At a Loss for Words

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Biology 202
2002 First Paper
On Serendip

At a Loss for Words

Miriam Shiferaw

“I did not feel like A.H. Raskin. I now had a new self, a person who no longer could use words with mastery.” ~A.H. Raskin, editor for the NY Times

Language is the principal means whereby we formulate our thoughts and convey them to others. It allows us to disclose our fondest memories of the past and communicate our emotions. Language has been instilled in us ever since we were babies inside our mother’s womb. We often take language for granted since most of us have never had to live a life of silence. It is perhaps because of this that people who have suffered brain damage caused by strokes, gunshot wounds, brain tumors, or other traumatic brain injuries feel a loss of self when they lose their ability to speak (1) . If we can’t talk then we can’t communicate right? Wrong.

We often speak of our brains being lateralized. What is brain lateralization exactly? Brain lateralization pertains to the fact that the two halves of our so-called “symmetrical” brain are not exactly alike. There are functional specializations that are specific to each hemisphere (2). For the most part language areas are concentrated in the left hemisphere. Surprisingly, only about three percent of right-handers and nineteen percent of left-handers have language controlled by the right hemisphere (3). Two major areas of the brain, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are responsible for language production and language comprehension, respectively. It is fairly difficult to assess exactly what parts of the brain control language, anything really, by any means other than clinical reports of people with brain injuries or diseases. Approximately one million people in the United States currently have aphasia, the language disorder that results from damage to portions of the brain responsible for language (1). Some people with aphasia have problems primarily with expressive language often termed Broca’s aphasia, whereas others have problems with receptive language often dubbed Wernicke’s aphasia (3). The two get their names from Paul Broca, a French neurosurgeon, and Carl Wernicke, a German neurologist who identified their respective parts in the mid-1800s (2). Broca’s area describes the lower rear portion of the frontal lobe on the left side that is in front of the motor strip (4). Patients with Broca’s aphasia often omit small words such as “is”, “and”, and “the (5).” A person with this type of aphasia may say, “Walk dog” meaning, “I will take the dog for a walk.” What is said usually makes sense and is understood, but it is very compressed. Broca’s aphasics are often aware that they are having language difficulties. This level of self-awareness means that they often respond well to treatment. On the other hand, Wernicke’s area is located in the temporal lobe behind the primary auditory cortex (4). Patients with Wernicke’s aphasia tend to speak in long sentences that have no meaning, often creating new words (5). Someone with Wernicke’s aphasia may say, “You know that smoodle pinkered and that I want to get him round and take care of him like you want before,” meaning “The dog needs to go out so I will take him for a walk (5).” Opposite of Broca’s aphasia, people with Wernicke’s aphasia have difficulty with comprehension, yet they often remain unaware of their language difficulties and become annoyed or frustrated when others can’t understand them. Due to this lack of self-awareness, Wernicke’s aphasics rarely respond to treatment.

The idea of self-awareness is an interesting one in the case of aphasics. Psychology textbooks often teach us that self-awareness stems from being aware of others of your species, and then becoming aware, possibly from how others treat you, that you are one of them (6). Furthermore, self-awareness, especially in humans, includes not only awareness of one’s physical self, but also of one’s own personality and character, reflected psychologically in the reactions of other people (6). So then could we presume that Wernicke’s aphasics would respond better to treatment if we didn’t look at them funny every time they spoke? Surely anyone’s recovery or responsiveness to treatment depends on your surroundings and the encouragement from other people.

Although we may think of aphasics as having a huge disadvantage in today’s society where language seems to be the root of any sort of success, after all being able to express one’s desires or goals is appealing. Aphasics have actually been shown to have an interesting advantage over those of us dominated by our left-hemispheres. They are skilled at spotting liars by reading facial expressions (7). Who would have thought? Aphasics in a study done by Nancy Etcoff were shown to have an unusual ability to tell when someone is lying seventy-three percent of the time (7). Non-aphasics had only about a fifty-fifty chance of spotting a liar (7). This would suggest that the brain’s right hemisphere, the undamaged half in aphasia patients, is better than the left half at detecting emotions. Human language includes a strong nonverbal component often hidden under the verbal components. Research in the 1960s has shown that each half of the brain is specialized in a complementary manner for different ways of thinking (8). It has been observed that the mode of the left hemisphere is verbal and analytic, whereas that of the right is nonverbal and global (8). Loss of language due to damage to the left hemisphere may free aphasics to pick up on unspoken cues to deception. When we normally speak to someone else, we get facial expressions, gestures, and words. What we really focus in on is language, and that may be blinding us to some other cues. Our society, mainly our education system largely neglects the nonverbal form of understanding. Although the right and left hemispheres work together, each side processes information differently. Most information in classrooms is geared to the left hemisphere. Therefore, we often forget to use the right side of our brains, which interprets information visually, creatively, and emotionally. What about those students whose right side is dominant? Maybe people who do poorly in school just aren’t “left-brained.”

Damage to the right hemisphere can lead to a loss of the ability to express emotions, leading speech to become lifeless and flat. On the contrary, a person with damage to the left hemisphere, although unable to truly talk, can still sing songs and in fact learn new ones (9). Often scientists and psychologists argue that who we are is our brain. Essentially that our brain is what makes us walk, talk, think, and feel the way we do. Perhaps based on the above findings, who we really are isn’t the brain per se, but the right hemisphere. Oftentimes many have difficulty in accepting that our brain equals who we are because we can’t easily attribute our emotions to the brain. Maybe who we are is based on our personality, in that if we are logical then we are our left hemisphere, and if we are more creative and intuitive we are our right. If our right hemisphere is responsible for such things as intuition and imagination, then wouldn’t we all benefit from a world where children were taught at an early age to use the right side of their brains more often? Would people become more open-minded and insightful? Would we all be able to sit on a jury and correctly incarcerate those who have broken the law? Wouldn’t it be nice if those who were innocent on death row could walk free because an aphasic was able to tell they were telling the truth? Clearly the left and right side of our brains influence us in different ways. No one is completely right-brained or totally left-brained. If we learn to understand how each side functions, then maybe we can better understand how we process information best and learn to adapt specific strategies in ways that work best for us.

WWW Resources

1)American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Aphasia Facts

2)Handedness and Brain Lateralization, Brain Lateralization

3)Language and the Brain, summary of different types of Aphasia

4)Conversations with Neil’s Brain, story about a man in the operating room Aphasia

5)NIDCD Health Information, Aphasia Facts

6) Gray, Peter. Psychology: Third Edition. New York, NY: Worth Publishers, 1999.

7)C-Health, article on aphasics and lie detecting

8)Left and Right Sides of the Brain, characteristics of the two hemispheres of the brain

9)Aphasia, asymmetry of the brain and aphasia

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