This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Nuts and Bolts: where the wild words are.

Oh, heavens to Betsy, this is incredible.

Jack Gallant (could there be a better name for a hero?), a neuroscientist at the University of California, has been mapping words to particular parts of the brain.

His aim was to show how words are physically linked, if at all, by meaning. It turns out that different small areas of the brain (he looked at up to 80,000 of them) are associated with groups of related words.

Basically, this means that your brain doesn't contain a dictionary so much as a thesaurus.

One of the most extraordinary things is that all the people studied (they were all English speakers) seem to hold the same groups of words in the same place in the brain. This means that one day a scanner might be able to read minds (though admittedly there were only seven people scanned, and two of them were the authors of the study, so this wasn't really a representative sample).

How did Alexander Huth, the first author of the study, (another hero's name!) make his map? Well, he scanned the brains of people listening to radio short stories and then matched how neural responses matched the words.

Actually, as you'd expect, it's not quite as simple as words having their own places in the brain. Victim, convicted, murdered and confessed are close together, as are wife, husband, children and parents. But a word like table might appear in several places, depending on whether you were talking about an item of furniture, a statistical device, or a geological feature.

The most marvellous thing is that you can see this brain map for yourself and see the word-links HERE.

This is amazing, but I want to know much more. I want to know if a great writer tends to move within the groups of words like an average person, or moves more frequently between them. I want to know if a French speaker groups the same meanings as an English speaker. If there's a difference between the storage systems of men and women. How the words of a second language are grouped.

Oh, but there's just so much more I want to know!

Word To Use Today: link. This word came to us in the 1300s from Scandinavian, but where Scandinavians keep the word link in their brains, and whether it's the same place as I do, I don't yet know.

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