By Abby Gemechu

Though one may not give them a second thought, words are incredibly fundamental to human existence and experience. As a matter of fact, no society is able to function without them. The human brain, however, understands and processes words in several ways, complex operations taking place simultaneously.

One way the human brain processes and understands words is by word association. Word association, one of the basic mechanisms of memory, is when the mind recognizes a word by associating with another word already in its system, directly or indirectly. There are several long-standing types of word association, each having its own properties. The first of these is association by similarity. Often coined as the most conventional types of word association, this classification is when two ideas share common features, or similarities. For example, if one is given the word anger, they might think of terms such as fury, rage, or temper, due to their similar meanings concerning a related feeling. Another type of word association is association by contrast. This happens when two words have opposing features. Similar to the concept of antonyms, this means that every time one thinks of the word angry, the same effect of the following reaction of the awakening of a certain part of the cerebral cortex occurs when thinking of the word happy. Therefore, every time one thinks of the word angry, it shares an effect with the word happy, giving them associable properties. The last, and perhaps, most sensible type of word association concerning memory is association by contiguity. Association by contiguity happens when events (or, more specifically, words associated with that event) are situated or thought of close in time and space. For example, if one remembers being angry yesterday and slamming the door, they might think of the word door, or doorframe. For instance, if one gives a child the term long, and they say grass, it shows they are relating the word to past personal experiences that involved long grass. The previously stated types of word association are only the rudimentary categories, and more complicated, specific semantic variations do exist (i.e cause and effect association- hurricane to devastation). Numerous experiments having to do with word association and how it affects the brain have been conducted in past years.

Researchers at Princeton conducted an analysis in which they gave subjects a list of words and looked closely at which part of the cerebral cortex was activated when each word was read. After this, they gave the same subjects a list of related words to see which part of the brain reacted this time. After examining the results, scientists realized similar terms sparked the same section of the cerebral cortex. For example, words such as eye woke up like parts of the brain as the word foot. This experiment helped psycholinguists to “track semantic threads.” This is the way in which one’s thoughts connect or lead into each other.

Because word association is such a complex phenomena, there are many ways for the human brain to interpret it. For example, if the given word is dumplings, one’s brain may process the word by its syllablic properties, and respond with dimples. Dimples have nothing to do with dumplings (unless one has had an experience with the two). These two words aren’t related at all- meaning-wise, at least, but rather by sound. The terms dimples and dumplings are alike phonetically.

Additionally, different people may tend to gravitate toward different types of word association. One may be more prone to associating terms by sound, whereas another may rather identify words by similarities in meaning (association by similarity). However, these patterns may also vary with other factors. Age is a prime example of this. Younger children have been shown to lean toward association by sound rather than by meaning for various reasons, but it depends on the person. Scientific studies have proven the previous statement. 

Psycholinguistics use these results to learn how semantic information is stored in the human brain. By comparing the word association responses of children to those of adults, scientists and researchers can learn how word meanings are transferred from society to individual child, enabling them to begin building and forming concepts on how humans perceive and discern words in general.


International Cognitive Linguistics Association Staff. About Cognitive Linguistics: A Historical Background. International Cognitive Linguistics Association, Accessed Oct. 22,

Kelly, M. 2011. Word Association: Princeton Study Matches Brain Scans with Complex Thought. Princeton University, Accessed Oct. 28,

Marcus, G, et al. 2012. The Role of Association in Early Word-Learning. National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Newman, M, et al. 1970-1971. Word Association from Preschool Children Collected by the Continued Sentence Associations Method. Journal of Reading Behavior, Vol. 3, No. 3, pg. 13-23.

Word Association Editing Team.  2006. Word Association Lookup. Word Associations Network, Accessed Oct. 9,