Mapping the Meaning of Sentences - in the Brain

Mapping the Meaning of Sentences – in the Brain

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Mapping the Meaning of Sentences – in the Brain

This research at Carnegie Mellon has fundamentally changed my understanding of how conceptual meaning is represented in the human brain.

I reached out to talk with lead scientist, Marcel Just. Here’s how he describes the importance of the research:

“We’re getting at the basic building blocks of human thought… We’re finding out what those pieces are, what types of pieces they are, and to some extent how they go together.”

Over the course of the interview, he shared insights into the limitations of the current approach, how they did it, how it maps to other approaches to conceptual mapping, potential applications in psychiatric diagnosis and education, and how critical a role emotion plays in meaning-making.

This is important research. And yes, though there plenty of challenges and different understandings of what it actually means, it really does demonstrate a viable path to mind reading.

#meaning #semantic #brain


  1. David Amerland and Teodora Petkova, you will probably like this one from the perspective of mapping meaning to the brain. George Station and Laura Gibbs, you may find the education application interesting.

  2. That’s downright eerie! But of course a machine will never experience the difference between EATING a peach and eating a nectarine, even if it does refine its vector mapping to that level. And we cannot wait on brain mapping to give us conceptual hooks to use when teaching. But the more we can learn about the brain, the better: I really enjoy sharing brain research with my students; it can sometimes jolt them into thinking about their learning in new ways. Thanks for the ping!

    And now I’m pinging Brad Esau of course. 🙂

  3. So if I write, “Share this post, my brain will activate the brain areas that understand the statement but will it make me do it?” Gideon Rosenblatt Also if “what brain imaging has revealed is how incredibly emotion and interpersonally-oriented human brain activity is. We view our world in that emotional and interpersonal context. It’s there. It’s ubiquitous,” are words and emotions associated and context related? Great post. Thank you. Ok I wrote on a piece of paper “Share Gideon Rosenblatt’s post on words and brain activity.” Did I share, did I take action?

  4. I’m not sure, but I do know, after digging into this research, Pierre Provost is that it doesn’t matter whether you think it in French or English – the same areas light up. 🙂

  5. Laura Gibbs, I thought the part about “radiating energy” was fascinating. I mean, we’ve sat around campfires so long as a species that we’ve got an intuitive conceptual mapping there. If we can turn that into a hook for teaching additional concepts, it seems very powerful.

  6. Excellent!

    The Research and the Article. Thank You!

  7. I think that is why I like etymologies so much: if you poke at the etymologies of words, you can often find out how that old conceptual map gets stretched and adapted to new concepts, either through the workings of language change itself, or through the insight (poetic insight!) by the scientists who give names to new things that they discover.

    For example, the word radius is probably related to the branches of trees (ramus in Latin). Dictionaries are concept maps too… check out Latin radius: – Glossa: a Latin dictionary – A Third Way Technologies

  8. Is’nt this beautiful work actually hovering, as in through the fog, over elements of “consciousness”?

  9. Gideon Rosenblatt thank you for the ping and this is really awesome. In a way it highlights the fact that there is a reality that is widely acceptable and predicated upon our ability to encode it that is attribute (and entity) dependent and language-independent. So, essentially, we are all using the same semantic tools of associative connections to derive meanings that allow us to understand the world. Because we all have the same tools and largely the same meanings the world is largely the same for both of us even if you live on the other side of the planet to me.

    I would say that this is further buttressed by small conceptual differences that are language-dependent that only drive the point you are making about the shared conceptual space, home. Spanish and Greek, for instance, view time differently (as having volume) while English speakers see it as having distance (which, as an aside might account for the fabled Mediterranean unpunctuality) . Yet those who are bi-lingual are able to switch their perception of time from one to the other (you can find about it here:

    Brilliant post!

  10. Laura Gibbs, that’s a great way of thinking about it. I wish I would have asked Professor Just about that connection to etymology. I wonder what he would make of that. I also wonder if whether you were to analyze an etymological corpus you would end up with similar results to the kind of vector-based analysis people are doing these days.

  11. Denis Poussart, yeah, for human consciousness it would seem logical that meaning-making is a core aspect.

  12. Before I read this I wondered if the research included the emotional response. I was pleased to learn that it was a part of the results.

    This is very exciting.

    I hope to learn more about this project as it goes forward.

