A central question in the study of the mind and brain is how concepts are represented. This question guides basic science research but also has implications for our understanding of neurodegenerative disorders and acute neurological conditions that affect language and memory. For the past two decades we (and many of our colleagues in the fields of cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, and neuroscience) have been trying to understand the cognitive and neural structure of long-term memory for concepts by taking the concepts apart. The goal of the proposed project is to put concepts back together, using a combination of complementary methods in order to understand how features are integrated into concepts and how concepts are integrated into events. Specifically, (1) We aim to understand how features are combined (and then re-combined) and integrated into concepts, both in isolation and in combination; (2) We aim to understand how concepts are interpreted in relation to other concepts; (3) We aim to characterize the roles that the anterior temporal lobe (ATL) and the angular gyrus (AG) play in semantic memory. We believe the proposed research stands to have a major and sustained impact on the field, by moving researchers away from the question of how individual features or concepts are represented to the more pressing question of how all of that information can be flexibly combined and recombined to generate an infinite number of ideas.
One of the most remarkable cognitive abilities we possess is the ability to combine (and recombine) concepts to form an infinite number of ideas. The goal of this project is to understand the mental operations that allow us to do this, and the neural systems that support conceptual combination. We will combine cutting-edge brain imaging techniques in healthy volunteers with a systematic investigation of the ways in which conceptual combination can fail following chronic or transient changes to brain systems.