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Language and the Brain

So let’s talk about brains. We all know
they’re delicious… I mean, important. They’re crucial for how we handle life in
general, from our heartbeats to our feelings to our walking around. And language is no
exception – without a working brain, there’d be no talking, no listening, no meaning. Or
none we could detect, anyway. It’d be an apocalyptic wasteland of blankness. So three
cheers for brains! I’m Moti Lieberman, and this is The Ling Space. So our brains run our language operating systems.
No big surprise there. But are there specific parts responsible for all our brilliant
conversations? Or is it a whole brain job? Some early neurologists took a holistic view:
they thought any part of your brain was as good as any other bit for any task you
could put your mind to. But as of the late 1800s, the opposing view, known as modularity,
took hold. Modularity says that different parts of the brain have different responsibilities.
You can’t usually just swap one part of your brain around for another without paying
a price. Some of the research that helped modularity
win out came from studying language. Particularly, it was from studying people who had lost part
of their linguistic ability, which is a topic we’ll be covering in the future. For now,
let’s look at the two super tasty parts of the brain that co-chair the language committee.
The first, Broca’s area, is in the left frontal lobe of the brain, around here. That
part takes care of the deeper workings of language: how to put good grammatical sentences
together, and how to decode the logical meanings of the phrases and sentences that are flying our way. It
also helps with moving our bodies the right way to talk. Broca’s area is where all the
gears and cranks of our language sit. The other part is called Wernicke’s area,
and it’s here, in the left temporal lobe of your brain, just above your ear. Wernicke’s
area is the hyperactive librarian of language, in charge of the vast storage of your mental
dictionary. It takes care of quickly working out what those words were that you just encountered
and quickly matching up those sounds or visuals to yout mental meanings. It then ships them off to Broca’s
area for processing into sentences. Wernicke’s area is also where you start
when you want to get to talking! It’s the region where you work out which sounds are
the right ones for the words you want to say, before you ship them off to Broca’s area
for arranging and pronouncing. Wernicke’s area works on comprehension and meaning, whereas
Broca’s area holds sway over linguistic structure and the logic of language. So like you might guess, these two parts have
to communicate with each other all the time to keep your conversation sliding smoothly
along. Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are best friends, and they chat with each
other all day long. That’s why there’s a big thick bundle of nerve fibers that hook
the two up. This part of our neural network is way more developed than it is in other
primates, which is part of how we’re so specialized for language. It’s not just
the areas themselves that we need for our crazy fast speaking and comprehension ability,
it’s also the connections between them. But by now you may be thinking, how do we
know all this about how the brain processes language? It’s not like we can pry people’s
heads open and look around in there to see what’s going on when people are interpreting language. Even
a zombie wouldn’t expect that to work. Fortunately, we’ve got a number of different methods
that allow us to see what’s going on inside of those skulls without actually having to open them up and look inside,and we’ll talk about two of them now. The first of these is functional magnetic
resonance imaging, or fMRI. Now, you might have heard of MRIs; we use them for all kinds of
medical diagnoses. But we can also use them to look at the brain’s responses to different
sorts of information. Here’s how it works: first, we take a scan of your own personal
brain. Everyone’s brain is shaped a little bit differently, so if we don’t know all the
all the nooks and crannies of yours, we don’t know how to interpret any of the patterns we measure
off you. Can the fMRI scan be of a side shot of the brain, or does it have to be the classic
top view? After that, the next thing we do is to give
you some kind of language stimulus. Maybe you hear a sentence, or a word, or you see a series of pictures
and you need to think about how you would describe them. But one way or another, we make you
engage all that delicious neural apparatus. And then, we spin up the MRI, and we see what
part of your brain lights up – when you want to make a passive sentence, or you hear
the word Halloween, or whatever your task is. Now, we’re not directly measuring what the brain
is doing when we do an fMRI. We can’t get an image of how the action itself happens
– it’s too fast for the machine to get a continuous reading. What we see instead
is what part of the brain is getting blood that’s extra rich in oxygen. We figure that
if a region needs to replenish its energy by sucking up extra oxygen, that it must just have
been doing a lot of work. So it must be responsible for whatever thing we were
trying to test. But that also means that fMRI can’t really
tell us much about exactly what happens over the course of processing language, or what
order it happens in. It just takes a picture of what the brain looks like after. Now, they’re really,
really good pictures – we can get a lot of detail about where in the brain
something is happening – but it doesn’t give us any idea about time. For that, we want to use a different technique
– electroencephalograms, or EEGs. Our brains – well, non-zombie brains – are constantly
buzzing masses of electrical signals. The sum of that electricity might not be huge,
but it’s enough that we can read through the skull if we have an electrode cap to stick
on you. But because brains are just whirring and sparking all the time, we need to know
that whatever’s going on when we’re testing you is actually related to language,
and not, like, you wondering about what you’re gonna make for dinner. So we carefully match the brain
patterns against the time you hear each word or syllable in the experiment. Then, we see what
changes when you’re listening or interpreting. EEGs are continuous – we just keep looking
with scientific delight at what your brain is doing until the experiment is over. And
because of that, it’s really good at telling us the order we process language in, and so
it can let us know, say, that semantic processing looks like it happens before just pure syntax. We’ve picked up a lot of different signals, which we’ll talk about
in the future. But we’ve learned a lot about what happens when from EEGs. On the other
hand, though, they’re a lot fuzzier on the location of where all those things are happening. You can get a general idea, usually, but it’s nothing like those clear,
crisp, pretty pictures you get from fMRIs. So, everything’s got its plusses and minuses. Except for brains. Figuring out how brains
work is even more delicious than the brains themselves. They’re so awesome! And
ours are really good at language – they have regions dedicated just to that. And we’ve
only had these testing techniques operational for a few decades. We’ve got a lot of discoveries
to come. Just the idea of all those neural developments… it gets me drooling. So we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space
for this week, but if your brain devoured all my sentences, you learned that we have specific regions in our brain dedicated to processing and understanding language; that
we have multiple methods of measuring that activity so we can learn how we process our language;
that fMRIs take pretty pictures of where brain activity is, but don’t really tell us when that activity’s
happening; and that EEGs are better at telling us when things happen, but aren’t
so great at telling us where. The Ling Space is written and produced by
me, Moti Lieberman. It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost, our production assistant is Georges
Coulombe, our music and sound design is by Shane Turner, and our graphics team is atelierMUSE.
We’re down in the comments below, or you can bring the discussion back over to our website,
where we have some extra material on this topic. Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter, and
Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe.
And we’ll see you next Wednesday. Gaaaaahhhhh

