Our brains give us the remarkable ability to make sense of situations we've never encountered beforea familiar person in an unfamiliar place, for example, or a coworker in a different job rolebut the mechanism our brains use to accomplish this has been a longstanding mystery of neuroscience.
Now, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have demonstrated that our brains could process these new situations by relying on a method similar to the "pointer" system used by computers. "Pointers" are used to tell a computer where to look for information stored elsewhere in the system to replace a variable.
For the study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research team relied on sentences with words used in unique ways to test the brain's ability to understand the role familiar words play in a sentence even when those words are used in unfamiliar, and even nonsensical, ways.
For example, in the sentence, "I want to desk you," we understand the word "desk" is being used as a verb even though our past experience with the word "desk" is as a noun.
"The fact that you understand that the sentence is grammatically well formed means you can process these completely novel inputs," said Randall O'Reilly, a professor in CU-Boulder's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and co-author of the study. "But in the past when we've tried to get computer models of a brain to do that, we haven't been successful."
This shows that human brains are able to understand the sentence as a structure with variablesa subject, a verb and often, an objectand that the brain can assign a wide variety of words to those variables and still understand the sentence structure. But the way the brain does this has not been understood.
Computers routinely complete similar tasks. In computer science, for example, a computer program could create an email form letter that has a pointer in the greet
|Contact: Randall O'Reilly|
University of Colorado at Boulder