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Language isn’t what separates us from animals


Experts at the University of Sheffield have proven conclusively that the functions of language and mathematics are separate in the adult brain, meaning that it is not just linguistic ability that separates us from other animals. Academics and researchers had thought that language may enable higher cognitive functions, and that without it we would lose other high level skills. However, the study has shown that even when the brain is rendered incapable of using or understanding language, it can still retain mathematical ability, another high-level intellectual function.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, was undertaken on three men who had severe lesions in the left side of their brains following illness. This had left them with severe aphasia, a condition which means sufferers are unable to use or understand words and sentences. They were asked to solve a variety of mathematical problems and demonstrated that they were still able to complete them successfully.

Dr. Rosemary Varley, of the Department of Human Communication Sciences at the University of Sheffield explains, “There are several reasons why experts believed that language was necessary for other intellectual functions. The theory was that in order to process these concepts, the brain has turn them into language in order to interpret them. So, for example, the number 2 would need to be turned into the word ‘two’ for the brain to understand it”.

“Mathematics and language were thought to be particularly closely linked because maths has a grammar to it that is similar to that used in language. This is reflected in the fact that it matters which way round the numbers are placed in a sum. So, for example, 5-2 is different to 2-5. In language this is reflected in the fact that the order of words differentiates between the subject of the sentence and the object, so that ‘the man bit the dog’ means something very different from ‘the dog bit the man’. The men in our study were unable to distinguish between sentences of the type ‘the man killed the lion’ and ’the lion killed the man’, but could correctly calculate that 20 divided by 5 was 4, and 5 divided by 20 was a quarter.

“The research demonstrates that in adult brains, the language and mathematical functions are separate. However, it may be the case that in childhood we need language in order to build these separate systems.”

Lorna Branton | alfa
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