Language and the Brain

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Biology 202

2006 Third Web Paper

On Serendip

Language and the Brain

Brom Snyder

Language's complexity and constant evolution make it one of the most fascinating and difficult frameworks to understand. Human beings have the ability to take two completely unrelated things, like a feeling of warmth, and create a sound that conveys the meaning and essence of that object to all the humans around him. The study of the brain and language is a rich and diverse field opening the door for a greater understanding of the most basic elements of humanity.

The definition of language varies depending on the source. For some language is defined as a process of neural pattern transference. Language involves the imperfect translation of the neural pattern in one individual to the brain of another. (1) Other scientists view language as a code with symbols "that can be connected to the words and phrases in a language." (2) Language serves as the point of convergence of physical objects and the abstract, assigning arbitrary but agreed upon signifiers to objects and ideas that exist in individual's brains.

Within in the brain the left hemisphere dominates language processing. Much of the language processing in the brain occurs in areas associated with the sylvian fissure. The sylvian fissure divides the paritiel, frontal, and temporal lobe serving as a point of convergence for these three regions of the brain. (3) The sylvian fissure houses the advanced association cortex, an area of the brain integral in the cognitive processes linked with language. The necessity of the advanced association cortex in the processing of language makes sense because on a basic level because language acts as a metaphor, "it finds 'connections' between the things in the mind" and things seen and experienced. (1) The generation of connections between unrelated entities like a sound an object or idea may be a common form of synaesthesia, a neurological condition where the subject experiences " a neurological mixing of senses." (4) People experiencing synaesthesia will see certain colors associated with certain sounds. In the case of language an object or feeling may have initially been associated with a sound made by humans. If this sound was consistently replicated by a group of humans it could develop into language, transferring a specific meaning with a specific sound.

For most of human history the only opportunity to examine the brain's language processing ability occurred when the brain suffered an injury. Doctors in the eighteenth and nineteenth century realized that the brain played a vital role in the processing of language because strokes or head injuries to certain areas caused a loss of language capability. One of the most famous doctors associated with the study of brain damage's link to language problems was Paul Braca, a nineteenth century French neurologist, whose patients exhibited a large vocabulary but could not form grammatically correct sentences. These patients suffered damage to the inferior frontal gyrus, a region of the brain thought to control the movement of the tongue and mouth. (5) The development of instruments like the MRI, that reveal the amount of neural activity in areas of the brain during a wide variety of tasks promote a much greater understanding of neural activity associated with the forming and processing language.

Among linguists there exists a theory that a "universal grammar" exists among all human languages meaning that "all humans are 'programmed' with a structure that underlies all surface expressions of language." (6) Noam Chomsky, one of the most outspoken supporters of the universal grammar theory, argues "certain aspects of our knowledge and understanding are innate, part of our biological endowment, genetically determined, on a par with the elements of our common nature that cause us to grow arms and legs rather than wings." (7) Chomsky's assertion that part of language is biologically innate opens the door for an interesting examination of the brain. If Chomsky is correct there must be a structure within the brain, possibly the advanced association cortex, where the neural pathways in almost every human follow a basic pattern, at the most basic level processing signals involved with language similarly. The implications of the innate nature of language leads to questions of whether other things like reason and morality also have a center in the brain? Do humans have an innate morality or framework for organizing the world that emerges despite differences in environmental factors?

In many ways language represents the factor which distinguishes humans from any other living organism. While other organisms utilize sounds to convey messages concerning direct matters of survival, humans use language to describe and transfer abstract concepts, an ability other organisms lack. The emergence of language in humans marked one of the greatest triumphs of humanity. Like any worthy scientific enquiry an examination of language and its relationship to the brain leaves the scientist with more questions than they started with. While language is vital to humanity we are currently only scratching the surface of how language is created and processed.

1)"Language as a neural process"
2) 4/Number4/F95Lang.html "Language and the Brain" by David Caplan
3)"Lateral Sulcus"
4) "Synaesthesia –union of the senses" by Adrianhon
6)"Universal Grammar"
7) "Universal Grammar and Linguistics" by Michael Albert

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