Language Uses Different Areas of the Brain at the Same Time

The ability to string words and sentences together is what separates humans from the animals. There are a few animals that are able to speak a word or two, but most of the time it is from simple mimicking and not because they understand what is being said. Chimpanzees and gorillas can be taught to communicate with a few words, but are not able to string sentences together. It is not how many words we have learned; but how we link these words to convey our message that makes or species different.

Our brain processes language through different areas of the brain. Our senses process the information — either through sound or making pictures in the brain. Vocabulary is taken from our memory, where we have stored all the words that are associated with the images in our head. We then string the words together to form sentences, then speak or write the message we want to communicate. All these activities use different areas of the brain.

Because of the multi-tasking the brain has to do in all sorts of areas, language is one of the best ways to strengthen your synapse (neural connections – connections to other brain cells). You are actually cross-training your brain so more than one are of it is strengthened.

Research conducted at the University of Arizona, and published in the journal Neuron, have found an entirely different path is used to string words together than the ones other animals use to recall the meaning of individual words. Their research shows just how important these pathways actually are in the processing of human language.

Most language research up until now has concentrated on the areas of bundled neurons in two separate places in the brain — the Broca’s and the Wernicke’s regions. Scientists had believed these were the centers of language processing.

The Broca’s and the Wernicke’s regions of the brain are connected to one another by a string of lipid cells carrying nerve signals – upper and lower “white matter” pathways. The has been a lot of research conducted on the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, but little is known about the white matter pathways.

What this research shows is that the lower pathway process vocabulary, while the upper pathway accesses the meaning of a combination of words. The researchers were able to come to that conclusion through the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

Patients suffering from neurodegenerative disease, called “aphasias,” were scanned as they were being tested for sentence comprehension. The scientists saw a clear distinction between patients with damage to their upper language pathways as opposed to those with damage to their lower pathways. They found the separate routes the brain uses when it stores information in the Broca’s and the Wernicke’s regions.

“If you have damage to the lower pathway, you have damage to the lexicon and semantics,” lead researcher Stephen Wilson explained in a press release. “You forget the name of things, you forget the meaning of words. But surprisingly, you’re extremely good at constructing sentences.” He continued to say, “With damage to the upper pathway, the opposite is true; patients name things quite well, they know the words, they can understand them, they can remember them, but when it comes to figuring out the meaning of a complex sentence, they are going to fail.”

He used as an example: When the researchers asked the patients: “A man was walking along the railway tracks. He didn’t hear the train coming. What happened to the man?” An unimpaired person would say, “The man was hit by a train.” The study found that people with damage to their upper pathway, but had an intact lower pathway, would answer, “train, man, hit.”

On the other hand, when the researchers were testing for the patient’s comprehension of sentences they would provide a sentence like this: “The girl who is pushing the boy is green.” They would then ask which of the two pictures they were showing the patient showed a green girl push a boy. “Those who have only lower pathway damage do really well on this, which shows that damage to that pathway doesn’t interfere with your ability to use the little function words or the functional endings on words to figure out the relationships between the words in a sentence,” Wilson said.

Neither of the group of patients with damaged upper pathways was able to tell the difference between green girls and green boys.

This discovery is significant in providing understanding as to how to help patients with damage to either of these pathways improve their language skills.

About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life. His CDs and memory products are also available online at


Life’s Little Mysteries – Study Finds the Key to Language: How Humans Form Sentences:

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