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We often think of memory as a rerun of the past — a mental duplication of events and sensations that we’ve experienced. In the brain, that would be akin to the same patterns of neural activity getting expressed again: Remembering a person’s face, for instance, might activate the same neural patterns as the ones for seeing their face. And indeed, in some memory processes, something like this does occur.

But in recent years, researchers have repeatedly found subtle yet significant differences between visual and memory representations, with the latter showing up consistently in slightly different locations in the brain. Scientists weren’t sure what to make of this transformation: What function did it serve, and what did it mean for the nature of memory itself?

Now, they may have found an answer — in research focused on language rather than memory.

A team of neuroscientists created a semantic map of the brain that showed in remarkable detail which areas of the cortex respond to linguistic information about a wide range of concepts, from faces and places to social relationships and weather phenomena. When they compared that map to one they made showing where the brain represents categories of visual information, they observed meaningful differences between the patterns.

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