Conceptual combination

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Chapter 5 endnote 14, 44, & 46, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

[note 14] If there are no emotion prototypes stored in the brain, how do people list their features so easily? Most likely, your brain constructs prototypes as you need them, on the spot. [...] Your brain is engaged in conceptual combination...


[note 44] How do you get a concept without a word? Well, your brain’s conceptual system has a special power called conceptual combination.


[note 46] Conceptual combination is a potent capability of the brain.

Conceptual combination occurs when existing concepts combine to form new concepts.

My hypothesis is that a concept is not a "thing" -- a single representation -- that is stored in the brain and retrieved when needed. The brain does not "store" material. It remembers (i.e., constructs) representations as needed. Think of your past experiences as a storehouse of raw materials that your brain can combine, as needed, to construct a concept. Combining concepts does not mean just adding their properties.[1] Conceptual combination occurs when people simulate (i.e., remember) instances of different concepts at the same time.[2]  For example, in your mind’s eye, can you construct a green snake, all curled up? How about a rolled up green garden hose? A piece of red string licorice? A red ribbon? Some of these examples will have resulted from conceptual combination.  

Different properties can be more salient in the combination than they were for the original individual concepts.  For example,  the concept gray hair is closer to white hair than black hair but gray cloud is closer to black cloud than white cloud.[3] This means that the meaning of the combination can’t be completely predicted by the meaning of the constituents.  Brains tend to try and construct combinations that are plausible and useful in the world.[4]

Conceptual combination helps explain what scientists call "mixed emotions."[5] In the classical view, mixed emotions occur when people have two emotions "at the same time." In my lab, our hypothesis is that the brain is always sampling from (i.e., remembering) a diverse set of past experiences (i.e., previous categorizations), each of which likely shares similar features with current circumstances (e.g., a past ‘fear’ experience with the same goal, a past ‘sadness’ experience with a similar cause, a past ‘anger’ experience with similar interoceptive sensations, etc.).  When the brain constructs a concept dynamically, each individual instance is formed by combining these past experiences.  In a toy example, a single instance of a concept (A) may be 40% probabilistically similar to past ‘fear’ experience(s), 30% to past ‘sadness’ experience(s), and 30% to past ‘anger’ experience(s); another (B) may be 90% similar to past ‘fear’ and only 10% similar to past ‘sadness’. 

Scientist now believe that the brain does not even contain concepts. Past experiences give the brain a conceptual system that it uses to create concepts as needed.[6][7]


Notes on the Notes

  1. Hampton, James A. 1991. "The combination of prototype concepts." In The Psychology of Word Meanings, edited by Paula J. Schwanenflugel, 91-116. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  2. Wu, Ling-ling, and Lawrence W. Barsalou. 2009. "Perceptual simulation in conceptual combination: Evidence from property generation." Acta Psychologica 132 (2): 173-189.
  3. Medin, Douglas L., and Edward J. Shoben. 1988. "Context and structure in conceptual combination." Cognitive Psychology 20 (2): 158-190.
  4. Costello, Fintan J., and Mark T. Keane. 2000. "Efficient creativity: Constraint-guided conceptual combination." Cognitive Science 24 (2): 299-349.
  5. Hoemann, Gendron, & Barrett, under review [full reference to be provided]
  6. Casasanto, D. and G. Lupyan, 2015. "All concepts are ad hoc concepts." In The Conceptual Mind: New Directions in the Study of Concepts, edited by E. Margolis and S. Laurence, 543-566. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
  7. Barsalou, Lawrence W., W. Kyle Simmons, Aron K. Barbey, and Christine D. Wilson. 2003. "Grounding conceptual knowledge in modality-specific systems." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7 (2): 84-91.