    I’m curious about cultural and social differences. Simple sentences, according to what is described seem to be similar across cultures.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  13. David Amerland, thanks. I appreciate your thoughts here and your sharing the post. You’re hitting on exactly what I found so interesting: that we have this shared architecture of meaning that is baked into our hardware. It makes me think back to Jung and his notion of the collective unconscious.

    And you’re absolutely right about the cultural differences. In fact, Professor Just did mention that in our conversation. There are some concepts that simply don’t exist in certain cultures.

    I found his explanation of the limits of the current approach just as interesting as what it can do. Here’s an excerpt that I had to trim for length considerations, but that will give you a better feel for the way the different dimensions of understanding pull together:

    “We can do kind of mind reading but not very precisely. We can tell if you’re talking about eating something and maybe we can tell the difference between a banana and a peach by the way you hold it, but we certainly can’t tell the difference between a peach and a nectarine… So we use some number of voxels, —something like one-half of one percent of the brain — to use that as a neural representation of a concept. If you go further out and you get more voxels, you can get a more detailed, and I think more precise, representation. If you want a great deal of precision like you want to know the exact fruit someone is eating, then maybe you’re going to have to get the exact degree of tartness, the exact texture of the surface of the fruit, and those should be available. Obviously, your brain knows the difference between a nectarine and a peach, and if it’s in your brain you should be able to get it. We haven’t tried that level of discrimination.”

  14. Gideon Rosenblatt Oooooooh, that is a seriously fascinating idea for a research project! Etymology is an awkward field in linguistics; such a collaborative project could earn it some new scientific respectability.

  15. Gideon Rosenblatt hah! Isn’t that a truly awesome thing he said. We have just begun to look into the mind. I am really excited about all the possibilities and how we are finally beginning to understand the physical basis of things that 30 years ago defied physics (like emotions and faith). At the same time I feel a little sad, I am thinking “born too soon” I want to see where all this will be 300 years from now.

  16. David Amerland The AIs will have replaced you by then. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  17. Kenny Chaffin hahahaha, maybe, but damn wouldn’t that be a cool thing to actually see?

  18. I know exactly what you mean, David Amerland. Even fifty years from now. And yeah, Kenny Chaffin, maybe by then our AIs will be doing all the figuring for us and we just sit back and eat bon bons and then go workout to work it off.

  19. Mapping the mapping of maps.

  20. I did not see any mention of mapping those with brain damage. Was there some kind of normalization process initially?

  21. Gideon Rosenblatt Thanks for this ping. I’m following the comment trail, not much to add but I appreciate the various insights above!

  22. Gideon Rosenblatt Your research into Just’s work is stunning!

    I was taken back by the experiments continue on Dogs and monkeys, only due to university hospital in denver were horribly cruel, hoping this is not the the continued case.

    Your article was exciting, proving so many others research and validating many who do not work in the neurosciences field, yet in behavior, how the brain functions similar.

    Given the cross-linguistics was also fascinating.

    And further thinking, how to attribute this to animal and human language, beyond the physical elements.

    I would like to know, why you are deeply researching the brain, other than the obvious, it is interesting and part of our human curiosity

    Is this part of your November speech? Or are you deviating in the science realm?

    The benefit of changing the course of schooling (as below statement made) would impact our world greatly, again exciting!

    how lectures and homework deliberately tied into our existing brain structures might change the efficacy of teaching

    While some of us will not realize these break throughs in our life times, it seems humans are coming of age in benefiting the world as a whole, instead of prevailing past in separation

    Thank you so much for the articles you have been sharing on G+

    (BTW I wanted to share to LI via you site and was unable to, could be my idiot tired mind)

  23. Ah, so that’s how blocking works… I don’t do that very often on here.

  24. That’s the first time I’ve actually reported a comment in addition to blocking. And I hardly ever block at Google+ in general. I admire the stamina of serious posters like Gideon who get that kind of random traffic on their posts. It’s happened to me only once or twice on my own posts with that “hey beautiful” crap which I guess comes from bots that seek out women’s names.

  25. Gone. Yeah, I’m getting really tired of having to deal with the racism and ignorance of commenters these days.

  26. Gideon Rosenblatt Thank you! The block/mute selection and delete are handy.

    Inclusivity has a long road head of our world

    Thank you for taking action Gideon!

