The “Brain Dictionary”: Beautiful 3D Map Shows How Different Brain Areas Respond to Hearing Different Words

We’ve all had those moments of strug­gle to come up with le mot juste, in our native lan­guage or a for­eign one. But when we look for a par­tic­u­lar word, where exact­ly do we go to find it? Neu­ro­sci­en­tists at Berke­ley have made a fas­ci­nat­ing start on answer­ing that ques­tion by going in the oth­er direc­tion, map­ping out which parts of the brain respond to the sound of cer­tain words, using func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI) to watch the action on the cere­bral cor­tices of peo­ple lis­ten­ing to The Moth Radio Hour — a pop­u­lar sto­ry­telling pod­cast you your­self may have spent some time with, albeit under some­what dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances.

“No sin­gle brain region holds one word or con­cept,” writes The Guardian’s Ian Sam­ple on the “brain dic­tio­nary” thus devel­oped by researcher Jack Gal­lant and his team. “A sin­gle brain spot is asso­ci­at­ed with a num­ber of relat­ed words. And each sin­gle word lights up many dif­fer­ent brain spots. Togeth­er they make up net­works that rep­re­sent the mean­ings of each word we use: life and love; death and tax­es; clouds, Flori­da and bra. All light up their own net­works.”

Sam­ple quotes Alexan­der Huth, the first author on the study: “It is pos­si­ble that this approach could be used to decode infor­ma­tion about what words a per­son is hear­ing, read­ing, or pos­si­bly even think­ing.” You can learn more about this promis­ing research in the short video from Nature above, which shows how the team mapped out how, dur­ing those Moth lis­ten­ing ses­sions, “dif­fer­ent bits of the brain respond­ed to dif­fer­ent kinds of words”: some regions lit up in response to those hav­ing to do with num­bers, for instance, oth­ers in response to “social words,” and oth­ers in response to those indi­cat­ing place.

You can also browse this brain dic­tio­nary your­self in 3D on the Gal­lant Lab’s web site, which lets you click on any part of the cor­tex and see a clus­ter of the words which gen­er­at­ed the most activ­i­ty there. The oth­er neu­ro­sci­en­tists quot­ed in the Guardian piece acknowl­edge both the thrilling (if slight­ly scary, in terms of thought-read­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties in the maybe-not-that-far-flung future) impli­ca­tions of the work as well as the huge amount of unknowns that remain. The response of the pod­cast­ing com­mu­ni­ty has so far gone unrecord­ed, but sure­ly they’d like to see the research extend­ed in the direc­tion of oth­er lin­guis­ti­cal­ly inten­sive shows — Marc Maron’s WTF, per­haps.

via The Guardian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy & Neu­ro­science Cours­es

Becom­ing Bilin­gual Can Give Your Brain a Boost: What Recent Research Has to Say

Steven Pinker Explains the Neu­ro­science of Swear­ing (NSFW)

This Is Your Brain on Jane Austen: The Neu­ro­science of Read­ing Great Lit­er­a­ture

Music in the Brain: Sci­en­tists Final­ly Reveal the Parts of Our Brain That Are Ded­i­cat­ed to Music

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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