Instead, humans rely on several regions of the brain, each designed to accomplish different primitive tasks, in order to make sense of a sentence. Depending on the type of grammar used in forming a given sentence, the brain will activate a certain set of regions to process it, like a carpenter digging through a toolbox to pick a group of tools to accomplish the various basic components that comprise a complex task.
"We're using and adapting the machinery we already have in our brains," said study coauthor Aaron Newman. "Obviously we're doing something different [from other animals], because we're able to learn language unlike any other species. But it's not because some little black box evolved specially in our brain that does only language, and nothing else."
The team of brain and cognitive scientists – comprised of Newman (now at Dalhousie University after beginning the work as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester), Elissa Newport (University of Rochester), Ted Supalla (University of Rochester), Daphne Bavelier (University of Rochester), and Peter Hauser (Rochester Institute of Technology) - published their findings in the latest edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.
To determine whether different brain regions were used to decipher sentences with different types of grammar, the scientists turned to American Sign Language for a rare quality it has.
Some languages (English, for example) rely on the order of words in a sentence to convey the relationships between the sentence elements. When an English speaker hears the sentence "Sally greets Bob," it's clear from the word order that Sally is the subject doing the greeting and Bob is the object being greeted, not vice versa.
Other languages (Spanish, for example) rely on inflections, such as suffixes tacked on to the ends of words, to convey subject-object relationships, and the word order can be interchangeable.
American Sign Language has the helpful characteristic that subject-object relationships can be expressed in either of the two ways – using word order or inflection. Either a signer can sign the word "Sally" followed by the words "greets" and "Bob" (a construction in which word order dictates meaning), or the signer can use physical inflections such as moving hands through space or signing on one side of the body to convey the relationship between elements. For the study, the team formed 24 sentences and expressed each of those sentences using both methods.
Videos of the sentences being signed were then played for the subjects of the experiment, native signers who were lying on their backs in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines with coils around their heads to monitor which areas of the brain were activated when processing the different types of sentences.
The study found that there are, in fact, distinct regions of the brain that are used to process the two types of sentences: those in which word order determined the relationships between the sentence elements, and those in which inflection was providing the information.
In fact, Newman said, in trying to understand different types of grammar, humans draw on regions of the brain that are designed to accomplish primitive tasks that relate to the type of sentence they are trying to interpret. For instance, a word order sentence draws on parts of the frontal cortex that give humans the ability to put information into sequences, while an inflectional sentence draws on parts of the temporal lobe that specialize in dividing information into its constituent parts, the study demonstrated.
"These results show that people really ought to think of language and the brain in a different way, in terms of how the brain capitalizes on some perhaps preexisting computational structures to interpret language," Newport said.
Aside from providing perspective on how language abilities might have evolved in humans, the scientists' findings could perhaps eventually find applications in medicine, according to Newport. For instance, it could prove valuable in assessing how best to teach language to a person with brain damage in certain areas but not others, such as a stroke victim.Contact: Alan Blank
Alan Blank | EurekAlert!
Smart Data Transformation – Surfing the Big Wave
02.12.2016 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Angewandte Informationstechnik FIT
Climate change could outpace EPA Lake Champlain protections
18.11.2016 | University of Vermont
In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.
Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...
Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
08.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy
08.12.2016 | Health and Medicine
08.12.2016 | Life Sciences