Learning new color names produces rapid increase in gray matter in the intact adult human cortex

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Apr 19;108(16):6686-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1103217108. Epub 2011 Apr 4.


The human brain has been shown to exhibit changes in the volume and density of gray matter as a result of training over periods of several weeks or longer. We show that these changes can be induced much faster by using a training method that is claimed to simulate the rapid learning of word meanings by children. Using whole-brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) we show that learning newly defined and named subcategories of the universal categories green and blue in a period of 2 h increases the volume of gray matter in V2/3 of the left visual cortex, a region known to mediate color vision. This pattern of findings demonstrates that the anatomical structure of the adult human brain can change very quickly, specifically during the acquisition of new, named categories. Also, prior behavioral and neuroimaging research has shown that differences between languages in the boundaries of named color categories influence the categorical perception of color, as assessed by judgments of relative similarity, by response time in alternative forced-choice tasks, and by visual search. Moreover, further behavioral studies (visual search) and brain imaging studies have suggested strongly that the categorical effect of language on color processing is left-lateralized, i.e., mediated by activity in the left cerebral hemisphere in adults (hence "lateralized Whorfian" effects). The present results appear to provide a structural basis in the brain for the behavioral and neurophysiologically observed indices of these Whorfian effects on color processing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Cerebral Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Color
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*