Traditionally, concepts are assumed to be situational invariant mental knowledge entities (conceptual stability), which are represented in a unitary brain system distinct from sensory and motor areas (amodality). However, accumulating evidence suggests that concepts are embodied in perception and action in that their conceptual features are stored within modality-specific semantic maps in the sensory and motor cortex. Nonetheless, the first traditional assumption of conceptual stability largely remains unquestioned. Here, we tested the notion of flexible concepts using functional magnetic resonance imaging and event-related potentials (ERPs) during the verification of two attribute types (visual, action-related) for words denoting artifactual and natural objects. Functional imaging predominantly revealed crossover interactions between category and attribute type in visual, motor, and motion-related brain areas, indicating that access to conceptual knowledge is strongly modulated by attribute type: Activity in these areas was highest when nondominant conceptual attributes had to be verified. ERPs indicated that these category-attribute interactions emerged as early as 116 msec after stimulus onset, suggesting that they reflect rapid access to conceptual features rather than postconceptual processing. Our results suggest that concepts are situational-dependent mental entities. They are composed of semantic features which are flexibly recruited from distributed, yet localized, semantic maps in modality-specific brain regions depending on contextual constraints.

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