May 1 Class: Brain & Language

Language and the Brain4 (Student Presentation by Lindsay & Laura)

Neurolinguistics: the study of the biological and neural foundations of language

Cortex: surface of the brain “gray matter

white matter: connecting fibers beneath the cortex


cerebral hemispheres:
left/right halves of the brain

corpus callosum:
network of 2 million
fibers connecting the hemispheres

contralateral brain function: left side
of brain controls functioning of right side of body and right hemisphere of brain controls left side of body.

Modularity of the Brain

First indications came from phrenology – practice of determining personality traits and abilities based on reading the bumps on the skull. Proposed by Franz Joseph Gall in early 1800s. Phrenology has been discarded but Gall’s concept of modularity has been upheld.

Paul Broca – 1864: related language to the left side of the brain, based on autopsies of people who had language deficits and damage to the left frontal lobes of brian. This area came to be called Broca’s area

Broca’s Aphasia:language disorder that results from injury to Broca’s area

Aphasia: any language disorder that results from brain damage caused by disease or trauma

Carl Wernicke
- 1874 –
identified aphasia in patients with damage to the back left portion of brain. (Wernicke’s area)

Wernicke’s aphasia: patients who spoke fluently but had numerous lexical errors; using jargon and nonsense words. Had difficulty in comprehending speech.

Does everyone have language functions in the left side of their brains? How about left-handed people? What’s special about the brain tissue in the left themisphere?

Discussion: is there an evolutionary purpose for lateralization? What do you think could be the reason behind it?

New ways to discover brain functioning:

MRI (Magnetic
Resonance Imaging):  
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is
a noninvasive method which utilizes the properties of magnetism to create
nondestructive, three dimensional, internal images of the soft tissues of
the body, including the brain, spinal cord and muscle. (How MRI works)

PET (Positron Emission Tomography):shows metabolic activity of the brain(How PET works)

Images from PET scans

SPECT  studies combine nuclear medicine (the use
of radioisotopes  in the diagnosis of disease) with computed tomography.   In
this technique, the patient either swallows or is injected with a radioisotope,
which travels to a target
organ.  Concentrating in the target organ, the  radioisotope emits
radiation, which is detected by a gamma  camera that rotates around the
patient.  The  information obtained via the gamma camera is analyzed
by a computer, which creates a cross-sectional image of the  target organ.  SPECT
scans are frequently used to  determine if a specific area of the body
is receiving
adequate blood flow.

Childhood brain lesions

Hemiplegic children: have lesions on one side of the brain; shows differing
cognitive abilities

Split brains

surgical severing of the corpus callosum – no communication between two side
of brain

Dichotic Listening

contralateral stimuli (opposite
side) outweigh ipsilateral stimuli

reason: stimuli don’t have to cross the corpus  callosum

EEG – based evidence: Event-related Brain Potentials

Cognitive neurophysiology is the study of changes in brain function and the relationship of such changes to thought processes. The primary physiological signal that we measure is the electroencephalogram or EEG. The EEG reflects summated potentials generated by the electrochemical signaling processes by which networks of neurons process information. The EEG changes in predictable ways as a function of level of alertness, type and/or intensity of mental activity, and particular forms of brain pathology. We record the EEG by arrays of electrodes attached with conductive gel to many locations across the scalp. Similar sensors are attached
to the face in the region of the eyes to record the electro-oculogram or EOG, that is, the electrical potentials generated by eye movements and blinks. The EOG can also provide useful information about mental state.

(Gevins 1997)

For a more in-depth explanation of ERPs: Coles & Rugg 1995

Other interesting applications of ERPs:

Brain Fingerprinting for Counter-Terrorism

Language Perception & learning strategies

Neural basis of musicality

Historical Evidence for Brain Modularity: Studies
of Aphasia
Carl Linnaeus (1745) studied jargon
, a disease in which the patient substitutes a semantically similar word for the intended word.

Johannes Gesner (1770) attributed language difficulties to specific impairment of language memory. He observed bilingual asymmetry in which an abbot who had brain damage could read Latin but not German.

Broca’s aphasics – agrammatic aphasia: utterances
without function words, problems understanding syntactic structure

Wernicke’s aphasics – may produce fluent
but unintelligible speech, substitute one sound for another (table -> sable)
or one word for another. (chair -> table) Also jargon aphasia.

One way that has been tried to help such patients communicate is to have them write the words they want to communicate. In England a Lightwriter has been used to help aphasic patients communicate. Words can be typed and show up on two screens, one for the writer and one for the person they want to communicate with.

Acquired dyslexics: people who lose the ability to read after brain damage

Genetic Evidence for Language Autonomy

Linguistic savants: individuals who are handicapped
in certain spheres but remarkably talented in others

Specific Language Impairment: Seems to have genetic basis, affect identical twins – support modular view of language facility

FoxP2 is the first identified gene that is specifically involved in speech and language development in humans (not in book)

Language and Brain Development

The Critical Period: period from birth to puberty when language acquisition proceeds easily: evidence

For: “wild” children, Genie, Chelsea.

Against: Statistical studies, Bialystok & Hakuta’s chapter; lack of evidence.

Bird Songs: some species learn calls, like these:

Male Chaffinch:  Female Chaffinch: 

But the other’s calls, like that of the
cuckoo, seem to be biologically determined.

Origins of Human Language

Problem: spoken language existed long before written records are preserved.

Beliefs cloud the topic: monogenetic – belief that all langauges originated from a single source (Tower of Babel story)


1.  Roger Sperry

Eccles biography

Fun with electrodes! Probe
the brain


for your reference in doing papers that use online sources: see the APA’s guide to online source citation

Coles, M.G.H., Rugg, M.D. (1995). Event-related brain potentials:
An introduction. In M. Rugg, M. Coles (Eds.), Electrophysiology of Mind. Oxford
University Press: Oxford, U.K. (PDF) Accessed February 6, 2005 at

Gevins, A. (1997) Neural Signals of Cognition During Computer
Use. Accessed February 6, 2005 at