Acquiring meaning through the senses –psychology study in Ulm refutes traditional assumption of knowledge processing

Ulm University

How does the brain store scientific terms like “anxiety disorder”, “addiction” or “conditioning”? And does it happen differently with experts than with lay people? A recently published study by the psychologist and neuroscientist Professor Markus Kiefer from Ulm indicates that such abstract concepts and scientific terms are stored in the sensory experience area of the brain in both groups of people. A more traditional assumption in psychology, however, is that the storage of knowledge shifts towards more abstract, linguistic-symbolic brain structures throughout the course of academic education. The results, published in the scientific journal Cerebral Cortex, are now challenging this assumption.

“The focus of our research was on the question of how abstract scientific conceptual knowledge is stored, whereby we compared the processing of conceptual knowledge in the brain of experts with that of novices”, explains psychologist Professor Markus Kiefer, who heads the Section for Cognitive Electrophysiology in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy III at the Ulm University Medical Centre. “Traditional approaches to the influence of expertise on knowledge processing assume that knowledge storage shifts throughout the course of academic education from sensory and experience-based systems in the brain to a linguistic-symbolic one”. This is connected to the assumption that abstract thinking, detached from concrete examples, is the greatest achievement of the human mind.

In contrast to this is the new theory of “embodied cognition”, which is based on the study conducted by the researchers in Ulm. According to this theory, scientific concepts are stored in the sensory-experience systems of the brain, even in experts. “Due to the great variety of these experiences, the anchoring there is possibly even stronger than with lay people. Following this idea, abstract knowledge only appears to be abstract, but it is actually based on a reactivation of past experiences”, says Kiefer.

Brain activation patterns during the processing of psychological terms recorded with fMRI

In the study, which has now been published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, the Ulm team investigated how scientific concepts in psychology, such as “memory” or “habituation” are processed by the different groups of people. 26 psychology students at Ulm University represented the “novices” and 25 psychologists with a minimum of a master’s degree as well some therapy training were the “advanced” group. First, the personal meaning of the terms was recorded for the test participants. For this purpose, they were asked to list characteristics that they considered relevant in this context – “friends”, for instance, as a characteristic of the concept of “empathy”, or “large crowds” for “anxiety disorders”. Next, the corresponding brain activation during the processing of the psychological terms was determined with the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and linked to the individually generated characteristics for the termsw. Additionally, it was also localised where the experience-based and sensory information – ie that linked with vision, movement and socio-emotional feeling – was processed. For this, the subjects were given various tasks during the MRI scan. They were asked, for example, to look at pictures of animate and inanimate objects, such as a dog or a hammer, squeeze a small ball on a signal, and watch emotional or upsetting scenes with people or animals.

It became apparent that abstract scientific concepts were processed, with both groups, in experience-based areas of the brain for perception, action and socio-emotional feeling. Both undergraduates and graduates generated verbal associations for half, but they also generated a substantial amount of motor, visual and taste characteristics as well as those associated with mental states, feelings and social constellations. Graduates even generated more characteristics in relation to social constellations than the undergraduate psychology students. Only in the group of graduates were social constellation characteristics associated with activation in the socio-emotional circles. “Academic expertise thus even strengthens the anchoring of psychological concepts in the socio-emotional circles of the brain”, explains Markus Kiefer. “Our study thus offers a novel view on academic expertise and the acquisition of scientific knowledge”.

Sensory reference and direct experience are also important for processing abstract concepts

This research emphasises the importance in academic education of teaching content with a sensory reference and direct experience, such as practical exercises, museum visits, field excursions or lab experiments, but also illustrations of abstract content in teaching. “Scientific knowledge is abstract in the sense that is refers to complex, often not directly perceptible facts. However, it is based on a reactivation of information in experience-based circuits of the brain”. This project was funded by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG).

Further information:
Prof Dr Markus Kiefer, head of the Section for Cognitive Electrophysiology in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy III at Ulm University Medical Centre. E-mail: markus.kiefer(at)


Literature reference
Ulrich, M., Trumpp, N., Harpaintner, M., Berger, A., Kiefer, M. (2022). Academic training increases grounding of scientific concepts in experiential brain systems. Cerebral Cortex.

Text: Anja Burkel

Mediacontact: Andrea Weber-Tuckermann
Translation: Kate Gaugler

Brain activation patterns
Brain activation patterns during the processing of abstract psychological concepts, measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging. The image shows activity patterns for concept characteristics that are related to visual and motor features as well as to mental states. These areas were also active during the real perception of corresponding information and during the execution of real movements (Source:
The subjects’ brain activity was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they read abstract psychological terms (Photo: Ulm University Medical Centre)
Students in the library learning area
Even after many years of academic education, abstract psychological concepts are processed in the experience-based systems of the brain and not solely in an abstract-symbolic manner. Concrete experiences, also in social exchange, play a large role in academic learning. Pictured here: Students in Ulm University’s library study area (Photo: Elvira Eberhardt / Uni Ulm)
Prof. Markus Kiefer
Prof Markus Kiefer, head of the Section for Cognitive Electrophysiology in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy III (Photo: Ulm University Medical Centre)