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Asymmetric Underlying Mechanisms of Relation-Based and Property-Based Noun–Noun Conceptual Combination

Mingyeong Choi, Sangsuk Yoon
Published: 26 July 2021

Abstract: Conceptual combination is a fundamental human cognitive ability by which people can experience infinite thinking by artfully combining finite knowledge. For example, one can instantly combine “cactus” and “fish” together as “prickly fish” even if one has never previously heard of a “cactus fish.” Although two major combinatorial types—property and relational combinations—have been identified, the underlying processes of each remain elusive. This study investigates the asymmetric processing mechanisms underlying property and relational combinations by examining differential semantic activation during noun–noun conceptual combination. Across two experiments utilizing each combinatorial process as semantic priming and implementing a lexical decision task immediately after combination, we measure and compare the semantic activation patterns of intrinsic and extrinsic semantic features in these two combinatorial types. We found converging evidence that property and relational combinations involve asymmetric semantic information and entail distinct processing mechanisms. In property combination, the intrinsic feature in the modifier concept showed greater activation than the semantic feature of the same dimension in the head concept. In contrast, in relational combination, the extrinsic semantic feature in the head concept and the whole modifier concept showed similar levels of activation. Moreover, our findings also showed that these patterns of semantic activation occurred only when the combinatorial process was complete, indicating that accessing the same lexical-semantic information is not sufficient to observe asymmetric patterns. These findings demonstrate that property combination involves replacing a specific semantic feature of the head noun with that of the modifier noun, whereas relational combination involves completing the semantic feature of the head noun with the whole modifier concept. We discuss the implications of these findings, research limitations, and future research directions.
Keywords: Combinatorial semantics / semantic integration / intrinsic and extrinsic semantic features / taxonomic and thematic relations / Semantic memory

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