By Abigail Kendal (’22)
Why do we trust people? Why do we forgive? Why do we feel inclined to tell the truth and feel a sense of shame when we lie? How and why do humans possess such strong emotional, mental, and psychological connections to abstract concepts such as truth, forgiveness, trust, and faith? Psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers have been searching for the scientific and spiritual answers to these seemingly unanswerable questions since we discovered these concepts themselves.
According to Hebb University Professor, Dr. Marcel Just , “Humans have the unique ability to construct abstract concepts that have no anchor in the physical world, but we often take this ability for granted”. In essence, these ideas and concepts do not actually exist, however, in a very real way, they do. This is what fueled the study at Carnegie Mellon University and their exploration of the neural mechanisms behind these supposedly “fake” concepts.
It may be simple to understand the mechanisms behind something tangible; for example, a book. This object is deeply rooted within our five senses and can be easily processed due to its connections within the physical world around us. Despite the obvious connection between the brain’s processing power and the environment surrounding it, how do values, virtues, and morals become instilled within us? Why does the process seem inherent in spite of the many cultural barriers that separate humans? According to Robert Vargus, a graduate student of Just’s, “It becomes difficult to describe the neural environment of abstract thoughts because many of the brain’s mental tools to process them are themselves abstract”.
In the process of defining these abstract processing tools, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University conducted MRI scans on nine participants and identified patterns between the data. During the scan, the scientists visually presented the abstract concepts and allowed the participant to think about the idea for three seconds. Throughout this process, the researchers coined what they have called “the brain’s indexing system”, meaning that each abstract concept has an association that is deeply rooted within the language, visual, reference, and social constructs of the brain. In this manner, while perceptions and ideas surrounding topics such as truth, faith, forgiveness, shame, and spirituality may be vastly different, they are neurally identical.
So the next time you are feeling philosophical, remember that these “fake” ideas may be more real than you actually think .