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How the Brain Processes Concrete and Abstract Words

6 minute read


A review of the region of the brain that processes words explored how abstract and concrete concepts are handled, and it sheds new light on the parts of the brain involved.

Words basically fall into two different categories: concrete and abstract. Concrete words are used to identify things that exist in reality, that is experienced through the five senses. There is usually not a lot of room for interpretation of concrete words.

Abstract words are defined differently, through associated words or feelings as opposed to their physical features. Because abstract words are subject to interpretation, they can mean different things to different people.

How the Brain Processes Words

A review by Maria Montefinese looked at neuroimaging studies to understand the role of different areas of the brain in decoding information regarding concrete concepts and abstract ones.

The semantic representation, or the knowledge we have of the world, is based on how similar or related concepts are to each other in our minds. Our perceptions of word meanings are based upon our experiences and our affective states, or how we’ve interacted with these words and how it made us feel.

MRIs of the parts of the brain that are involved in the way our brains approach words and then categorize them to give them meaning shows there is a greater engagement of the verbal system for abstract words and greater engagement of perceptual and mental imaging systems for concrete concepts.

While it’s evident that different brain areas are involved in the processing of abstract and concrete concepts, it’s not clear where the information and meaning of these words are encoded.

This new study looked at the brain areas involved in the encoding of words and characterized the organizational principles used.

How to Improve Cognitive Health

The data on how concepts are processed in the brain and then how meaning is assigned to semantics suggests that there are different levels of understanding based upon personal experience, which come together to create a full grasp of the concept.

This information seems to echo the ideas expressed in an article in Psychology Today. In this article, it's posited that, in order to improve your cognitive health or exercise your brain, you need to give it a complete workout that engages the entire brain. This is done by learning things in a three-dimensional world or having more concrete experiences.

If you want to improve your cognitive function, there are some habits you need to adopt that not only improve your current cognitive health but also help protect against future decline.

Physical Activity

Being physically active not only improves circulation, but it gives you more experiential learning opportunities. In addition, it’s recently been discovered that certain hormones are released during exercise, which may improve memory.

Openness to Experience

A great way to build upon your understanding of concrete concepts is to experience more. Doing something unfamiliar and mentally challenging provides broad stimulation and pushes you into a brain-enhancing zone.

Curiosity and Creativity

Let your curiosity and creativity lead the way to learn new things, and being able to experience spontaneous events from a different perspective. This also opens the mind up to more problem-solving opportunities, further supporting brain growth.

Social Connections

Expanding your social sphere provides surprising mental benefits. A study reviewing social activity and cognitive function found even brief social interactions boosted working memory, self-monitoring, and the ability to suppress distractions. All of these are essential in solving common problems.

Mindful Meditation

The amount of research done on meditation is staggering, and most of it is very favorable for physical, mental, and emotional health. One study from The New York Academy of Sciences discovered that meditation can offset the age-related decline.

| Related: New Benefits of Meditation: Effect on Brain Structure |

Brain-Training Games

Why not take the time you use gaming on your phone and turn it into a more worthwhile activity. Try some brain-training games to challenge yourself in a fun way.

Adequate Sleep

Too many people lack the sleep their body and brain needs to function at its highest potential. One area that sleep deprivation takes a great toll is in the cognitive recovery process that only happens when we’re asleep.

Stress Reduction

Neuroscientists point the finger at high levels of cortisol, brought on by chronic stress as a brain-damaging hormone. Chronic stress can trigger long term brain changes which can lead to a cognitive decline. Reducing stress will reduce the amount of damaging cortisol in your body.

The Bottom Line

New information on how the brain processes concepts and words tell us that different areas of the brain are involved in different parts of speech. These different parts of the brain have to work together to put concrete and abstract concepts together to form meaning.

This approach gives credence to working the entire brain as a way to stimulate cognitive development and health. By adopting several healthy habits, you can strengthen your brain and, in turn, improve your cognitive potential.

If you’re looking to make some changes that support brain health now and as you age, try: reducing stress, getting enough sleep, playing brain-training games, practicing meditation, being more social, letting your creative side out to play, trying new experiences that push you outside of your comfort zone, and exercise more.

Even if you can only accomplish a few of these habits successfully, your brain will benefit.

READ NEXT >>> How the Brain Navigates Memory


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