Eli5 how does the brain store the meaning of words in your head?



Does it link words to pictures in your mind? So there is a mapping from the word “owl” to a picture of an owl in your head?

Can I also add that I don’t think this mapping involves word definitions, so for example the word owl won’t map to the word definition of an owl since you need to define words in the definition itself. This causes a never ending chain as you keep having to define words in further definitions.

In: Other

You gotta think of your brain like a file cabinet that stores all the words you know and has files on the things that a make a word have a meaning. This includes relationships between words/ideas, sensory info, similar words or things, sounds, usages, and all that. Then there’s pathways that form between what you hear/see and where the file is stored in the mind. The word owl would definitely map to the definition of an owl (big, nocturnal, hunter, wise, feathery, bird, bitey, 360 head spin) unless you didn’t know what an owl was, in which case you’d maybe try and figure out if an owl if something that sounds like the word ‘owl’, find a word that sounds similar and maybe come up with a wrong definition and start to build inaccurate files on it.

I don’t know if this is allowed, but the non ELI5 word for this is psycholinguistic processing and it relates to the way words are stored and retrieved in the mind.

Think of it as if the word “owl” (or whatever word you choose) evokes an image in your conscience through, as you say, mapping (neurons talking to each other).

But it is not that simple. The same word can evoke different images depending on your situation, and obviusly depending on the person. For example if I say home you might evoke your home, but I will evoke mine.
Moreover, if you live in a flat for example, you may evoke your flat or your parents’ house.

About the definition… It is very uncommon that the brain evokes a definition without you purposely wanting to do so, because you have to search (literally, you search in your storage of info) the words to describe it, so it is less efficient and more conscience-driven.

Hope it helps!

I don’t think it necessarily links a world to a picture. It would be interesting to try to understand how people born blind actually think

I am helping a woman recouperate from a stroke that really hammered her language area (so she has Aphasia)…. and it is fascinating how her brain works I can see how it finds old memories and can’t form new ones and where connections are or are not made.

“What the heck is a brain store and what is it doing with my words? Oh. Store like… Storing… In MY brain. As in… Vocabulary.”

For some of us, it’s a little slow at retrieving all the meanings and linking things together in context

Google more about the first part of my name. It is a technique where you control how information is linked. It should give you a better idea how our brain naturally does it, if you are the one driving for a while so to speak.

Haven’t seen anybody bring up the schema theory yet. This theory of memory does a really good job of providing an image of the structure and relationship between short term memory (STM) and long term memory (LTM).

The first thing you should know is a schema. Essentially, a schema is a bundle of information that is stored as one unit in your LTM. For example, the actual word ‘owl’ is only a small part of the ‘owl’ schema in your brain. This helps explain why, when you think ‘owl’, information from multiple contexts are brought up and readily available (what an owl looks like, sounds like, where it might live, maybe you even have the tootsie pop owl from the commercial right on the tip of your tongue).

Second, keeping in mind that schemas are their own discrete units, related schemas (like ‘owl’ and ‘feather’) can be pictured as linked like kindergarteners holding the same rope on a field trip. When a specific schema – let’s say ‘feather’ – is pulled out of your LTM up to your STM, all related schemas including ‘owl’ aren’t necessarily pulled up with it, but are closer to your consciousness than a totally unrelated schema, like ‘railroad’.

There’s a lot more to schema theory than I explained here, and it’s all very interesting – I recommend checking it out.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

Association and fuzzy logic. Your brain associates a word with something and strengthens the connections between association based on importance.

Fuzzy logic is then used for matching objects, so one thing is like something else. This is why you might say it’s kind of like a truck but it’s actually a car.

I can’t see picture in my head but I still know what words mean even abstract words that have no pictures.

Images? Lol:)

Some of us have no linking of an image to anything at all.

If I think of an “owl”, then it links to the concept of “what an owl *is*”, e.g bird, can fly, silent in the air, flexible neck, etc. At no point is an image involved.

