Objects can have functional and associative relationships or they might have conceptual relationships. Finding the unity in what appears to be diversity is critical for creativity, and when Denney (1974) asked individuals to group objects, elderly people were more likely than younger individuals to group by associative relationships than by semantic categories. For example, whereas a bow and an arrow have an associative relationship, a bow and rifle have a semantic-conceptual relationship (weapons). The means by which the brain develops associative relationships versus conceptual relationships is unknown; however, grouping by associative relationships can be done based on the physical properties. Hence, if a person is asked to group the word bow with either arrow or rifle, one could imagine a bow together with an arrow easier than one could imagine a bow together with a rifle unless one activated the "deeper" concept of weapons. Thus, grouping at the conceptual level is more abstract than grouping at an associative level. The term abstract comes from the Latin term abstractus, which means to draw away. Abstract nouns, unlike concrete nouns, cannot be defined by their physical characteristics. In chapter 3 I described how the different senses project to different parts of the brain, with visual stimuli going to the occipital lobes, auditory stimuli going to the temporal lobes, and the tactile stimuli going to the anterior portion of the parietal lobes (see Figure 3.6). As I mentioned, each of these primary sensory areas send information to their own modality-specific sensory association cortices. Within a modality these sensory association areas synthesize the sensory input and develop percepts. These modality-specific cortical sensory association areas also contain modal-specific representations (memory) of previously perceived stimuli. Thus, these areas are very important in stimulus recognition. These visual, auditory, and tactile association areas all send projections that meet in neuronal assemblies in the posterior inferior parietal lobe and in the posterior portion of the temporal lobes (see Figure 3.6). These posterior parietal and temporal areas are called multimodal or polymodal association areas. The meeting of all these modality-specific association areas in the posterior parietal and temporal lobe allows humans to perform cross-modal associations and develop supramodal representations. Cross-modal associations allow us to develop symbols (e.g., written or heard words, which are symbols of actions or objects; numbers and mathematical signs, which are symbols of quantity and the relationships between quantities; or musical notes, which are the symbols for the frequency and duration of sounds). These supramodal representations allow us to understand, develop, and store abstract concepts.
The finding that older individuals are more likely to group items by using associative rather than semantic strategies (Denney & Denney, 1982) is compatible with the idea that aging is associated with a loss of the long association fibers, and it is these connections that might be important in the functions of supramodal association areas, which involve understanding how that which appears to be diverse might be related.
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