When I was in college, I was fascinated with how humans learn and use language. I took every course I could find related to language — The Philosophy of Language, The Psychology of Language, and Linguistics, in addition to double-majoring in French and Russian. The explanations suggested by the different disciplines were divergent and none really seemed very satisfying. I am still as fascinated by language and excited anew because some of the questions that none of my college courses were able to address are beginning to be answered.
I remember writing a major paper on Wittgenstein (not easy reading as I remember) and how he characterized meaning. What was a concept and how did multiple instances of the same idea — like a dog or a chair or a table — cohere around a common meaning? Do we store images of some “ideal” or do we memorize all instances of a concept and learn them each? Do we isolate the individual characteristics of a table and compare new instances to the characteristics of “tableness”?
Modern neuroscience has now opened a window into understanding how concepts are developed. Recent research reported in Science Daily (one of my favorite sources for what’s new in brain research) at University College London showed that a kind of circuit exists between the hippocampus and part of the prefrontal cortex that is activated when concepts are emerging and being applied. It was activity in the hippocampus alone that was associated with the ability to develop and apply a concept; the prefrontal cortex, the research suggests, receives the information for decision-making purposes.
In this research, participants observed patterns in the night sky and used them to predict the following day’s weather, developing concepts with predictive value based on visual processing of information.
The research suggests that concept formation is a memory process, involving the unique ability of the hippocampus to network multiple memories. Of course, the research raises many new questions — as all good research does — such as how these networks are activated when we put them into specific words in language. Even so, the research underscores the powerful ways different parts of our brains work together and the importance of cognitive processes like memory and concept formation in our everyday lives.