Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Vol. 96, Issue 16, 9444-9448, August 3, 1999

"What" and "how": Evidence for the dissociation of object knowledge and mechanical problem-solving skills in the human brain

John R. Hodges*,, Josef Spatt§, and Karalyn Patterson 

* University of Cambridge, Department of Neurology, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge CB2 2QQ, United Kingdom; Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, 15 Chaucer Road, Cambridge CB2 2EF, United Kingdom; and § Neurologisches Krankenhaus Rosenhügel, Riedelgasse 5, 1130 Vienna, Austria



Patients with profound semantic deterioration resulting from temporal lobe atrophy have been reported to use many real objects appropriately. Does this preserved ability reflect (i) a separate component of the conceptual knowledge system ("action semantics") or (ii) the operation of a system that is independent of conceptual knowledge of specific objects, and rather is responsible for general mechanical problem-solving skills, triggered by object affordances? We contrast the performance of three patients -- two with semantic dementia and focal temporal lobe atrophy and the third with corticobasal degeneration and biparietal atrophy -- on tests of real object identification and usage, picture-based tests of functional semantic knowledge, and a task requiring selection and use of novel tools. The patient with corticobasal degeneration showed poor novel tool selection and impaired use of real objects, despite near normal semantic knowledge of the same objects' functions. The patients with semantic dementia had the expected deficit in object identification and functional semantics, but achieved flawless and effortless performance on the novel tool task. Their attempts to use this same mechanical problem-solving ability to deduce (sometimes successfully but often incorrectly) the use of the real objects provide no support for the hypothesis of a separate action-semantic system. Although the temporal lobe system clearly is necessary to identify "what" an object is, we suggest that sensory inputs to a parietal "how" system can trigger the use of objects without reference to object-specific conceptual knowledge.

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Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles