Abstraction and concepts

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A note for Lesson no. 7, "Our Brains Can Create Reality," in Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context from page 117 is:

Your brain compresses away the physical differences of these objects and in the process, you understand they have a similar function.

Abstraction is another way to say that the human brain makes concepts.[1] This does not mean that concepts are amodal.[2] Instead, it means that creatures have the capacity to understand that two things can be similar to one another in terms of their function, rather than what they look, sound, or taste like.

In psychology, a category is a group of objects, events, or people that are similar in some way. A concept is the brain’s representation of a group of similar things (i.e., a representation of a category).

Some concepts are similar in their perceptual features, because the similarities are observable physical features. For example, physical features of oranges are that they tend to be round, are small enough to grasp in the palm of a human hand, are peeled before eating, squish with juice when you bite into them, raise your blood sugar afterward, and are generally the color orange (although they can sometimes be a bit red or green). Other concepts are called abstract because the instances don’t look the same, smell the same, sound the same, and so on, and you must transcend these perceptual differences to infer their functional similarity in a given situation. For example, "food" is an abstract concept because the distinction between “food” and “not food” is cultural, as we saw in lesson no. 6 with bee larva and sheep’s head.

A single item can sometimes be part of multiple concepts, depending on the situation: a dandelion with its leaves is sometimes food (e.g., to be eaten in a salad), sometimes a flower (e.g., to be showcased in a bouquet of wildflowers ), and sometimes a weed (e.g., to be removed from a manicured lawn). Even items with similar physical features can become part of a concept as a consequence of their function in a certain situation; for example, fish can be grouped in different ways depending on whether their function is to serve as food for humans, to become a pet, to become food for another animal, to be caught for sport, or to be admired in an aquarium (for a review, see [3]).

Your brain can create concepts on the fly, based on the function that a category serves in a specific situation. These are called ad hoc concepts.[4][5]


  1. Brincat, Scott L., Markus Siegel, Constantin von Nicolai, and Earl K. Miller. 2018. "Gradual Progression From Sensory To Task-related Processing in Cerebral Cortex." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115 (30): E7202-E7211.
  2. 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.
  3. Hoemann, Katie, Rachel Wu, Vanessa LoBue, Lisa M. Oakes, Fei Xu, and Lisa Feldman Barrett. 2019. "Developing an Understanding of Emotion Categories: Lessons from Objects." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 24: 39–51.
  4. Barsalou, Lawrence W. 1983. “Ad Hoc Categories." Memory & Cognition 11 (3): 211–227.
  5. Barrett, Lisa Feldman. 2017. How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, chapter 5. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.