I'm trying to understand how the idea of what a thing is originates in humans.

For example, in computer science, it is possible to know what an object is and what it does, by examining its "parent/ancestor" objects with concepts of inheritance:

In object-oriented programming (OOP), inheritance is a way to reuse code of existing objects, or to establish a subtype from an existing object

and polymorphism, where objects may share similar function:

Subtype polymorphism, often referred to as simply polymorphism in the context of object-oriented programming, is the ability to create a variable, a function, or an object that has more than one form. In principle, polymorphism can arise in other computing contexts and shares important similarities with the concept of degeneracy in biology

What makes me interested in this is that human children do not learn all words at once - there's a slow, but steady exposure to new stimuli, which are quantified, remembered and become available as concepts and words. The exact order of exposure is unknown, but if I remember correctly, most people know about 20000 words, and use about 6000 in daily interactions.

For example, a child has never seen a potato. A child sees a potato for the first time. A child has neither an idea nor a word for a potato. Now the child's brain has to create an idea of what a potato is.

The question: When a child is exposed to a new stimuli, as in the example above, does the child's brain:

  1. create a brand new representation of an object
  2. or does a person's brain modify and re-purpose the "closest matching" idea and add extra attributes to it? (a potato looks like a brown rock)

In other words, has there been any research that found evidence for case 2: a "common ancestor" for ideas and objects within a person's mind? (if a person forgets "rock", then the person also forgets "potato").

I don't know where to begin a search for the answer. Are there some keywords that I can use? Maybe scholarly articles on cases of unusually high working memory capacity for related objects?

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    $\begingroup$ I think that this question is a very compelling one, mainly from a philisophical standpoint and would like to direct you to this piece by David Deutsch about Artificial Intelligence, and the human mind. It's a bit lengthy, but it's good food for thought. $\endgroup$
    – AMoore
    Dec 2, 2012 at 8:56
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    $\begingroup$ You may enjoy Grossberg 1999 The Link between Brain Learning, Attention, and Consciousness. He presents a model for how and when [sensory only?] information becomes available to one's consciousness. One possible conclusion from his model (which I am told has undergone significant modifications) is that for a while, the learning process is subconscious. $\endgroup$
    – labreuer
    Feb 16, 2014 at 18:11

3 Answers 3


According to current models of human concept learning, the answer to your question is both.

Think of a simplified domain in which every object consists of only several features, and therefore can be visualized as a point in some multidimensional feature space. For example, the features that define objects might be its size, shape, color, and weight. Furthermore imagine that objects tend to be clustered throughout this space according to what category they belong to, because members of the same category are generated by the same natural process.

So based on current models, a novel stimulus is compared to existing concepts and is either placed into the concept (cluster) that it's closest to, or if it's insufficiently close to any existing concept, then a new concept will be created. This is the basic idea of current Bayesian theories such as the Rational Model, which treats human category learning as a problem of probability density estimation, and its contenders such as SUSTAIN.

Here's a video lecture by Josh Tenenbaum, a leading researcher in both machine learning and cognitive science, in which he gives an excellent introduction to a number of these issues and many more.


You are looking at learning from the wrong direction.

A child does not learn a word. A child learns about a detail of the world and the word that is used to denote it. The word comes with the experience and is only attached to that experience as a label. What the child learns is the world.

Adult learning is mostly similar. You either observe or experience that applying a certain action to a certain object leads to a certain result. You label these objects, actions and results with words for easy communication.

E.g. you won't understand what an accelerator pedal is, unless you observe, experience or have explained what it does and how it is used. That is, learning about complex objects, like the accelerator pedal, you will have to put them in relation to other aspects of the world that you have already learned (what is a car? what is the purpose of transportation? etc.). The first and very simple details about the world that we learn as children will have no previous knowledge that they can be related to, so you learn them as is: red creates this reaction in your brain, sour makes your face scrunch up.

Children learn the fundamental aspects of the world before they even know their first word, and they will continue learning, even if they are not or only rarely exposed to language (e.g. with mute parents). Words are not necessary for learning, although they can facilitate it greatly.

  • $\begingroup$ I agree, my recent personal experiences with dream content has convinced me that there is a "prototype experience" which is the first real exposure to a concept. For example, my first experience of "frustrating, futile, pushing mental effort" was experienced in middle school history class. Experiencing similar events in the waking world years later seem to trigger a dream of middle school history class. I believe same can be true of other people's dreams of "being late/unprepared for an exam". $\endgroup$
    – Alex Stone
    Jan 27, 2015 at 15:58

I've found an additional concept that may be related to the original question: prototype theory. Here's a summary from Wikipedia:

Prototype theory is a mode of graded categorization in cognitive science, where some members of a category are more central than others. For example, when asked to give an example of the concept furniture, chair is more frequently cited than, say, stool. Prototype theory has also been applied in linguistics, as part of the mapping from phonological structure to semantics.

According to this theory, rather than a common ancestor for words, there's a common shared category, which can be thought as a parent object. A potato and a fist sized rock would share the rounded object category, but the rock would also have a "rocky texture" category


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