Words work as a glue, allowing us to group together different experiences under one label. This is especially true for concepts that we cannot see or touch. But we still don’t really understand how language works in shaping the meaning of these more abstract concepts, or how it allows us to group experiences together under one “umbrella” term, which denotes something we cannot point to, or see, or touch.
Concrete concepts such as “banana” and abstract ones such as “freedom” differ in many ways. To get a grasp of this difference, Google the words “banana” and “freedom” and compare the images that are returned by the browser. For “banana” you get pictures that are quite similar to one another. For “freedom”, on the other hand, you get very different types of images that apparently have little in common.
The difference between concrete and abstract concepts has been researched by a large body of scientific studies. This research has demonstrated that concrete concepts are far more easily learned and remembered than abstract ones. Clinical studies conducted on patients with damages in specific brain areas reveal that some patients lose the ability to understand and recall abstract concepts but not concrete ones. This is because abstract and concrete concepts are processed in different, although overlapping, brain areas.
Despite these documented differences, and despite the fact that around 70% of the words we use on a daily basis designate abstract concepts, most scientific theories that address the big question of how language works in the brain are based on analyses of words denoting concrete concepts only.
It’s obvious why. Imagine that an alien came from outer space and wanted to learn your language. You could show her a banana while spelling the word “banana”, and after a few times the connection might stick to the alien’s memory. But how would you teach her the meaning of “freedom”?
Read more: The Conversation