Skip to Content
Humans and technology

A map of the brain could help to guess what you’re reading

August 20, 2019
brain map cortex
brain map cortex
brain map cortexUC Berkeley

A 3D map of how the brain responds to words could unlock new ways to understand and treat dyslexia and speech disorders.

Map-making: Researchers at UC Berkeley used functional MRI to measure nine volunteers’ brain activity (using blood flow as a proxy) as they listened to, and then read, stories from “The Moth Radio Hour,” a storytelling podcast which airs on 500 radio stations around the world. The researchers collected volunteers’ brain activity data for reading (one word at a time, to help separate the data) and listening to recordings of the same text, then matched both sets of data against time-stamped transcriptions of the stories.

Language links: The results were then fed into a computer program, which mapped out thousands of words according to their relationship to each other, using natural-language processing. For example, the “social” category includes words like “husband,” “father,” and “sister.” Different categories sparked activity in different parts of the brain: these “social” words were found on the right side, behind the ear. This area also responded most strongly to words that describe people or dramatic events, as well as words that describe time. 

The biggest surprise: The researchers concluded that there are a lot of similarities, in terms of brain activity, between reading and listening to stories, says lead author Fatma Deniz. Until now, the assumption was that there would be clearer differences between the two. The findings were published in the Journal of Neuroscience yesterday, and you can explore the brain map online here.

Why it matters: The findings could help to build clinical applications for dyslexia, by comparing reading and listening maps for people with dyslexia to  controls of people without, according to Deniz. Understanding how the brain processes words could also help build better language decoders, helping patients with language disorders, she adds.

Update: We changed this story on 09/03 to include a link to the online brain map.

Sign up here for our daily newsletter The Download to get your dose of the latest must-read news from the world of emerging tech.

Deep Dive

Humans and technology

anti-choice surveillance tactics
anti-choice surveillance tactics

Anti-abortion activists are collecting the data they’ll need for prosecutions post-Roe

Body cams and license plates are already being used to track people arriving at abortion clinics.

Chinese livestreamer and beauty influencer Li Jiaqi, also known as "king of lipstick," is seen in a subway station in Shanghai
Chinese livestreamer and beauty influencer Li Jiaqi, also known as "king of lipstick," is seen in a subway station in Shanghai

How China’s biggest online influencers fell from their thrones

Three top livestreaming personalities on the platform Taobao commanded legions of fans who bought billions of dollars’ worth of goods—until they suddenly went dark.

animal crossing concepts
animal crossing concepts

Inside the experimental world of animal infrastructure

Wildlife crossings cut down on roadkill. But are they really a boon for conservation?

disguised troll talks to disguised scammer for the lulz
disguised troll talks to disguised scammer for the lulz

The people using humour to troll their spam texts

Our phones are being inundated with text scams. Some people are using humor to fight back.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.