Semantic processing and semantic experience in people with schizophrenia: a bridge between phenomenological psychopathology and neuroscience?

M. Ballerini

Mental Health Department, Azienda Sanitaria di Firenze, Florence, Italy

I describe and discuss two kinds of language anomalies in people with schizophrenia: impairments of Semantic Processing (SP), the neural activities underpinning the construction of meanings, and Semantic Experience (SE) the way one lives and manages meanings. The first level includes abnormal language lateralisation models and anomalies of Semantic Memory (SM). SM-based models shed light on three main domains: 1) heightened automatic spread of activation within the SM, 2) inability to build-up and to maintain a meaningful, coherent context of reference as a consequence of impairment of working memory and executive function, 3) impairment of the fine balance between SM-based and syntactically-driven combinatorial processing. Anomalies of SE include the tendency (or proneness) to override the extensional limits of semantic fields as imposed by socially shared constraints of meaning (semantic drift). Language looses its public validity and displays an over-reliance to transcendence, the possibility of every meaning to transcend its commonsense value. The ecological validity of SP models, role of neurocognition, segregation of SP and SE in specific psychopathological domains and diagnostic validity are discussed and contradictory findings underscored. In the final section, I speculate on common properties shared by SP and SE findings as two sides of the same coin, such that SP findings reflect a sub-personal (pre-phenomenal or neural) level (i.e. SM impairment), while SE findings reflect a personal (phenomenal or experiential) level (i.e. the hyper-trascendence of meanings).

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