In 2020, during the implementation of the project “Cognitive mechanisms and discursive strategies to overcome sociocultural threats in historical dynamics: a multidisciplinary study”, supported by the Russian Science Foundation, the Russian State University for the Humanities has created for the first time ever a unique Neurosemantic Atlas of the Russian Language. The entire work was done by the Research and Study Center for Cognitive Programs and Technologies, a worldclass state-of-the-art laboratory headed by Director of the Center, Doctor of Philology, Professor V. I. Zabotkina, with active involvement of RAS Corresponding Member, Doctor of Psychology, Professor B. M. Velichkovsky.
The Atlas was initially designed to study how the human brain and mind perceive threatening and alarming texts. A special technique has been developed to monitor semantic processes of conceptualizing sociocultural threats using fMRI. A narrator was reading selected texts to the volunteers participating in the experiment, while fMRI was recording the processes in different brain areas. The obtained data were then mathematically processed and represented in special tables. The experiment results allow for conclusions that have spread far beyond the project topic and relate to perception of both the texts in Russian and in any other language. Therefore, they are of unprecedented significance for both the Russian and world science.
The Atlas includes neurosemantic portraits of 1000 high-frequency nouns and verbs of the Russian language and of their semantic classes – so called synsets. Semantics of each word is determined by the distance to the conditional centers of 12 basic clusters. The clusters present the main network categories of the neurosemantic atlas experimentally identified at the previous stages of the project on the basis of linguistic and neurophysiological data. For example, clusters 02, 04 and 10 were semantically related to space and time of the described events, while clusters 03, 06 and 07 were related to the topics of threat, open conflict, and deprivation. For native Russian speakers of a certain age and educational background, they represent a peculiar analytical “constructor” of meanings and senses within their vocabulary. The method makes it possible to localize the brain mechanisms of semantic processing, as well as to describe individual differences in the perception of information about threats contained in the stimulus material.
The project outcomes have shown that, with rare exceptions, any frequent word, i.e. any word actively used by any native speaker (not only of the Russian language but, in our opinion, of any other language) can be described by a set of distances to any number of basic network clusters (12 clusters in our case). The value of these distances and the order of clusters in the set were regarded as a neurosemantic portrait of a given word. As a result of rather complicated mathematical calculations, for each cluster a vector was estimated that captures the average value of all the words in the cluster. Words close to the center or nucleus of each cluster were examined: they generally corresponded to the clusters’ semantics and the labels proposed by the experts for the experiment. The experiment has identified a neurosemantic pattern of sociocultural threats. Thus, the use of fMRI is a possible method to monitor individual conceptualization of such threats within the perception of text narratives. On the contrary, determining the linguistic parameters of each of the network clusters, for example, the threat cluster, can be used for daily monitoring through autonomic tools of threats contained in texts. A special parser can be used for a search of the threat pattern, the one that is normally used to search for semantic patterns in large text arrays.