What does it mean to know something about the world? Central to any theory of knowledge is a theory of concepts, those mental representations that allow us to categorize information in the world. In this project, we attempt to understand concepts by studying their neural instantiation. The central aim of this project is to advance our understanding of the neural representation of concepts via a characterization of similarity. The broader goal of this research program is to develop a strategy for understanding the neural representation of all types of knowledge;however, to make this problem more tractable, we are focusing on a specific type of concept - concrete objects - and on a particular type of knowledge about those concepts - their visual appearance. Specifically, (1) We aim to describe the neural representation of object concepts by characterizing neural tuning to features in a multidimensional similarity space;(2) We aim to examine variation in the neural representations of object concepts, across concepts, across individuals, and across attentional states;(3) We aim to explore to role of sleep-dependent consolidation processes in the acquisition of new object concept knowledge;(4) We aim to develop innovative methods for the characterization of neural similarity more generally.

Public Health Relevance

Without concepts, we would be unable to make sense of the infinite variation in the world. Concepts organize our experiences, and they alter perception, memory, language, and action. The goal of this project is to understand the way in which conceptual knowledge is organized and the manner in which it is implemented in the brain. We will apply innovative neuroscientific methods to discover how we learn about the objects around us and how we access that information when remembering those objects.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Eye Institute (NEI)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-BBBP-E (05))
Program Officer
Steinmetz, Michael A
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Pennsylvania
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
Zip Code
Musz, Elizabeth; Thompson-Schill, Sharon L (2015) Semantic variability predicts neural variability of object concepts. Neuropsychologia 76:41-51
Coutanche, Marc N; Thompson-Schill, Sharon L (2015) Creating Concepts from Converging Features in Human Cortex. Cereb Cortex 25:2584-93
Hsu, Nina S; Schlichting, Margaret L; Thompson-Schill, Sharon L (2014) Feature diagnosticity affects representations of novel and familiar objects. J Cogn Neurosci 26:2735-49
Boylan, Christine; Trueswell, John C; Thompson-Schill, Sharon L (2014) Multi-voxel pattern analysis of noun and verb differences in ventral temporal cortex. Brain Lang 137:40-9
Coutanche, Marc N; Thompson-Schill, Sharon L (2014) Using informational connectivity to measure the synchronous emergence of fMRI multi-voxel information across time. J Vis Exp :
Coutanche, Marc N; Thompson-Schill, Sharon L (2014) Fast mapping rapidly integrates information into existing memory networks. J Exp Psychol Gen 143:2296-303
Coutanche, Marc N; Gianessi, Carol A; Chanales, Avi J H et al. (2013) The role of sleep in forming a memory representation of a two-dimensional space. Hippocampus 23:1189-97
Coutanche, Marc N; Thompson-Schill, Sharon L (2013) Informational connectivity: identifying synchronized discriminability of multi-voxel patterns across the brain. Front Hum Neurosci 7:15