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CDI-TYPE II: From language to neural representations of meaning  

This project seeks to develop a new understanding of how the brain represents and manipulates meaning, by bringing together the perspectives of brain imaging, machine learning and computational modeling, using converging approaches from behavioral psychology, linguistics, computer science and neuroscience. In particular, the brain activity that encodes the meanings of words, phrases and sentences is studied, along with how the brain encodes the meaning of individual words in terms of their component semantic features, how it modifies its encoding of an individual word when it occurs within a phrase or clause, and how it constructs the encoding of a phrase or clause from the encodings of its component words. This work builds on recent research showing (1) that repeatable patterns of fMRI activation are associated with viewing nouns describing concrete objects such as "hammer" or "toe," (2) that the neural patterns that encode the meanings of these words are similar across different people, and (3) that these encodings are similar whether the person views a word or a picture of the object. Whereas previous work has focused on the neural representation of single words in isolation, this project studies multiple word phrases and sentences, which comprise larger units of knowledge; for example how the neural encoding of a noun is influenced by its adjective (e.g., "fast rabbit" vs. "cuddly rabbit") and how the neural encoding of a proposition is related to the encodings of its component words (how "cut" and "surgeons" combine in the proposition "surgeons cut"). To address these questions, computational models are developed using a diverse set of training data including fMRI data, data from a trillion-word corpus of text that represents typical language use, and behavioral data from language comprehension and judgment tasks, as well as online linguistic knowledge bases such as VerbNet, and theoretical proposals from the cognitive neuroscience literature regarding how and where the brain encodes meaning. These perspectives are integrated into a theory in the form of a computational model trained from diverse data and prior knowledge, and capable of making experimentally testable predictions about the neural encodings and behavioral responses associated with tens of thousands of words, and hundreds of thousands of phrases and sentences. This project potentially constitutes a significant scientific advance in understanding the relation between brain and mind, impacting a variety of scientific disciplines involved in the study of semantics, including linguistics, psychology, philosophy and cognitive science. A second impact comes from use of the methods and results to understand brain pathologies that involve language disturbances, such as aphasia, dyslexia, and autism. A third impact comes from the development of new statistical machine learning algorithms for analyzing and modeling cross-domain data sets to aid in scientific discovery. Finally, the emerging results and methods will have an educational impact through courses on Brain Imaging, Machine Learning, and Psychology taught by the Principal Investigators, and through a new course to be developed specifically on the topic of "Neural representations of meaning," with materials to be made available on the web. Project Status


Funder National Science Foundation
Fiscal Year Funding $525,000.00
Current Award Period 2008-2012
Project Number 835797
Principal Investigator Mitchell, Tom
Received ARRA Funding? No
Strategic Plan Question Question 2: How Can I Understand What Is Happening? (Biology)
Subcategory Computational Science
Strategic Plan Objective 2O. Not specific to Question 2 objectives
Federal or Private? Federal
Institution Carnegie Mellon University
State/Country Pennsylvania
Web Link 1 CDI-TYPE II: From language to neural representations of meaning (External web link)
Web Link 2 CDI-TYPE II: From language to neural representations of meaning (External web link)
Web Link 3 No URL available.
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