Scientists Have Big Plans for a Newly Mapped "Brain Dictionary"

Recent research from UC Berkeley shows how our brains store and map language.

by Kastalia Medrano
Alexander Huth/The Regents of the University of California

Turns out, our brains aren’t quite as unique as we’d like to believe. But in a good way. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, recently constructed what they’re calling a “semantic atlas” — the thesaurus of your very own brain. The festive, color-coded atlas shows how and where brains store and process language, mapping which areas of the brain respond to which corresponding words. It’s mesmerizing, but the really incredible part is that different people can share very similar semantic brain maps.

The regions of your brain that light up, so to speak, in response to certain keywords might very well be identical to those lighting up in your neighbor’s brain — provided you speak the same language.

The Berkeley researchers, whose work was funded by the National Science Foundation, found consistent representation of a surprisingly large vocabulary of words, distributed across numerous regions of the brain and among numerous different individuals.

The exploration of the “brain thesaurus,” as some are calling it, is still in the early stages, but it might one day have practical implications for those who have trouble communicating, such as stroke victims or individuals with ALS.

“I think everybody was pretty surprised by the level of consistency they saw,” said Dr. Kenneth Whang, program director at the National Science Foundation. “I don’t think they have a full explanation for it yet; I don’t think anyone would have predicted this … they were going in a using a data-driven approach, in the sense that they were just letting the structure of the data point them in the right direction. Oftentimes it can be productive to just say, ‘let’s look at this big data set and see what structure emerges.’”

The findings might one day help victims of stroke, ALS and similar conditions to better communicate

Alexander Huth/The Regents of the University of California

There’s still considerable research to be done, but if it holds up that there’s a fairly consistent structure in terms of how words are organized across different human brains (so far, this has only been studied in native English speakers), and that that structure is decodable, then we can begin to theorize about the kind of brain-measuring technology that would be able to reasonably extrapolate what someone otherwise unable to communicate effectively is thinking, someone who wouldn’t normally be able to express themselves and interact with the world effectively.

“That would be such a huge gift,” Whang said. “The path from initial discovery to practical, engineered solution takes a long time, but a discovery like this, it really gets you thinking about those applications.”