13 Replies to “Language and the Brain”

  • Hello Zombie Lieberman! Nice touch 😉 I've noticed that when trying to speak a language I grew up with but am not fluent in (and don't use often), my brain tries "plugging in" words from my third highest fluency language for any missing vocabulary. Is that a Wernicke/Broca glitch, and if so, how/why does this happen?

  • Good to know which parts of my brain are the ones struggling when I have trouble with foreign languages, or my own. Fun fact about the field as of a decade or so ago, I'd considered signing up for one of the fMRI studies, but I didn't actually qualify as they were worried that lefties are wired just enough differently to introduce a possible confound. Not sure if that's changed at all since then.

  • What a nice video 🙂 I did a degree in philology and now I'm applying to MA applied linguistics, hoping to gain insight into psycholinguistics & neurolinguistics. This was just what I needed to see, thanks. Sub'd

  • well it is a nice presented video especialy very easy to understand so thank you for that. I have a question though.. could you please explain how does brain brain perceive sounds that is related more to phonology?. and what kind of responses do we receice from the e brain when a person has had an accident on the brain and lose the functionalıty ( aphasia. paraphasia..etc ) do they ever recover ? or stay so ? that would be great to know if you have an answer.. thank youuu..

  • I've been watching this channel for ages and I just rewatched this ep and it's literally the first time i realised that it's Moti Lieberman, and not OT Lieberman…

    I'm going to call this a move away from a Constraint-based reading


  • 1:10 Modularity: Different areas in the brain have different responsibilities.
    1:33 Broca's area: process sentence, linguistic structure and logic of language
    1:55 Wernicke's area: phonemes, match sounds to meanings, comprehension and meaning
    2:53 Arcuate fasciculus: the bundle of never fibers to connect B and W
    3:39 FMRi( functional magnetic resonance imaging): examine which part of brain gets extra blood supply, where
    5:22 EEGs(electroencephalograms): read the bioelectro-signals through the skull, when/the time order

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