Concepts' social nature
Human beings need concepts to survive. They distinguish the objects and entities they encounter and interact with. Concepts are the 'glue' that connects human beings' past, present and future.
To date, science has been mainly concerned with studying the creation and representation of concepts and the words that express them in the brain, giving less importance to their social dimension.
A new special issue coordinated by the Department of Dynamic and Clinical Psychology and Health Studies of Sapienza University of Rome proposes to approach the study of concepts through a new lens, that of social interaction. Through various theoretical, experimental and computational studies, the authors, who are part of the European exchange project Traincrease, have shown how interaction with other people and interaction with ourselves, e.g. through the use of internal language, influence concepts and enhance our cognitive abilities.
The paper is divided into two parts: the first focuses on how social interaction influences concepts. For example, a study shows that social interaction facilitates access to information when people interacting think similarly (convergent thinking) and promotes exploration behaviour when people have different opinions (divergent thinking). In general, abstract processes are facilitated if groups are composed of heterogeneous and dissimilar members.
The second part focuses on how internal language can profoundly influence our concepts, representing a fundamental element for constructing and understanding, particularly abstract concepts. Indeed, the latter, which are more complex and heterogeneous than concrete concepts, activate internal language to a greater extent.
"Different types of internal language can be used at different stages in the acquisition and use of abstract concepts," says Anna Borghi of Sapienza University. "Suppose we are told an abstract word, such as 'fantasy': in the first stage, we monitor our knowledge and search for its meaning in our working memory; we might then continue the search by talking to ourselves (dialogic internal language). If this search does not work, we turn to others for information'.
In general, this new way of understanding concepts, which anchors them to interact with ourselves and others, has many theoretical and practical implications.
In the educational sphere, it can improve the acquisition of concepts, particularly abstract ones; in the neuropsychological field, it helps to address the problem of conceptual deficits following brain injury; and from a technological perspective, it constitutes the prerequisite for the creation of artificial systems capable of reproducing, at least to some extent, the most sophisticated human intellectual capacities.
Concepts in interaction: social engagement and inner experiences - Anna M. Borghi, Albertyna Osinka, Andreas Roepstorff, Joanna Raczaszek-Leonardi - Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Biological Science (2022) https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2021.0351
Department of Dynamic and Clinical Psychology and Health Studies