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The Human Brain as a Word Cloud

28 April 2016

From The Wall Street Journal:

The human brain is a living word cloud, turning spoken language into intricate neural patterns of meaning that we all appear to share, new research suggests.

In research reported Wednesday in Nature, neuroscientists at the University of California at Berkeley created a comprehensive atlas of these patterns, showing how shades of meaning in natural speech stir the brain.

To make it, the researchers employed an imaging method known as functional MRI to identify places throughout the brain stirred by the meaning of words in stories told aloud. In the pulsed patterns of neural blood flow monitored by the imaging device, they found a tapestry of responses with narrative threads reaching into more than 100 areas in the cerebral cortex.

. . . .

“These are maps of the meaning in language, not the words themselves,” said UC Berkeley neuroscientist Jack Gallant, a senior researcher in the study. “The brain somehow represents the concepts in this smooth gradient distributed across the brain.”

. . . .

In the new study, volunteers were brain-scanned as they listened to seven stories between 10 minutes and 15 minutes long, originally recorded on the Moth Radio Hour produced by Atlantic Public Media.

These autobiographical narratives ranged from a story of a man who recovers repressed childhood memories to a tale told by a woman who briefly became an exotic dancer.

All told, the anthology comprised more than 10,000 words of narrative speech. The researchers grouped the words into 200 clusters of meaning, such as family, violence, music or touch. Then, as the seven volunteers listened inside the scanner, the researchers calculated the relative strength or weakness of the brain’s response to these concepts at thousands of points in the cortex.

. . . .

The new map revealed a much more extensive landscape of meaning that encompassed both sides of the brain, with a pattern that listeners shared.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

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2 Comments to “The Human Brain as a Word Cloud”

  1. Seven volunteers isn’t much for any test …

    That said, they all reacted by having giggling fits when Mork of Ork muttered, “Shazzbot!”

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