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Concept cells in the human brain and neural networks

Did you know that if you are a fan of Star Wars, in your brain there might be neurons that respond only to characters from the movie? Interestingly, some types of artificial brains that scientists generate with computers (called artificial neural networks) also spontaneously develop such neurons. What does it (and what does it not) tell us about the real brain? And what does it have to do with language?

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Words as Medicine

Words can contribute substantially to improvements in health, but they can also act in a nociceptive manner. Brain imaging research has convincingly shown that language has effects on how we perceive the world and act on it. The attraction that alternative medical practices have, is largely or solely based on the narratives in which they are embedded. The further technological developments in medicine make it all the more urgent to investigate how these developments should be integrated into effective communication practices.

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Talking about numbers

Language is normally understood to be extraordinarily useful to humans, but we all share the experience of language getting in the way. Whether this be saying something we don’t mean, or failing, sometimes stubbornly, to agree to use the same words to refer to the same things. An interesting and informative case of this is the role of language in the wholesale kneecapping of historical developments in mathematics, and in the confusion of a sizable plurality of secondary school students.  How could language, the workhorse of human communication, hinder development in mathematics? 

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Language: the Hardest Problem of Science – Easy Peasy for any Child

One of the most difficult problems of science is where language comes from. Language ontogeny – how children can learn it? – and phylogeny – how did it emerge in evolution? – are still largely unsolved mysteries today. In a recent study, we attacked the issue in the lab, with surprising results.

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The costs and benefits of predicting words

Spoken language unfolds at a rapid pace, approximately 4-5 words per second. Have you ever wondered how listeners are generally able to keep up? A popular hypothesis is that people do so by anticipating what comes next, including which words come next. This anticipation, also called ‘prediction’, is thought to occur continuously, routinely, and implicitly. This means that it happens all the time, it does not require any conscious effort, and it happens even without someone trying to guess the next word. But why is prediction beneficial? This blog post explores the presumed benefits of prediction, but also its costs.

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If the Earth becomes Dune, how will we speak?

Have you seen Dune, a recent film directed by Denis Villeneuve? It is based on a famous novel by Frank Herbert about Arrakis, a desert planet, where water is extremely scarce. This affects not only how people on Arrakis behave, but also how they speak. Of course, Dune is fiction, but numerous studies show that the environment shapes human language in many profound ways. People living in the desert, mountains or forests tend to use different speech sounds, words and even grammars. 

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Why don’t we say what we really mean? 

When you think about it, the way in which we express ourselves is somewhat paradoxical. We have the words to say exactly what we mean, yet we routinely use them to express our thoughts in ways that are lengthy, complicated, that disguise our true motives or blur our clear intentions.

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Do words have meanings?

In my work, I study language comprehension. Intuitively, most people think that the solution to cracking language comprehension surely must be to figure out how word meanings are retrieved and how they are combined to form sentences. But do words actually have meanings?

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A miracle of migration: The invention of the alphabet

The news today is full of articles about immigration. The media often casts it in a bad light, but did you know that it was illiterate immigrants in ancient Egypt who invented a tool that over half of the world’s population still uses every day, one that rewired our brains?

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