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      Axiom, Anguish, and Amazement: How Autistic Traits Modulate Emotional Mental Imagery

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          Abstract

          Individuals differ in their ability to feel their own and others’ internal states, with those that have more autistic and less empathic traits clustering at the clinical end of the spectrum. However, when we consider semantic competence, this group could compensate with a higher capacity to imagine the meaning of words referring to emotions. This is indeed what we found when we asked people with different levels of autistic and empathic traits to rate the degree of imageability of various kinds of words. But this was not the whole story. Individuals with marked autistic traits demonstrated outstanding ability to imagine theoretical concepts, i.e., concepts that are commonly grasped linguistically through their definitions. This distinctive characteristic was so pronounced that, using tree-based predictive models, it was possible to accurately predict participants’ inclination to manifest autistic traits, as well as their adherence to autistic profiles – including whether they fell above or below the diagnostic threshold – from their imageability ratings. We speculate that this quasi-perceptual ability to imagine theoretical concepts represents a specific cognitive pattern that, while hindering social interaction, may favor problem solving in abstract, non-socially related tasks. This would allow people with marked autistic traits to make use of perceptual, possibly visuo-spatial, information for “higher” cognitive processing.

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          Most cited references 31

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          How do you feel--now? The anterior insula and human awareness.

          The anterior insular cortex (AIC) is implicated in a wide range of conditions and behaviours, from bowel distension and orgasm, to cigarette craving and maternal love, to decision making and sudden insight. Its function in the re-representation of interoception offers one possible basis for its involvement in all subjective feelings. New findings suggest a fundamental role for the AIC (and the von Economo neurons it contains) in awareness, and thus it needs to be considered as a potential neural correlate of consciousness.
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            Grounded cognition.

            Grounded cognition rejects traditional views that cognition is computation on amodal symbols in a modular system, independent of the brain's modal systems for perception, action, and introspection. Instead, grounded cognition proposes that modal simulations, bodily states, and situated action underlie cognition. Accumulating behavioral and neural evidence supporting this view is reviewed from research on perception, memory, knowledge, language, thought, social cognition, and development. Theories of grounded cognition are also reviewed, as are origins of the area and common misperceptions of it. Theoretical, empirical, and methodological issues are raised whose future treatment is likely to affect the growth and impact of grounded cognition.
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              Perceptual symbol systems.

              Prior to the twentieth century, theories of knowledge were inherently perceptual. Since then, developments in logic, statistics, and programming languages have inspired amodal theories that rest on principles fundamentally different from those underlying perception. In addition, perceptual approaches have become widely viewed as untenable because they are assumed to implement recording systems, not conceptual systems. A perceptual theory of knowledge is developed here in the context of current cognitive science and neuroscience. During perceptual experience, association areas in the brain capture bottom-up patterns of activation in sensory-motor areas. Later, in a top-down manner, association areas partially reactivate sensory-motor areas to implement perceptual symbols. The storage and reactivation of perceptual symbols operates at the level of perceptual components--not at the level of holistic perceptual experiences. Through the use of selective attention, schematic representations of perceptual components are extracted from experience and stored in memory (e.g., individual memories of green, purr, hot). As memories of the same component become organized around a common frame, they implement a simulator that produces limitless simulations of the component (e.g., simulations of purr). Not only do such simulators develop for aspects of sensory experience, they also develop for aspects of proprioception (e.g., lift, run) and introspection (e.g., compare, memory, happy, hungry). Once established, these simulators implement a basic conceptual system that represents types, supports categorization, and produces categorical inferences. These simulators further support productivity, propositions, and abstract concepts, thereby implementing a fully functional conceptual system. Productivity results from integrating simulators combinatorially and recursively to produce complex simulations. Propositions result from binding simulators to perceived individuals to represent type-token relations. Abstract concepts are grounded in complex simulations of combined physical and introspective events. Thus, a perceptual theory of knowledge can implement a fully functional conceptual system while avoiding problems associated with amodal symbol systems. Implications for cognition, neuroscience, evolution, development, and artificial intelligence are explored.
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                Author and article information

                Contributors
                Journal
                Front Psychol
                Front Psychol
                Front. Psychol.
                Frontiers in Psychology
                Frontiers Media S.A.
                1664-1078
                30 May 2016
                2016
                : 7
                Affiliations
                1Department of Psychology and Cognitive Science, University of Trento Rovereto, Italy
                2Division of Psychology, Nanyang Technological University Singapore, Singapore
                3Department of Developmental Psychology and Socialization, University of Padua Padua, Italy
                Author notes

                Edited by: Maurizio Codispoti, University of Bologna, Italy

                Reviewed by: Dimitri Van Der Linden, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands; Kazuyuki Shinohara, Nagasaki University, Japan

                This article was submitted to Emotion Science, a section of the journal Frontiers in Psychology

                Article
                10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00757
                4884734
                27303325
                Copyright © 2016 Esposito, Dellantonio, Mulatti and Job.

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

                Page count
                Figures: 4, Tables: 0, Equations: 0, References: 49, Pages: 9, Words: 0
                Categories
                Psychology
                Original Research

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