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What is meaning?

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Mandy Carter.

What is meaning? Does it reside in the brain? And, if yes, where?

The mechanism underlying the understanding of signs and symbols represents one of the most exciting topics of current neuroscience research. Most researchers attribute the binding between a sign and its meaning to a “binding area” or “semantic centre” in the cortex. However, opinions differ widely as the where this area is localised and imaging results indicate activation of a wide range of cortical areas during semantic tasks. Moreover, patients with lesions in various brain areas show semantic deficits, for example in processing specific semantic classes of words. Should the concept of a mechanism for meaning therefore be abandoned?

A solution lies in the nature of meaning itself. For a long time, philosophers have tried to define what “meaning” might be, or what the word “meaning” means. The result of this work is that a range of different kinds of meaning exist and, correspondingly, there are a range of word kinds with different meaning characteristics. Traditionally, the meaning of a word is seen as the object it relates to, but other words obviously relate to actions and it is feasible that the different kinds of words call upon different brain areas.

A model of category-specific semantic processing will be highlighted along with some empirical evidence supporting it. The neuroscience results will also be related to their philosophical roots and the implications of neuroscience research for more general questions about language and thought may be touched upon in closing.

Suggested reading to prepare for the lecture:

Pulvermüller, F. (2005). Brain mechanisms linking language and action. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6(7), 576-582.

This talk is part of the Graduate Programme in Cognitive and Brain Sciences series.

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