Linking somatic and symbolic representation in semantic memory: the dynamic multilevel reactivation framework

Jamie Reilly, Jonathan E. Peelle, Amanda Garcia, Sebastian J. Crutch

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


Biological plausibility is an essential constraint for any viable model of semantic memory. Yet, we have only the most rudimentary understanding of how the human brain conducts abstract symbolic transformations that underlie word and object meaning. Neuroscience has evolved a sophisticated arsenal of techniques for elucidating the architecture of conceptual representation. Nevertheless, theoretical convergence remains elusive. Here we describe several contrastive approaches to the organization of semantic knowledge, and in turn we offer our own perspective on two recurring questions in semantic memory research: (1) to what extent are conceptual representations mediated by sensorimotor knowledge (i.e., to what degree is semantic memory embodied)? (2) How might an embodied semantic system represent abstract concepts such as modularity, symbol, or proposition? To address these questions, we review the merits of sensorimotor (i.e., embodied) and amodal (i.e., disembodied) semantic theories and address the neurobiological constraints underlying each. We conclude that the shortcomings of both perspectives in their extreme forms necessitate a hybrid middle ground. We accordingly propose the Dynamic Multilevel Reactivation Framework—an integrative model predicated upon flexible interplay between sensorimotor and amodal symbolic representations mediated by multiple cortical hubs. We discuss applications of the dynamic multilevel reactivation framework to abstract and concrete concept representation and describe how a multidimensional conceptual topography based on emotion, sensation, and magnitude can successfully frame a semantic space containing meanings for both abstract and concrete words. The consideration of ‘abstract conceptual features’ does not diminish the role of logical and/or executive processing in activating, manipulating and using information stored in conceptual representations. Rather, it proposes that the materials upon which these processes operate necessarily combine pure sensorimotor information and higher-order cognitive dimensions involved in symbolic representation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1002-1014
Number of pages13
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016


  • Concreteness effect
  • Embodied cognition
  • Semantic memory
  • Semantic representation


Dive into the research topics of 'Linking somatic and symbolic representation in semantic memory: the dynamic multilevel reactivation framework'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this