Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 July 2009
Successful interaction with objects in the environment is the precondition for our survival and for the success of our attempts to improve life by using artifacts and technologies to transform our environment. Our ability to interact appropriately with objects depends on the capacity, fundamental for human beings, for categorizing objects and storing information about them, thus forming concepts, and on the capacity to associate concepts with names. Concepts serve as a kind of “mental glue” that “ties our past experiences to our present interactions with the world” (Murphy, 2002). These concepts are the cognitive and mental aspects of categories (Barsalou, Simmons, Barbey, & Wilson, 2003).
The generally accepted view sees concepts as being made of propositional symbols related arbitrarily to their referents. This implies that there exists a process by which sensorimotor experience is translated into amodal symbols. By proposing that concepts are, rather, grounded in sensorimotor activity, many authors have shown the limitations of this view (Barsalou, 1999; Harnad, 1990; Thelen & Smith, 1994). According to Barsalou (1999), concepts are perceptual symbols – i.e., recordings of the neural activation that arises during perception – arranged as distributed systems or “simulators.” Once we have a simulator it is possible to activate simulations, which consist in the reenactment of a part of the content of the simulator.
This view presupposes a close relationship among perception, action, and cognition.