Word Associations

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The brain is amazingly adept at drawing connections between things. It's how the brain learns and remembers. In this Science Update, you’ll hear about some researchers who are studying exactly what happens in the brain when it forms these lasting connections.


Mapping the brain's creative tendencies. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

If someone told you to think about a 'desk cloud,' what comes to mind? A cloud shaped like a desk? Or perhaps a desk sitting on top of a cloud?

This is the kind of brain teaser that intrigues John Kounios of the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his colleagues study how people form new associations between words or concepts. They do this by mapping the electrical activity of the brain with a technique called E.R.P.

With this E.R.P. technique, we can determine not only what areas of the brain are active, but we can see moment by moment how that pattern changes. So we can get a dynamic picture of electrical brain activity and see the order in which areas of the brain light up, not just what areas are lighting up.

Kounios says that when people are able to integrate unrelated concepts, like "desk" and "cloud," it stimulates areas involved in processing meanings, memory, and language. And this skill isn't limited to unusual word pairings.

What we're really trying to do is get people to generate new ideas. And that's really a creative act that is a part of day-to-day life.

For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.

Making Sense of the Research

Making connections is a huge part of human learning and thinking. On a basic level, it's the way you learn about how the world works: you learn that when the burner on the stove glows red, it's hot, or that a red light means "stop" and a green light means "go." It's part of learning language: you learn that the letters C-A-T, when spelled out in that order, refer to a furry animal with four legs that meows and catches mice. There's no natural connection between the word and the animal; you have to learn it.

The art of making new connections is also an important part of the creative process. Similes, metaphors, and other poetic devices are just ways of connecting two things that you wouldn't normally associate with one another, in order to produce a new idea. Read anything by Shakespeare and you'll get the picture. For example, the line "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" makes a connection between his beloved and a warm afternoon—two things which aren't related in a literal sense. Images from movies can have the same effect; anyone who's seen The Wizard of Oz associates red sparkly shoes with going home.

Kounios and his colleagues are trying to watch these connections just as they're being formed in the brain. They're looking at a very specific kind of connection: the kind where two concepts come together and form a new idea. That's different from two things that just go together, like salt and pepper or thunder and lightning. It's more like the term "disc jockey"—which means something different from either "disc" or "jockey," and means nothing when the words are reversed ("jockey disc").

To study this, they have to give their subjects two words that have absolutely nothing to do with one another, like "desk cloud." (If they said "desk job," or "cloud nine," they would tap into connections that were already formed.) Then they study the subjects' brain activity with an imaging technique called ERP. This is a kind of brain scan that shows the electrical activity in various parts of the brain. Whenever a part of the brain starts doing more work, you see more electrical activity there—and watching this can tell you which parts of the brain are involved in certain tasks. The nice thing about ERP, compared to other forms of brain imaging, is that you can watch the electrical signals change from moment to moment, so you can see not only which areas are activated by certain kinds of thought, but the exact order in which they activate.

Kounois' studies show that when people are first given two words, the first areas of the brain to activate are those involved in short-term memory. Then, if the subjects actually come up with some kind of new idea that links the two words, other areas associated with processing meaning, memory, and language kick into gear. This doesn't happen in cases where the subjects can't come up with a new idea that connects the two words. So these brain areas, working together, may form the linchpin of some kinds of creative thinking.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What kinds of word pairs are used in the experiment? Can you think of another example that might work? Why? What example(s) would not work? Why?
  2. Can you think of ways in which you rely on making new connections between different concepts? What about when you’re trying to memorize something, or studying for a test?
  3. What kinds of word pairs are used in the experiment? Can you think of another example that might work? Why? What example(s) would not work? Why?
  4. Can you think of word pairs such as "computer virus" or "couch potato" that began as disparate concepts and have been integrated over time to become widely accepted as unified concepts?
  5. Obviously, we don’t make connections between every pair of words or ideas that we come across. What kinds of conditions might make us more or less likely to connect two ideas that we encounter at the same time?
  6. Why do you think researchers are interested in the areas of the brain that are involved in specific kinds of thinking? Is it just academic interest, or are there applications to this knowledge?

For Educators

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