Researchers at the CAS Key Laboratory of Behavioral Science in China and the University of Trento in Italy have found that the brain region that deciphers words is also involved in extracting social meaning from whole phrases.

The results of the work indicate that the same social semantic network, identified in previous studies, similarly supports the accumulation of related social meanings.

“Our article was broadly based on two lines of work, the first of which showed that a specific brain network deciphers the social meanings of words. For example, in previous research, we found that thinking with high socio-semantic richness of verbs (for example, hug and trust) elicited stronger activation than thinking with low social-semantic richness of verbs (for example, walking and drawing conclusions).

Research text

The new study also builds on previous findings that suggest that most brain regions in this hypothetical social semantic network are more sensitive to meanings at the sentence and discourse level than to meanings at the word level.

In other words, these brain regions were found to be more active when people process sentences or discourse than a list of words. Moreover, these activation patterns seem to gradually change as a person tries to learn a language.

The authors hypothesized that this social semantic brain network not only represents the social meanings of words but also accumulates knowledge about the connections between them.

The researchers tested this hypothesis in an experiment where participants read stories, sentences, and word lists inside an fMRI scanner. These narratives, sentences, and word lists were constructed using an identical group of words, and the social semantic meaning of all narratives, sentences, and words was processed.

They found that areas of the brain involved in semantic processing were more active when people read narrative texts than when they read word lists. Moreover, the authors of the work noticed that their activation can be more global if whole texts have social meaning.

Overall, these results support the hypothesis that the social semantic network of the brain not only participates in the representation of individual socially significant words but also supports the accumulation of social meanings in a longer text.