Shapes, scents and sounds: Quantifying the full multi-sensory basis of conceptual knowledge

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    Contemporary neuroscience theories assume that concepts are formed through experience in multiple sensory-motor modalities. Quantifying the contribution of each modality to different object categories is critical to understanding the structure of the conceptual system and to explaining category-specific knowledge deficits. Verbal feature listing is typically used to elicit this information but has a number of drawbacks: sensory knowledge often cannot easily be translated into verbal features and many features are experienced in multiple modalities. Here, we employed a more direct approach in which subjects rated their knowledge of objects in each sensory-motor modality separately. Compared with these ratings, feature listing over-estimated the importance of visual form and functional knowledge and under-estimated the contributions of other sensory channels. An item's sensory rating proved to be a better predictor of lexical-semantic processing speed than the number of features it possessed, suggesting that ratings better capture the overall quantity of sensory information associated with a concept. Finally, the richer, multi-modal rating data not only replicated the sensory-functional distinction between animals and non-living things but also revealed novel distinctions between different types of artefact. Hierarchical cluster analyses indicated that mechanical devices (e.g., vehicles) were distinct from other non-living objects because they had strong sound and motion characteristics, making them more similar to animals in this respect. Taken together, the ratings align with neuroscience evidence in suggesting that a number of distinct sensory processing channels make important contributions to object knowledge. Multi-modal ratings for 160 objects are provided as supplementary materials. © 2012 Elsevier Ltd.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)14-25
    Number of pages11
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Jan 2013


    • Category-specific deficits
    • Object knowledge
    • Semantic representation
    • Sensory-functional theory


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