  27. Gideon Rosenblatt I tend not to block the side-door racism, or delete the less direct comments, from such as the G+ers who argue some brand of “scientific racism.” But I’m considering it. Overall this place is pretty open, but our own posts are not republics or democracies.

  28. Peter Bormann You make a key point. I have shared a similar view in other posts but you illustrate it especially well.

    In the quest of transforming / distilling raw data – here expressed in words but could be in many other forms, such as images – into meaning, and ultimately into sense making, accounting for “context” is absolutely essential. However, “context” itself is a fuzzy notion: it may take many facets (you list a few). It is a recursive quagmire since it is (normally at least) expressed again in raw data (such as words) or in a multitude of other forms (tone od discourse, body language, etc.). This is the source of the complexity that permeates all “meanings of meaning” – all the way we may guess, our very innard “conscience”.

    Big data just provides raw data, with minimal contextual information. Labelled data as used for current machine learning AI is also devoid of context. Bringing context in the picture is a formidable challenge, not soon to be resolved. This fundamental limitation also applies to knowledge-based AI such as Cyc and its hundreds of thousands of “common sense” rules.

    Shaping sense making by context awareness in the area where the performance of human cognition is so powerful, painlessly effective and reliable most of the time. A core challenge of AI is to understand how this is achieved. Clearly a blend of data and neuro sciences will be required in order to crack this hardest nut. Until then AI applications will be limited to well defined, “reductionist-like” situations, and will exhibit serious robustness limitations (such as false correlation) the moment situations include a minimal level of complexity.

  29. Peter Bormann​ there’s no question that there is much nuance that is still unresolved by this research. I will even grant the possibility that it may never be resolved, given the difficulty and perhaps even impossibility of actually knowing the subjective experience of another.

    With that said, I think you may be giving short shrift to the significance of this research and what it does say about a biological substrate of shared understanding. As someone who has studied the topic of meaning, surely you must find some significance in this work.

  30. Gideon Rosenblatt its significance is far reaching, absolutely. While context is a key aspect of robust sense making, we may probably safely assume that this set of experients was conducted within a “common sense” context where unusal cicumstances where not present.

  31. This is so, so appealing to my self. I believe our greatest limitations as adults is owned and guided by one’s self. Ever since I was a very young child I have been gifted with .. I’m not sure what I should call it. I can’t explain what the gift is, nor can I summon it at will but it has always been present. The best I can describe it is “truths which travel around in the space we call air”. My daughter has also been blessed with this ability. I’m not sure if it exists for everyone as an external gift and our soul reaches out and bonds with the ability or if it is an internal gjft which reaches outward. At some times in my life when occurrences were more and more frequent, I have become frightened and have blocked the ability. I, for a long time, thought everyone could do this, as it is so much like a second nature. For instance, when i was five years old, I tried to ask my mother about this strange energy. I’m sixty two now and I’ve called this “thing” mind-mapping. For 57 years I’ve called this mind-mapping. As best I know, the term had not yet been born until relatively recent. Then today, somehow I “stumbled” onto this collection.This really the first time I’ve spoken this to anyone other than my mother and children. I almost always mention what I think is going to happen but not the process as related to my psych. It’s like truths, some current, some in the future, land on me. I’m often unsure of the significance but within a day or two the circle is completed. It is not always good to come but rather like a movie which already exist and we’ve not yet watched that scene yet. My secret energy has many more attributes but I think most people who have endured this rambling either have long been bored; chalked it up as a wild imagination, or concluded I really need to be in a straight jacket. I simply would like to know if anyone else has this odd “partner in my journey”.Perhaps there is a scientific explanation for my “mind-mapping videos”; someone who shares in this energy or can shed some light on my aura, and why and what I should be doing with it, even if nothing at all. Thank you all my time to share. May we always continue to ponder, share, and marvel at all the miracles of man, land, and sea.

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  34. If one wants to know about the mind consider that when thinking processes culminate into the contradiction of a thing being and not being at the same time through an emotional tie of the thinking subject to a social reality the mind walks through a paradox of time and space. Reality derealises itself as the thinking subject dematerialises through anguish moves more forthrightly into the inner world. Here we would be thinking of maping what happens in the brain while asleep, but we must also consider in what universe the biochemical processes that dematerialise into thoughts and imaginings are in.

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