MadSci Network: Other

Re: How does the human brain understand language?

Date: Mon Jun 15 11:30:32 1998
Posted By: Lori Holt, Graduate (Ph.D.) Student, Psychology, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin
Area of science: Other
ID: 897692946.Ot


You've asked a very sophisticated question. I'm impressed!

This is an exciting time for research in how the brain processes language. 
A whole new field has emerged called "cognitive neuroscience" that aims to 
understand how the brain accomplishes complex tasks like language. Most of 
the knowledge we have about brain mechanisms comes from studying animals 
because it is unethical to experiment with humans' brains. No animal 
species (even apes) has proven to be as sophisticated with language use as 
humans, so it has been difficult to study brain mechanisms in animals. 
Until just recently, scientists relied mainly on "natural experiments" such 
as human brain injuries arising from accidents. Some patients who sustain 
injury to certain areas of the brain experience a dramatic loss in their 
ability to use language. By examining and testing these patients and then 
later examining their brains after death, scientists have suggested that 
language processes may be localized to some specific brain regions. In 
particular, for most people, the left half of the brain appears to be much 
more active in processing language than the right half. In the last 
decades, scientists have developed new "brain-imaging" tools that allow us 
to observe the activity of the human brain without surgery. These new tools 
are creating many new avenues for studying the brain's role in language.

The question of how infants acquire a native language is a focus of my own 
research. Some scientists argue that human infants are born with 
specialized brain mechanisms that allow them to acquire language. Others 
argue that specialized mechanisms might not be necessary because infants 
are remarkably good at learning the patterns of sound that they experience 
from the speakers around them. Babies are surprisingly capable of learning 
very complex patterns! Many scientists are currently conducting experiments 
to test which of these alternatives best explains human infants acquisition 
of language.

There are many more very interesting facts about infants acquisition of 
language and brain mechanisms of language. Last week, US News and World 
Report had a cover story about infant language acquisition that may 
interest you. You can read it (for free!) online at the following address:

If you have any more questions, or if you'd like to where to find out more 
on your own, please feel free to email me at

Lori Holt

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