Language influences perception and concept formation
A neurobiologically constrained model of semantic learning in the human brain was used to simulate the acquisition of concrete and abstract concepts, either with or without verbal labels. Concept acquisition and semantic learning were simulated using Hebbian learning mechanisms. The network’s category learning performance is defined as the extent to which it successfully: (i) grouped partly overlapping perceptual instances into a single (abstract or concrete) conceptual representation, while (ii) still distinguishing representations for distinct concepts.
Co-presence of linguistic labels with perceptual instances of a given concept generally improved the network’s learning of categories, with a significantly larger beneficial effect for abstract than concrete concepts. These results offer a neurobiological explanation for causal effects of language structure on concept formation and on perceptuomotor processing of instances of these concepts: supplying a verbal label during concept acquisition improves the cortical mechanisms by which experiences with objects and actions along with the learning of words lead to the formation of neuronal ensembles for specific concepts and meanings. Furthermore, the present results make a novel prediction, namely, that such ‘Whorfian’ effects should be modulated by the “concreteness / abstractness” of the semantic categories being acquired, with language labels supporting the learning of abstract concepts more than that of concrete ones.
A brain constrained neurocomputational simulation study explored putative brain mechanisms of associating conceptual categories (each constituted by three distinct, but related, grounding patterns) with linguistic labels. There is a clear Whorfian effect of category labels on the processing of conceptual instances: the model’s activity in response to perceptuo-motor grounding patterns was modulated depending on whether or not labels had been provided during the earlier training phase. Labels were highly beneficial for semantic category learning performance, and this benefit was more strongly pronounced for abstract compared to concrete concepts and even more so in the deeper-lying semantic ‘hub’ areas of the model than in the primary areas, where stimulation was given. Thus, these effects of linguistic relativity are substantially modulated by the similarity structure of concepts, being more effective and relevant for the formation of abstract concepts with family resemblance structure than for concrete concepts with shared semantic features.
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[…] to something else. Yet, it is often argued that attentional effects do not count as evidence that perception is influenced by cognition. Two arguments often given to justify excluding attention; both of these arguments are highly […]