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Matching Brain Activity to Words and Thoughts

Matching Brain Activity to Words and Thoughts  While it may seem like a futuristic movie script, researchers using brain scans have mapped words and concepts to brain activity.

Conceptually, this could mean that someday “reading someone‚Äôs mind” could become reality.

In the first time study, researchers evaluated brain activity as a person is thinking about abstract ideas such as love or justice. From this review, Princeton scientists have matched images of brain activity with categories of words related to the concepts a person is thinking about.

Investigators believe the findings could lead to a better understanding of how people consider meaning and context when reading or thinking.

In the study, research scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify areas of the brain activated when study participants thought about physical objects such as a carrot, a horse or a house.

The investigators then generated a list of topics related to those objects and used the fMRI images to determine the brain activity that words within each topic shared.

For instance, thoughts about “eye” and “foot” produced similar neural stirrings as other words related to body parts.

The findings are reported in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Once the researchers knew the brain activity associated with a topic, they were able to use fMRI images alone to predict the subjects and words a person likely thought about during the scan.

This capability to put people’s brain activity into words provides an initial step toward further exploring themes the human brain touches upon during complex thought.

“The basic idea is that whatever subject matter is on someone’s mind — not just topics or concepts, but also, emotions, plans or socially oriented thoughts — is ultimately reflected in the pattern of activity across all areas of his or her brain,” said the team’s senior researcher, Dr. Matthew Botvinick.

“The long-term goal is to translate that brain-activity pattern into the words that likely describe the original mental ‘subject matter,'” Botvinick said.

“One can imagine doing this with any mental content that can be verbalized, not only about objects, but also about people, actions and abstract concepts and relationships. This study is a first step toward that more general goal.

“If we give way to unbridled speculation, one can imagine years from now being able to ‘translate’ brain activity into written output for people who are unable to communicate otherwise, which is an exciting thing to consider.

In the short term, our technique could be used to learn more about the way that concepts are represented at the neural level — how ideas relate to one another and how they are engaged or activated.”

Depicting a person’s thoughts through text is a “promising and innovative method” that the Princeton project introduces to the larger goal of correlating brain activity with mental content, said Marcel Just, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

“The general goal for the future is to understand the neural coding of any thought and any combination of concepts,” Just said. “The significance of this work is that it points to a method for interpreting brain activation patterns that correspond to complex thoughts.”

Source: Princeton University

Matching Brain Activity to Words and Thoughts

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Matching Brain Activity to Words and Thoughts. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 1 Sep 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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