Researchers have created a new map of the human brain which shows where we organise words depending on their meaning — and it could help us read minds more accurately than ever.
Scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, have published an interactive version of the map online. It allows you to explore the whole brain, clicking around to see where different types of words — from social and spatial, to violent and visual — are stored.
The team constructed the maps by playing seven different participants a two-hour chunk of The Moth Radio Hour while scanning their brains using functional MRI. The brain scans showed how the oxygen levels in blood across the brain changed, and this data was then used as a measure of how active a particular part of the brain was.
The team then set about comparing the observed brain activity to the types of word that the participants were hearing at that exact moment. It allowed them to build 12 categories of words, which can be seen to appear all over the brain. The results are published in Nature, but you can explore the findings on their interactive website.
The map, which combines data from six of the participants, shows words being stored in over 100 areas of the brain, spread across both the left and right hemispheres. That itself is an interesting finding, as the left side is usually considered the one to be used for processing language. Individual words actually appear in multiple spots across the brain map, and a single point can be related to more than one word. The combination in which different spots light up as we process language appears to help lend meaning, allowing a single word to mean different things.
The researchers reckon that the map could be used to help understand with more accuracy what people with conditions like Alzheimer’s are thinking just from fMRI data. It even goes as far as claiming that the insights could be used to build a new kind of “language decoder” that could be used to help people who are unable to speak to communicate with others. Though we may still have to wait a little while for that particular technology to arrive.