Brain Simulates Actions in Language Processing and Production

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Our brains simulate language actions. Image by Adrian McGarry

Our brains simulate language actions. Image by Adrian McGarry

For decades, research has shown that language processing takes place in specific areas in the left regions and back areas of the brain. New research, however, shows that other ‘lower cognitive’ areas of the brain are also involved in some types of language processing and scientists are offering a new theory as to how our minds process language and fill in the gaps to create meaning.

Language Processing: Where Does It Traditionally Take Place?

The left side of the brain is traditionally associated with language processing. Broca’s area, sitting in the left-frontal lobe in the pre-frontal cortex, is where we process expressive language.

Wernicke’s area above and behind the ear in the left-temporal lobe and over into the parietal lobe is where word analysis and comprehension occur – and newer research shows that the occipital lobes, located at the back, is where word form, word information, and fluent reading happen.

However, research by cognitive scientist, Benjamin Bergen, PhD, a faculty member of University of California, San Diego, which he discusses in his studies and new book, Louder than words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning, reveals that other sections of the brain known as ‘lower cognitive’ areas are also involved in some types of language processing.

Action and Perception Brain Areas Connected to Language Processing and Production

According to Professor Bergen, research shows that when language describes motor actions, we often use the evolutionary older areas of the brain that deal with motorics (actions and movements) – the cortical motor systems – to mentally simulate performing those actions. To find out how this new idea affects the traditional theories of language processing, Decoded Science discussed these findings with Professor Bergen.

Decoded Science: Are you saying that the left area of the brain is not as primary in language processing as we once thought? Or are you claiming that specific language components are processed in certain areas but many other areas of the brain are involved than previously thought which have been brought to light by fMRI?

Brains areas connected to language. Image by Lesley Lanir

Brains areas connected to language. Image by Lesley Lanir

Benjamin Bergen: It’s certainly the case that the traditional ‘language centers’ of the brain-Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, for example-tend to light up when people are using language. And they do tend to be left-lateralized (though in many people they are not). What we now know is that this is only part of the story. The content of the language-what it’s about-plays a substantial role in determining what other parts of the brain will be used.

Decoded Science:  How does the complex network in our brains make sense of the sounds we hear in order to comprehend the message that is being relayed? Could you describe the processing that takes place and how we make sense out of the words we hear and create meaning with the help of the perceptive and motoric parts of the brain?

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