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Surprising Science

Scientists Discover How the Brain Creates Meaning

A team of Dutch scientists have discovered where in the brain the meaning of words are created. Further study could help doctors identify awareness in people with cognitive disorders. 

What’s the Latest Development?

When is a cigar more than a cigar? A team of Dutch scientists believe they may have the answer. By using an fMRI scanner to study the brain activity of eight bilingual volunteers as they listened to the names of four animals spoken in English—bull, horse, shark and duck—the scientists were able to locate the specific part of the brain where the meanings of words are created. When the bilingual individuals listened to the same words but in a different language, the same area of the brain activated, confirming that concepts imbue words with meaning, not how they sound.

What’s the Big Idea?

In the study, scientists could identify which of the four words an individual heard by looking at how their brain reacted. An extension of this logic suggests a machine could one day read a person’s mind, but because different brains work differently, “you would have to scan a person as they thought their way through a dictionary,” said Matt Davis at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK. “For now, knowing where to look for brain activity relating to meaning could help doctors identify awareness in people who have disorders of consciousness, such as locked-in syndrome.”

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