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English Detective #28, How our brains process language: December 17, 2013
December 16, 2013

English Detective #28, How our brains process language: December 17, 2013


The current investigation (Introducing this issue):

Start with two fascinating talks on the way human brains process and visualize language. NPR discusses research showing that the brain responds to sensory language the same way as it does when someone actually sees or touches an object.

Even words used metaphorically activate the region of the brain responsible for that sense. For example, if someone hears “Mary had a rough day,” the part of his brain that feels textures becomes more active, just as if he had touched a rough surface. However, it does not light up on an MRI (brain scan) if someone says she had a ‘bad’ day.

So metaphors and other comparisons are based on the structure of our minds. (For more explanation of metaphors and other English words for comparisons, see Roots of Comparison in the practice section below.

You can listen to this talk, and read its transcript, here.

The second talk explains how babies learn to recognize the sounds of their own language. For the first 6-8 months, babies respond equally to sounds from any language. Then they begin to distinguish the common sounds of the language (or languages) that they hear, and soon cannot differentiate sounds that have no meaning in their own language.

Researchers found that exposing six or seven-month old babies to a second language enables them to recognize and respond to both languages. Watch the complete TED talk.

Below the vocabulary for this issue there are links to a word search puzzle practicing neuroscience terminology, a word matching practice, and some explanations of words concerned with perception, vision, and imagination.



Your First Clue: Vocabulary Emphasized in this Issue

Review words from the AWL: accurate, arbitrary, capacity, distribution, intermediate, intervention, simulation, symbol, vision.

New vocabulary: metaphor, texture

A few notes about the new vocabulary:


Accurate measurements are both correct and exact. Accuracy is very important in brain surgery or accounting, whereas approximations or estimates are good enough for getting a general idea about a subject.
‘Arbitrary’ means chance or random. An arbitrary decision is based on simple chance or a momentary feeling rather than careful planning. An arbitrary government makes decisions based on whatever the ruler feels like, without considering the needs of his people.

‘Capacity’ means ability, or the largest amount something can hold. (A two liter bottle has twice the capacity of a one liter bottle.) It’s also possible to say “he has a great capacity to work,” meaning he can work hard.

To distribute something is to pass it around to many people. Large companies have worldwide distribution systems, while a small company might only distribute its product within a limited area.

‘Intermediate’ means middle or a mid level between low and high. There are intermediate English classes for people who have learned basic English but are not ready for advanced classes. Intermediate or middle grade gasoline is between the least and most expensive. Intermediate cars are middle sized or in the middle price range: between compacts and SUVs or between very inexpensive cars and luxury models.

To intervene is literally to ‘come between.’ A mother may intervene in a fight between two children, or a nation may intervene in a quarrel between other nations. If someone has a stroke, a doctor’s quick intervention can sometimes prevent lasting damage.

A metaphor is a comparison we make by saying something ‘is’ something else: “You are my sun” or “he’s a snake” or “the moon is the north wind’s cookie” (from a poem referring to how it gets smaller each night for half a month.)

To ‘simulate’ is to imitate or act like someone or something else. Simulations are often used for practice or to give the feeling of a real experience without the cost and the risk.

For example, a flight simulator is a machine that lets pilots practice flying. When a pilot operates its controls, it responds the way a plane would, although it remains on the ground.

War games let generals simulate real battles and try out strategies without risking the lives of their troops. Virtual reality games are also simulations.

A ‘symbol’ is something that represents a greater reality. A heart shape is a symbol of love. Flags are symbols of their countries. Many plants and animals are also used symbolically: the maple leaf stands for Canada, the bald eagle for the U.S., and an elephant for the Republican Party.

‘Texture’ is what the surface of something feels like: smooth, rough, prickly, or bumpy. (Think how different the surfaces of an apple and a pineapple feel, or silk and burlap.) The adjective is ‘textural.’

‘Vision’ is the sense of sight. We also use the word vision metaphorically to mean a deep understanding of life, or an ideal for a better world in the future.

Follow the Clues (Vocabulary Practice):


To practice recognizing words related to language and neuroscience research, try circling the words in this word search puzzle. Check the answers here. (You can download them by right-clicking.)

If you haven't already seen it, there’s a discussion of metaphors, as well as a matching game using words that show similarities or differences, at Roots of Comparison.

You can also review English vocabulary related to “seeing and showing” at Art Vocabulary.

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Coming in the next issue: Using English-- and Valuing Other Languages too.

In case you missed these: Earlier issues of English Detective have articles on a number of topics, plus practice with all 570 words from the Academic Word List. You can check them out with the link to the back issues page below (or find what words were practiced each issue here. or here for the most recent issues.

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