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Neurosemantics: the human brain as a meaning processor

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How the brain processes meaning

We humans derive meaning from the world around us and by doing so this makes us who we are. An EU-funded project examined how the human brain constructs meaningful representations of its surrounding environment by investigating neural mechanisms.


The NEUROSEMANTICS (Neurosemantics: The human brain as a meaning processor) project was an interdisciplinary initiative that focused on four complementary strands of research. These strands included an investigation into semantic memory in infants, the handling of different languages by the brain and the brain's capacity to process complex meaningful information not coded into words. Researchers also studied the processing of meaning triggered by distorted stimuli processed outside of awareness. Aspects of verbal and non-verbal semantic development in infants were then compared to second language semantics and non-verbal processing in adults. Similarly, differences between conscious and unconscious aspects of semantic processing formed an interpretational basis for results obtained in the other three strands. Results indicate that babies spontaneously associate language sounds with visual shapes before they know their first words. They also recognise words before they speak and switch between different languages before they are conscious that different languages exist. However, it is not only babies that demonstrate unconscious high-level cognition. Adult bilinguals translate second language words into their native language both spontaneously and unconsciously. Bilinguals can mentally access the sound of words in their native language while speaking in their second, without realising it. The project's findings show that the human brain is a voracious and automatic meaning processor that is mostly unaware of its inner workings. This happens even in the case of faculties we believe to be under voluntary control, such as language. Therefore, in light of these findings, conceptualisations of meaning formation and decision-making need to be revised. NEUROSEMANTICS revealed unsuspected levels of automaticity in meaning extraction in the human brain. Although consciousness is used to understand the nature of our minds, most of what defines us and our understanding of the world comes from spontaneous, unconscious information processing that is not yet fully understood. The emerging picture is therefore one that calls for a reconsideration of the way in which we conceptualise operations traditionally regarded as volitional.


Brain, meaning, neural mechanisms, NEUROSEMANTICS, semantic, languages

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