“Words, words, words,” says Hamlet. “What’s in a name?” asks Juliet. Shakespeare had his characters musing on language, as their author dove deeply into the English dictionary, pulling out words, connecting them in novel ways, and even coining some of his own. Shakespeare is not unique in his interest in words. Many neuroscientists have shared in a fascination with language, and much research has gone into the topic.
One of the latest studies on language was done by a team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, who set out to explore which parts of the brain are active in processing which particular words. While their subjects listened to hours of narratives, they used functional MRI scans to monitor the subjects’ brain activity, e.g. blood flow, in response to particular words. What they found was activity that spanned many brain regions, and both brain hemispheres, with patterns being highly consistent across the participants. Certain areas were activated in response to words in similar categories. For example, words having to do with appearance tended to be found near the visual cortex. Based on the results, the researchers were able to map the brain’s semantic systems in previously unknown detail.
The study findings highlight that language comprehension, rather than being specific to just one part of the brain, is a process that involves a wide variety of brain regions, depending on the type of meaning of the language involved. This parallels what we know about other cognitive functions, such as memory, that involve various parts of the brain. If you were to go looking for a memory, it is not as if turning a key to a singular “Memory Center” would unlock the area that you need for sorting through them all. Similarly, there is no singular “Language Comprehension Zone” but rather an assortment of involved areas linked to particular categories of meaning.
It is pretty exciting to live in a time when we cannot only read a Shakespeare play but can view the map of a mind responding to its words. What’s in a name? We are learning more and more about the answer.