“Most of us have this experience at one time or another. You consult a dictionary to get a word definition, perhaps ‘condescending.’ The dictionary defines it as ‘patronizing,’ which is no help because you don’t know the meaning of that word, either. So you look up ‘patronizing’ and find that it is defined as ‘condescending.’
That’s an example of a circular definition, and it’s kind of funny, especially when it happens to someone else. But wait a minute…. Words seem defined by their features (watermelon is the red-on-the-inside, juicy, sweet, fruit), but how are the features defined? By other words. So doesn’t the model amount to a bunch of circular definitions, even if the circles may be bigger than the condescending-patronizing loop.
The way out of this problem is to consider the possibility that some representations are grounded. That means that some mental concepts derive meaning not from other mental concepts, but more directly from experience. For example, perhaps the definition of red is not rooted in language. Indeed, if you look up ‘red’ in the dictionary, the definition is pretty unsatisfying. Perhaps the mental definition of red should be rooted in the visual system; when you see the word ‘red,’ its referent is a memory of what it’s like to actually see red.
In the last twenty years, much evidence has accumulated that some representations are grounded—they are defined, at least in part, by our senses or by how we move. For example, when you read the word ‘kick,’ the part of your brain that controls leg movements shows activity, even though you’re not moving your leg. And the part of your brain that controls mouth movements is active when you read the word ‘lick,’ and that which controls finger movements is active when you read ‘pick,’ Part of the mental definition of kick, lick, and pick is what it feels like to execute those movements.
Excerpted from: Willingham, Daniel T. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017.