Article image

The brain uses a secret 'thesaurus' to find the right words

Ever wondered how our brains manage to decipher spoken words into usable meaning? A study led by experts at Massachusetts General Hospital might have the key. They were able to uncover a conclave of neurons which they’ve dubbed the “brain thesaurus.”

This fascinating research is the work of Dr. Ziv Williams, a highly regarded physician-investigator in the Department of Neurosurgery at Mass General.

He’s also an associate professor of Neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School. Williams and his team set out to understand the complex process of how our brain interprets language at the individual neuron level.

Language comprehension

“Humans possess an exceptional ability to extract nuanced meaning through language – when we listen to speech, we can comprehend the meanings of up to tens of thousands of words and do so seamlessly across remarkably diverse concepts and themes,” said Williams.

“Yet, how the human brain processes language at the basic computational level of individual neurons has remained a challenge to understand.”

Through their research, the team sought to construct a detailed map of how neurons in the brain represent word meanings. For instance, how do we associate the word “cat” or “dog” with the concept of an animal? How do we distinguish the meaning of “dog” from “car”?

To understand the mechanics behind these associations, the experts used a novel technology that recorded the activities of up to a hundred neurons while subjects listened to sentences and short stories.

Decoding words in the brain’s thesaurus

The researchers conducted a study on how the brain processes different words. They found that listening to specific word categories activated distinct groups of neurons. Words related to physical actions, like “ran” or “jumped,” triggered certain neurons.

Emotionally significant words, like “happy” or “sad,” activated different neurons. This shows the brain has specialized regions for various linguistic stimuli. It suggests a complex neural network dedicated to language processing.

Distinction in context

In addition, the experts discovered that certain neurons could differentiate between homonyms like “sun” and “son” or “see” and “sea” based on their sentence context.

“Moreover, when looking at all of the neurons together, we could start building a detailed picture of how word meanings are represented in the brain,” said Williams.

This opens the potential to predict, with some degree of accuracy, what someone is listening to or thinking about.

Improved communication through the brain thesaurus

According to Williams, this depth of understanding could prove vital for developing future brain-machine interfaces. Such interfaces could potentially enable individuals with conditions such as motor paralysis or stroke to communicate more effectively.

This study catapults us closer to comprehending the remarkable human brain. It offers us a glimpse into how we derive meaning from language, a unique perspective to better understand our world.

Bridging neuroscience and technology

The fusion of neuroscience and technology showcased in this study signifies a burgeoning field with transformative possibilities. By leveraging advanced recording techniques and computational algorithms, researchers can obtain real-time insights into neural activities, bridging the gap between abstract concepts and practical applications.

This convergence not only enhances our understanding of cognitive functions but also propels the development of next-generation devices designed to interact seamlessly with the human brain.

Such innovations could revolutionize various fields, from medical diagnostics to artificial intelligence, offering unprecedented opportunities to improve the quality of life.

Future directions

Ensuring that these advancements are accessible and beneficial to all segments of society requires transparent policies and collaborative efforts among scientists, ethicists, and policymakers.

Furthermore, future research needs to address the variability across different individuals’ brain structures and functions to develop more inclusive and effective solutions.

The path ahead is challenging yet exciting, promising a deeper understanding of the human mind and more sophisticated artificial systems that could transform varied aspects of human experience.

This research paves the way for pioneering advancements that could reshape how we interact with technology and each other.

After all, the interplay between language, technology, and the human brain deepens our understanding of what it means to be human.

The study is published in the journal Nature.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day