11 January 2013 // 2013-11

A Semantic Map of Mental Taxonomy

Semantic Space from the Gallant Lab

Taxonomy is the field of defining and naming groups of items based on shared characteristics or attributes. Scholarship on taxonomy has always held an important role in the areas of human psychology and cognition. I remember first really diving into the topic during concurrent courses on cognitive psychology and human information processing in college.

Taxonomies are studied and explored because of insights they might provide into how the human mind organizes concepts and information. Recent research from the Gallant Lab at UC Berkeley has produced a brain map based on responses to 1,300 visual objects and categories.

For the study, five male participants were placed inside an fMRI scanner and then shown video footage of everyday objects and scenes. Responses to the images were recorded, aggregated, and mapped onto a visual representation of the brain.

Researchers are calling the results a “continuous semantic space” and say the research will help expand our understanding of how information is organized in the brain. The categories of objects and information shown in the video clips appear to be organized in broad gradients that cover up to 20% of the brain.

The Gallant Lab research team has taken the results and created an interactive website to accompany their publication. The website offers both a visual representation of how information is mapped to the brain as well as a semantic map of the data. The results are graphically represented to more easily show the concepts and relationships between the items being classified in the study.

A prominent “animals”-centric cluster of concepts includes nodes for items like cattle, giraffe, deer, and old world buffalo, as well as carnivores, ungulate, reptile, sea turtle, and more. Other clusters are centered around concepts like people, devices, vehicles, buildings, materials, colors, travel, and outdoors.

The website is fun to explore and includes the definitions of the nouns and verbs present in the semantic map.

The site is using the experimental WebGL technology to display the graphics and so may not work in all browsers.

Semantic Space from the Gallant Lab
Semantic Space from the Gallant Lab


  1. Huth, Alexander G., Nishimoto, Shinji, Vu, An T., & Gallant, Jack L. (2012). A continuous semantic space describes the representation of thousands of object and action categories across the human brain. Neuron, 76, 1210-1224.

  2. Semantic Space website

  3. The Gallant Lab at UC Berkeley

Author: Erin Jo Richey
URL: http://erinjorichey.com/thumos/articles/semantic-map-taxonomy

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