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This is your brain on sentences

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Posted August 14, 2016

Researchers at the University of Rochester have, for the first time, decoded and predicted the brain activity patterns of word meanings within sentences, and successfully predicted what the brain patterns would be for new sentences.

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure human brain activation. “Using fMRI data, we wanted to know if given a whole sentence, can we filter out what the brain’s representation of a word is—that is to say, can we break the sentence apart into its word components, then take the components and predict what they would look like in a new sentence,” said Andrew Anderson, a research fellow who led the study as a member of the lab of Rajeev Raizada, assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at Rochester.

These brain maps show how accurately it was possible to predict neural activation patterns for new, previously unseen sentences, in different regions of the brain. The brighter the area, the higher the accuracy. The most accurate area, which can be seen as the bright yellow strip, is a region in the left side of the brain known as the Superior Temporal Sulcus. This region achieved statistically significant sentence predictions in 11 out of the 14 people whose brains were scanned. Although that was the most accurate region, several other regions, broadly distributed across the brain, also produced significantly accurate sentence predictions. Image credit: University of Rochester graphic / Andrew Anderson

These brain maps show how accurately it was possible to predict neural activation patterns for new, previously unseen sentences, in different regions of the brain. The brighter the area, the higher the accuracy. The most accurate area, which can be seen as the bright yellow strip, is a region in the left side of the brain known as the Superior Temporal Sulcus. This region achieved statistically significant sentence predictions in 11 out of the 14 people whose brains were scanned. Although that was the most accurate region, several other regions, broadly distributed across the brain, also produced significantly accurate sentence predictions. Image credit: University of Rochester graphic / Andrew Anderson

“We found that we can predict brain activity patterns—not perfectly [on average 70% correct], but significantly better than chance,” said Anderson, The study is published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Anderson and his colleagues say the study makes key advances toward understanding how information is represented throughout the brain. “First, we introduced a method for predicting the neural patterns of words within sentences—which is a more complex problem than has been addressed by previous studies, which have almost all focused on single words,” Anderson said. “And second, we devised a novel approach to map semantic characteristics of words that we then correlated to neural activity patterns.”

Finding a word in a sentence

To predict the patterns of particular words within sentences, the researchers used a broad set of sentences, with many words shared between them. For example: “The green car crossed the bridge,” “The magazine was in the car,” and “The accident damaged the yellow car.” fMRI data was collected from 14 participants as they silently read 240 unique sentences.

“We estimate the representation of a word ‘car,’ in this case, by taking the neural activity pattern associated with all of the sentences which that word occurred in and we decomposed sentence level brain activity patterns to build an estimate of the representation of the word,” explained Anderson.

Source: University of Rochester

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