Carl Wernicke's contribution to theories of conceptual representation in the cerebral cortex

Nicole GAGE and Gregory HICKOK
University of California, Irvine, California USA

In his 1874 monograph The Aphasia Symptom Complex: A Psychological Study on an Anatomic Basis, Carl Wernicke related neuroanatomical information to behavior following brain damage and formulated a description of sensory aphasia that remains in wide usage to this day. Wernicke's model for language processing - outlined in this monograph - has formed the basis for the classical connectionist language processing model which serves as an integral part of the theoretical framework for current language research. Less well known are Wernicke's ideas regarding conceptual representations, originally described in the 1874 monograph and extended in later works. A contemporary description of conceptual representation in the brain includes two central ideas: i) the anatomical substrate of a concept is comprised of distributed sensory memory traces associated with that concept, and ii) this association is formed through the simultaneous occurrence of sensory events. Wernicke's notions about the neural substrates of conceptual representation foreshadowed contemporary theory and are strikingly similar to present views. In the Grundriss der Psychiatrie (Outlines of Psychiatry)1, published in 1900 and never translated into English, Wernicke describes the neural substrate of a concept: "In conclusion, then, we would have explained a memory trace as an acquired association of perceptual elements...Since these different sensations occur simultaneously, their memory traces remain associated with each other. In this way, every tangible object is related to an acquired association of memory traces of different sense, and this association is stronger the more frequently the object is perceived by our senses. We have in this manner arrived at the anatomical substrate for what psychology has long called a "concept" (1900, 1999; p.7). In this present paper, we provide a translation of relevant sections of the Grundriss der Psychiatrie, set it into context with earlier work as well as with contemporary work in the field, and present Carl Wernicke's ideas regarding conceptual representation in the cerebral cortex to the neuroscience community.

1We wish to thank Chris Sekirnjak, PhD, and Heidi Roberts, MD, for their excellent translations of portions of the Grundriss.


Session I -- Commended Papers
Monday, 12 June 2000, 9:00 - 9:30 am

Fifth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Providence, Rhode Island, USA