A Caltech Library Service

The Neural Basis of Conceptualizing the Same Action at Different Levels of Abstraction

Spunt, Robert P. and Kemmerer, David and Adolphs, Ralph (2016) The Neural Basis of Conceptualizing the Same Action at Different Levels of Abstraction. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11 (7). pp. 1141-1151. ISSN 1749-5016. PMCID PMC4927039.

[img] PDF - Published Version
Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial.

[img] MS Word (Supplementary Data) - Supplemental Material
Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial.

[img] Archive (ZIP) - Supplemental Material
Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial.


Use this Persistent URL to link to this item:


People can conceptualize the same action (e.g., "riding a bike") at different levels of abstraction (LOA), where higher LOAs specify the abstract motives that explain why the action is performed (e.g., "getting exercise"), while lower LOAs specify the concrete steps that indicate how the action is performed (e.g., "gripping handlebars"). Prior neuroimaging studies have shown that why and how questions about actions differentially activate two cortical networks associated with mental-state reasoning and action representation, respectively; however, it remains unknown whether this is due to the differential demands of the questions per se or to the shifts in LOA those questions produce. We conducted functional MRI while participants judged pairs of action phrases that varied in LOA and that could be framed either as a why question (Why ride a bike? Get exercise.) or a how question (How to get exercise? Ride a bike.). Question framing (why vs. how) had no effect on activity in regions of the two networks. Instead, these regions uniquely tracked parametric variation in LOA, both across and within trials. This suggests that the human capacity to understand actions at different levels of abstraction is based in the relative activity of two cortical networks.

Item Type:Article
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription CentralArticle
Adolphs, Ralph0000-0002-8053-9692
Additional Information:© The Author(s) (2015). Published by Oxford University Press. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Received March 20, 2015. Revision received May 19, 2015. Accepted June 24, 2015. First published online: June 27, 2015. The Authors would like to acknowledge Emily Ellsworth for help with data collection; Mike Tyszka and the Caltech Brain Imaging Center for help with the neuroimaging; and the Della Martin Foundation for postdoctoral fellowship support to R.P.S. This work was supported in part by the National Institutes of Health (R01 MH080721-03 to R.A.).
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Della Martin FoundationUNSPECIFIED
NIHR01 MH080721-03
Subject Keywords:action understanding; semantic memory; abstraction; concepts; social cognition; fMRI
Issue or Number:7
PubMed Central ID:PMC4927039
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20150708-092817791
Persistent URL:
Official Citation:Robert P. Spunt, David Kemmerer, and Ralph Adolphs The neural basis of conceptualizing the same action at different levels of abstraction Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci (2016) 11 (7): 1141-1151 first published online June 27, 2015 doi:10.1093/scan/nsv084
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:58803
Deposited By: Ruth Sustaita
Deposited On:08 Jul 2015 17:21
Last Modified:01 Apr 2020 23:28

Repository Staff Only: item control page