UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology


How the brain knows a dog is a dog: concept acquisition in the human brain

24 September 2009

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One of the defining characteristics of human intelligence is the ability to use prior knowledge when dealing with new situations through the development of 'concepts'. For example, we know that an animal that barks, has four legs, is furry and has a snout is likely to be a dog.

"Although a poodle and a golden retriever look very different from each other, we can easily appreciate their similar attributes because they can be recognised as instances of a particular concept, in this case a dog," explains Dr Dharshan Kumaran from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London (IoN Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience).

Yet while there is little doubt that humans form and use concepts all the time, very little is known about how conceptual knowledge is created in the brain or how it allows us to make efficient choices.

A new study explores how our brains synthesize concepts that allow us to organize and comprehend the world. The research, published by Cell Press in the September 24th issue of the journal Neuron, uses behavioral and neuroimaging techniques to track how conceptual knowledge emerges in the human brain and guides decision making.

"Our study offers neurobiological insights into the remarkable capacity of humans to develop concepts based on their visual experiences," say Dr Kumaran. "It reveals how so-called 'memory' regions like the hippocampus team up with 'decision modules' in the prefrontal lobe to put this information to use."

read more >> Wellcome Trust press release | Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging | Eurekalert | Neuron

reference >> Dharshan Kumaran, Jennifer J. Summerfield, Demis Hassabis, Eleanor A. Maguire. Tracking the Emergence of Conceptual Knowledge during Human Decision Making. Neuron, 2009; DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2009.07.030

Adapted from materials provided by the Wellcome Trust, Cell Press & other sources.