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J Neuropsychol. 2016 Sep;10(2):317-43. doi: 10.1111/jnp.12065. Epub 2015 Feb 23.

The meaning of 'life' and other abstract words: Insights from neuropsychology.

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Neuroscience and Aphasia Research Unit (NARU), University of Manchester, UK.
Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE), Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh, UK.


There are a number of long-standing theories on how the cognitive processing of abstract words, like 'life', differs from that of concrete words, like 'knife'. This review considers current perspectives on this debate, focusing particularly on insights obtained from patients with language disorders and integrating these with evidence from functional neuroimaging studies. The evidence supports three distinct and mutually compatible hypotheses. (1) Concrete and abstract words differ in their representational substrates, with concrete words depending particularly on sensory experiences and abstract words on linguistic, emotional, and magnitude-based information. Differential dependence on visual versus verbal experience is supported by the evidence for graded specialization in the anterior temporal lobes for concrete versus abstract words. In addition, concrete words have richer representations, in line with better processing of these words in most aphasic patients and, in particular, patients with semantic dementia. (2) Abstract words place greater demands on executive regulation processes because they have variable meanings that change with context. This theory explains abstract word impairments in patients with semantic-executive deficits and is supported by neuroimaging studies showing greater response to abstract words in inferior prefrontal cortex. (3) The relationships between concrete words are governed primarily by conceptual similarity, while those of abstract words depend on association to a greater degree. This theory, based primarily on interference and priming effects in aphasic patients, is the most recent to emerge and the least well understood. I present analyses indicating that patterns of lexical co-occurrence may be important in understanding these effects.


concreteness; imageability; semantic aphasia; semantic cognition; semantic control; semantic dementia

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