Princeton researchers have for the first time matched images of brain activity with categories of words related to the concepts a person is thinking about. The results lead to a better understanding of how people consider meaning and context when reading or thinking.
The researchers report in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience that they 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 researchers 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.
Once the researchers knew the brain activity a topic sparked, 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, Matthew Botvinick, an associate professor in Princeton’s Department of Psychology and in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.
“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 Princeton researchers worked from brain scans Just had previously collected in his lab, but he had no active role in the project.
“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.”