The science of linguistics: The brain processes concrete vs. abstract words differently
07/13/2019 // Paul Waters // Views

In an review published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, an Italian researcher explored the various areas of the human brain responsible for processing the meanings of concrete and abstract words. Language is generally separated into two categories, concrete and abstract. Concrete words refer to things that exist in the physical world and can be perceived by the five senses. Abstract words on the other hand, are intangible things humans can’t experience using their five basic senses.

Maria Montefinese, the author of the review, states that different areas of the human brain are used in semantic processing of concrete and abstract words. The purpose of the review was to identify which specific areas of the brain are responsible for encoding all the information underlying the meaning of concrete and abstract words.

The brain regions involved with processing abstract and concrete words

Montefinese analyzed three separate studies to determine which parts of the human brain are used in organizing concrete and abstract words. These studies involved imaging tests on the volunteers' brains while they performed a series of language-related tasks.

The first study involved a group of volunteers comprised of native English speakers. They were assigned to complete two tasks that included a set of 40 concrete words. The first task was for them to provide answers about the visual aspect of each word. For the second task, they answered questions about the abstract characteristics of the words. Results showed that the volunteers used their perirhinal cortex, a part of the brain responsible for memory and recognition, to process the answers for the two tasks. It also showed that for the second task, the volunteers also used their parahippocampal cortex, a part of the brain associated with memory formation, to answer the non-visual questions.


The second study involved native Chinese speakers. During this test, the researchers tasked the volunteers to judge the familiarity of a series of words with more than 300 abstract concepts. The study revealed that the volunteers used a network of different brain regions, such as the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and the middle temporal gyrus (MTG), in organizing abstract information. The IFG is the part of the human brain associated with processing language while MTG is involved in retrieving the meaning of a specific word.

For the third and final study, the researchers worked with a group of native Italian speakers. The researchers provided the volunteers strings of letters and asked them to decide whether they formed real words. Half of the words provided were either abstract or concrete while the other half were made-up words. The researchers saw that the left IFG acted as a “neural crossroad” that helped people differentiate between concrete and abstract words.

Brain processes can help develop advanced communication platforms

Montefinese wrote that the three studies helped her understand how the brain processes concrete and abstract words across different languages. She also stated that a left-lateralized semantic network promotes a better understanding of word-meaning structure in human brains.

The results of Montefinesse's investigation can potentially be used in the development of brain-to-brain communication platforms like BrainNet. BrainNet is the world's first brain-to-brain interface designed to combine electroencephalography (EEG), which records brain signals, and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which delivers signals to the brain. Brain-to-brain platforms like BrainNet allows humans to communicate and work together using only the power of their brains. (Related: One step closer to brain-controlled human / computer interfaces.)

Visit to learn more about the wonders of the human brain.

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