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Pulvermüller, F. 2018. The Case of CAUSE: Neurobiological Mechanisms for Grounding an Abstract Concept

News vom 01.10.2018


How can we understand causal relationships and how can we understand words such as 'cause'? Some theorists assume that the underlying abstract concept is given to us, and that perceptual correlation provides the relevant hints towards inferring causation from perceived real-life events. A different approach emphasizes the role of actions and their typical consequences for the emergence of the concept of causation and the application of the related term. A model of causation is proposed that highlights the family resemblance between causal actions and postulates that symbols are necessary for binding together the different partially shared semantic features of subsets of causal actions and their goals. Linguistic symbols are proposed to play a key role in binding the different subsets of semantic features of the abstract concept. The model is spelt out at the neuromechanistic level of distributed cortical circuits and the cognitive functions they carry. The model is discussed in light of behavioural and neuroscience evidence, and questions for future research are highlighted. In sum, taking causation as a concrete example, I argue that abstract concepts and words can be learnt and grounded in real-life interaction, and that the neurobiological mechanisms realizing such abstract semantic grounding are within our grasp.This article is part of the theme issue 'Varieties of abstract concepts: development, use and representation in the brain'.

DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0129

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