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Complex Associations Inhabit our Mental Neighborhoods

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 3, 2013

New research suggests we don't actually perceive separate objects and actions. We understand them in terms of how we have processed their relationships and associations with other objects and actions.

Alex Huth, a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley and a team of colleagues at the university's Gallant Lab wanted to learn how the brain makes sense of the thousands of visual images we see every day. Their findings appear to refute the long-held view that each category of objects and actions is represented in a separate part of the brain. Instead, it seems we create complex, intricately related and overlapping groupings represented in what the researchers call "a continuous semantic space."

Posted on December 21, 2012 by Zachary Urbina in Neuroscience

Researchers have even mapped how we organize things. Our brains create semantic neighborhoods, populated with things we see things as living and nonliving; moving, like cars and motorcycles, and stationary, like buildings and the sky, and we group things we understand social, such as people and verbs. Listen to Huth's explanation of this extraordinary research here, and find an interactive brain map here. Categories that activate the same brain area are shown in similar colors.

A Berkeley news story by Yasmin Anwar says new insights into brain organization can help with diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders, and further creation of brain-machine interfaces. It may also be useful for facial and image recognition systems.

Researchers recorded brain function of five volunteers using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging fMRI as they watched hours of movie clips. The story explains they built a model of how 30,000 locations in the cortex responded to each of 1,700 categories of objects and actions seen in the movies. Then they used principal components analysis (CPA) a statistical method that can summarize large data sets, to find the "semantic space" common to the brains of all subjects.

A thoughtful Scientific American blog by Ben Thomas observes the research shows we are skilled at relating our visual input to "other chunks of reality to which our brains have assigned certain characteristics." And he raises a profound question: If our brains use association to define what an object or action is, does that suggest "meaning" itself is just another word for "association?" He thinks more understanding of semantic coding is needed to answer that question. But whatever the answer, he writes, the research shows "even our most abstract concepts depend on our own real-world experiences."

The paper by Huth and colleagues, "A continuous semantic space describes the representation of thousands of object and action categories across the human brain," appears in the December 2012 issue of the magazine Neuron.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  neuroscience  research 

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