If you’ve ever wanted to see what a neural network looks like inside your own brain, then the new Visuwords visual dictionary might be the closest you’ll ever get.
When you enter a word into Visuwords, it creates a graphical abstract of all related terms, and ties them together in a web that you can manipulate. Mousing over a term defines it, and you can drag the terms around, into groups, or stretch the web apart to see how related terms relate to each other. It is, as the kids say, mad cool. You can see it in action here.
Visuwords uses an open-source platform called WordNet created by the brains at Princeton, and it just launched this week. Obviously it’s not perfect; even though it worked fine in Firefox, it insisted on reading “XHTML Load Failed” behind the Web animation, and it didn’t work at all in Safari.
That said, this could be the most useful pre-research tool that the Web has offered humanity to date. Psychologists have long thought that our brains collect information in networks called “constructs” that behave a lot like webs. The more often our thoughts travel the pathways between terms (take for example the well-developed relationship between the terms “birthday” and “cake”) the more likely we are to free associate the two terms together. Visuwords organizes related terms similarly; while the terms “punk” and “subculture” pop up as closely related, clicking on “subculture” releases another burst of associations, one of which is “skinheads and bootboys.” Now, I have no idea what a “bootboy” is. I’ve never in my life heard that term. But if I were researching punk rock or countercultural movements, I’d definitely want to go find out.
While Wikipedia is great for quick research, and Lexis Nexis is great for looking deeper, there currently exists no real tool for finding out what one does not know. Visuwords is more than an Internet gimmick. It’s an Internet gem.
Now I’m off to look up “bootboys” on Wikipedia.