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Okay, so scientists took seven people and hooked them up to a brainal probe while they listened to a radio program (The Moth, in case you’re wondering). Then they mapped the “50,000 to 80,000 pea-sized spots all over the cerebral cortex” that lit up for each word the subjects heard.

I had no idea words were processed all over the brain…did you? Surely, speech itself is more localized, or people who’ve suffered a stroke would lose vocabulary words, not speech generally.

Secondly, the words mapped to similar locations for all seven people. On the top right side of the brain live all the words for family members. On the left, just over the ear, are words for crime and justice. Words with multiple meanings light up multiple places.

There’s an interactive map, but I couldn’t get it to work. I’ve got a lot of applications open, the website made my hard disk graunch and chunder to little effect, so I think it’s an intensive app.

Now, it was just seven people, they were all English speakers of a certain level of accomplishment, and this is the first study of its kind, so…all very preliminary. But very interesting, nonetheless.

I’ll tell you this right now: the part of my brain that processes names is as smooth as a baby’s butt.

Thanks to commenter Can’t Hark My Cry for the link.


Comment from Jeff Weimer
Time: April 28, 2016, 9:57 pm

I’m guessing the area of the brain that causes one to “lose” speech is directly related to the mechanics of making the words instead of the words themselves. They still know the words, but the mouth can’t make them anymore.

Comment from Uncle Al
Time: April 28, 2016, 11:38 pm

On the top right side of the brain live all the words for family members. On the left, just over the ear, are words for crime and justice.

It seems unlikely that those two areas are so far from each other that there’s no likelihood of overlap. Or perhaps none of the seven have families like mine.

Comment from Deborah HH
Time: April 28, 2016, 11:45 pm

Wha? graunch and chunder? That lit up the neurons in my brain! I had to look up those words, Stoaty.

Comment from Uncle Al
Time: April 28, 2016, 11:49 pm

@Jeff – Yes, I have read something like that, but I have personal experience that suggests the same thing. My late father had two strokes that left him quite impaired in a lot of ways. I would sit with him and talk with him when he was able to respond at all, or talk to him otherwise. I would watch his face and it was completely clear to me that he was catching pretty much all that I said, but when it came time for him to reply, he would struggle mightily to come up with words and phrases that meant what he wanted. After getting his OK, I started prompting him with words that I thought might be what he was trying to come up with. (I asked his permission because it can be quite frustrating to be prompted that way when you don’t want to be.) He would react mostly with facial expressions – smiling and raising eyebrows when I got it right, scowling when I blew it. What I got from this after a lot of thrashing about was (a) a way of talking with my dad that made him a full content participant even though he was not able to be a full quantity of words participant, and (b) the realization that his disability was in coming up with the right words, not in thinking about them.

He passed away in late July in 2012 just short of his 94th birthday. He was in his own home, in the lush Florida semi-jungle he loved, holding my mother’s hand when he took his last breath, smiling.

Comment from Uncle Al
Time: April 29, 2016, 12:02 am

FYI – from the OED’s quotations in the entry for graunch, v.

1954 Dominion (Wellington, N.Z.) 1 July, As far as I know ‘to graunch’ means to damage an engine, instrument, machine, etc., by using wrong tools and/or repair methods, and a ‘graunch-artist’ is ‘a person who does that’.    Ibid. 9 July, The first time I heard the word [graunch] was some time in ’39 or ’40, and it was used by an English airman. To the best of my knowledge it originated in the R.A.F. and was pronounced ‘garraunch’ to reproduce the sound of a plane as it crashed and slid.‥ Later it became a one-syllable word and refers to any metal torn or damaged by force.   

Aside: About 15 years ago, I spent almost $400 for the original “OED on CD-ROM” and have never ever ever regretted a single penny of that amount, by far the most I’ve ever paid for a single computer-based anything. Once installed, if you select a word in any other application and ctrl-tab to the OED, you go straight to the entry. Lovely, lovely, lovely!

Comment from Can’t Hark My Cry
Time: April 29, 2016, 12:03 am

Uncle Al–I read the Guardian article only cursorily, but my impression is that a given word may light up more than one pea; the mapping is about concentrations, but it’s sort of like mapping human populations, where you may have a concentrated mass of one group in a particular place, but scattered members of that group all over the map, um, literally.
And, as Sweas notes, this is all based on the brains of 7 educated English speakers (two of whom were apparently part of the research team); so it’s probably way too early to generalize. But it’s a fascinating idea to think about.

Comment from catnip
Time: April 29, 2016, 5:34 am

It is fascinating to think about, but with technology advancing so swiftly, the implications are a little scary.

Comment from iamfelix
Time: April 29, 2016, 6:31 am

Words, words, words
I’m so sick of words
I get words all day through
First from him, now from you
Is that all you blighters can do?

I’ve tried to listen to “The Moth” at work (desperation — 8 hours stuck in a car). I’m sure my brain looked like Mt. Vesuvius at the height of its fury, so annoying that stuff can be.

I have the same troubles with names — can barely remember my own.

Love, what’s her name 🙂

Comment from Brother Cavil, dolphin brain in a jar
Time: April 29, 2016, 5:27 pm

You really need to talk to the Luddite relative that shut down the Large Hadron Collider:


Comment from Malcolm Kirkpatrick
Time: April 29, 2016, 7:13 pm

(Brother Cavil): “You really need to talk to the Luddite relative that shut down the Large Hadron Collider.”
(Times of India): “Marsollier says Friday that the weasel died — and little remains of it.”

Comment from Nina
Time: April 30, 2016, 9:56 am

Unk Al, if I had the OED on my computer I’d never get anything else done.

Words are that interesting.

Comment from AltBBrown
Time: April 30, 2016, 4:14 pm

I acted as an unpaid research elf for Mrs. Brown when she was obtaining a psych degree. The brain’s ability to reorganize, redistribute and reinvent itself is almost infinite.

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