ms, latencies did not differ. However, when pictures were presented for 1,000 ms, decision latencies were significantly shorter for abstract words preceded by related versus unrelated pictures. Because the abstract concepts corresponded to the pictured situation as a whole, rather than a single concrete object or entity, the necessary relational processing takes time. In Experiment 2, on each trial, an abstract word was presented for 250 ms, immediately followed by a picture. Participants indicated whether or not the picture showed a normal situation. Decision latencies were significantly shorter for pictures preceded by related versus unrelated abstract words. Our experiments provide evidence that knowledge of events and situations is important for learning and using at least some types of abstract concepts. That is, abstract concepts are grounded in situations, but in a more complex manner than for concrete concepts. Although people's understanding of abstract concepts certainly includes knowledge gained from language describing situations and events for which those concepts are relevant, sensory and motor information experienced during real-life events is important as well.
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