I am curious how you mind deals with the definition of words that are concepts – have no image. E.g Logistics, Faith, Calculus, Like, Fear etc?


ELI25: The brain stores the meaning of words (as well as concepts, ideas, experiences, memories, emotions, actions, etc etc) in the form of [neuronal ensembles](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuronal_ensemble). These neuronal ensembles are formed through [synaptic plasticity](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synaptic_plasticity).

ELI5: When two neurons in the brain are close together and fire off at the same time, they tend to form connections with each other. In this fashion the word “owl” can become connected to the word “bird” which in turn might already be connected to concepts, ideas, memories, experiences and emotions that have already been associated with birds in general (such as wings, feathers and flight). In time, with additional stimulation, the neurons associated with the word “owl” will develop shorter and stronger connections with the same neurons that are associated with owl-related concepts/ideas/memories/emotions/experiences. This causes your understanding of the word “owl” to mature and begins to develop as an independent concept separate from the spoken word itself.

Do 5 year olds understand what an analogy is? This is a summary of a train of thought found in *Surfaces and Essences* by Douglas Hofstadter

The meaning of a word is an analogy that represents a specific set of conditions. Conditions that happen often become memorable, and the brain learns to link these categories of experience to the words in our languages. Thinking is a pattern recognition activity.

When we learn the name of something new, our memory stores it as an idea in relationship to all the other things it reminds us of. Then we can start using it as the basis to draw conclusions about similar things as well. This is what it means to make an analogy.

For example, an owl is a bird that’s special because it can see in the dark like a cat. They’re both animals, but experience tells us how to separate the categories. Because it has feathers we know right away it’s a bird.

In this case “Bird” is the first analogy or category we recall when we think of an owl. As we learn more details we compare it to other familiar things. The defining traits are what separate the analogy of “owl” from “cat” or “animal.”

Soon enough when we look at abstract shapes like clouds sometimes we say “oh look there’s an owl!” It may just be shaped like one, but if the picture fits then the analogy works. Words are just shapes that we’ve learned to use to invoke ideas, such as of an owl.

Of course these are all chemical reactions physically happening in your head. Thoughts are things too. We don’t fully understand mechanics behind it yet but we do know certain types of cells such as neurons play key roles.

It appears that when a thought is used frequently, the neurons that activate become stronger. Much like using a muscle to build it up, frequently relying on an analogy seems to strengthen neural pathways. “Cat” probably conjures a strong image for you, yes?

This is why when we learn new words it helps to repeat them and use them as much as possible. The brain remembers patterns that get used frequently, probably because it needs to keep calling them up. Be aware of what’s going on in your head: you are what you think!

by association with other words that are associated with sentences that are associated with memories of what a best-guess of what people in that past were meaning when talking to/around you.

Something that might be related is word vectors, it’s a technique for storing words in a manner that encodes meaning as a string of decimal point numbers.
In fact with this method every word in the english dictionary can be compressed into 300 decimal numbers, with each representing some abstract quality of the word.
Its quite possible that the brain uses a similar technique, with certain pathways for the cuteness or englishness of a concept, with different words being more or less of those attributes.
However I actually have no idea for sure. Just something interesting to share.

There is some evidence that it’s stored in a “tree” like structure, where the root node of the tree is the word “thing” and it subdivides from there. See https://wordnet.princeton.edu/

This is why it’s easier to remember “animal” than “owl” or “dog”. It’s also why when you can’t remember you start out with “it’s a thing that does …” or “it’s a plant that’s…” etc.

Actually, no. And it really sucks..

I’ve learned when i was around 25 that other people’s brains actually really do that and it’s not just a Hollywood thing.

Some time soon aftee I’ve also learned it’s a really rare disorder known as aphantasia whereas your mind is literally incapable of creating images so when you imagine tings it’s just blank and you can’t “see-imagine” anything.

I can still imagine tastes, smells and bodily sensations but when it comes to pictures it’s white noise at best.

It’s been a real wild ride discovering it but also kinda liberating 😅