Study suggests that we experience symbolic objects as social entities
A new study from IMC researchers Kristian Tylén, Riccardo Fusaroli, and Andreas Roepstorff, published in the scientific journal NeuroImage, used LEGO bricks to investigate the neurocognitive underpinnings of our engagements with symbolic objects. The study suggests that we experience symbolic objects as social entities.
Sometimes objects are just objects, that is, static, material things. But some objects are relevant to us due to their particular role or value in our social lives. Symbolic artifacts such as road signs, national flags, wedding rings, and artworks are imbued with social significance as they are developed, negotiated and engaged in a variety of everyday cultural practices. More than mere physical objects, we thus experience them as vehicles of social meaning: although a red traffic light does not present any physical impediment to movement, it still (most often) stops us from crossing the street. LEGO Bricks to illustrate
A new study conducted by IMC researchers Kristian Tylén, Riccardo Fusaroli and Andreas Roepstorff, and just published in the high-ranking scientific journal NeuroImage, investigates the neurocognitive underpinnings of our engagements with such symbolic artifacts. In a two-day experimental study, participants in groups first built collective models of LEGO bricks to illustrate their understanding of abstract concepts such as ‘justice’, ‘safety’ and ‘collaboration’. Later they went into an fMRI brain scanner where they would be presented with pictures of their own and others’ LEGO models. Interestingly, when participants attended to the meaning of the models, brain areas associated with social cognition and language were activated. These areas are often found in studies where participants watch social stimuli or are instructed to think about other people’s mental states. Lead researcher Kristian Tylén explains:
“It is really interesting that brain areas associated with social interaction and reasoning are also active when our participants look at static, dead objects. It tells us that these objects have gained symbolic meaning through social interaction in the preceding group interventions”.
Furthermore, special activation patterns in brain areas related to social empathy were found when participants saw LEGO models that they had built with their own group in contrast to models made by other groups. Riccardo Fusaroli continues:
“Activation in these areas were found to depend on how closely the participants felt related to their fellow group members after the LEGO construction sessions.”
Together these finding shed new light on the special status of symbolic objects in human cognition. More than simple material structures these objects are experienced as an extension of our social engagements with each other, as trails of social and cultural interactions.
About this psychology research
Funding: This research was supported by the Danish Council for Independent Research’s project Joint Diagrammatical Reasoning in Language (grant number 0602-01756B), the Interacting Minds Centre (Aarhus University), the EU Marie Currie ITN network Towards an Embodied Science of Intersubjectivity, TESIS and the ESF project Digging for the Roots of Understanding, DRUST.
Source: Kristian Tylén – Aarhus University Image Source: The image is credited to Tylén et al./NeuroImage and is adapted from the open access research paper. Original Research: Full open access research for “Trails of meaning construction: Symbolic artifacts engage the social brain” by Kristian Tylén, Johanne Stege Philipsen, Andreas Roepstorff, and Riccardo Fusaroli in NeuroImage. Published online March 31 2016 doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.03.056
Trails of meaning construction: Symbolic artifacts engage the social brain
Symbolic artifacts present a challenge to theories of neurocognitive processing due to their hybrid nature: they are at the same time physical objects and vehicles of intangible social meanings. While their physical properties can be read of their perceptual appearance, the meaning of symbolic artifacts depends on the perceiver’s interpretative attitude and embeddedness in cultural practices. In this study, participants built models of LEGO bricks to illustrate their understanding of abstract concepts. They were then scanned with fMRI while presented to photographs of their own and others’ models. When participants attended to the meaning of the models in contrast to their bare physical properties, we observed activations in mPFC and TPJ, areas often associated with social cognition, and IFG, possibly related to semantics. When contrasting own and others’ models, we also found activations in precuneus, an area associated with autobiographical memory and agency, while looking at one’s own collective models yielded interaction effects in rostral ACC, right IFG and left Insula. Interestingly, variability in the insula was predicted by individual differences in participants’ feeling of relatedness to their fellow group members during LEGO construction activity. Our findings support a view of symbolic artifacts as neuro-cognitive trails of human social interactions.
“Trails of meaning construction: Symbolic artifacts engage the social brain” by Kristian Tylén, Johanne Stege Philipsen, Andreas Roepstorff, and Riccardo Fusaroli in NeuroImage. Published online March 31 2016 doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.03.056