Neural and Computational Bases of Language Symposium
Presenter: Elizabeth Bates, Ph.D.
Brain and Language in Children and Adults: Moving Beyond Phrenology
The term "phrenology" refers to Franz Gall's 18th century theory of human brain organization, in which each cognitive or moral faculty (from benevolence to music to language) was attributed to a distinct, dedicated area in the brain. This seductive notion is still with us, reappearing continually on book jackets and the Science pages of the NY Times. It is an easy way to think about brain organization for higher human faculties, and it has become the public's first way of trying to understand findings using new neural imaging techniques. I will devote my time at the NIH symposium to converging lines of evidence that challenge the notion of an innate, fixed, and localized "mental organ" for language. First, studies of children with early focal brain injury demonstrate that brain organization for language is highly plastic: these children develop alternative neural systems that sustain language abilities well within the normal range, and are equally good following left or right hemisphere damage. Second, cross-linguistic studies of adult patients with aphasia demonstrate that extraordinarily detailed, language-specific knowledge is retained despite their impairments in real-time use of that knowledge ("It is hard to take the Turkish out of the Turk, and the English out of the Englishman"). These results demonstrate that brain organization for language in normal adults is highly distributed. Language is handled in many different areas of the brain, superimposed (through evolution and development) on neural tissue that also carries out non-linguistic functions. This dynamic, plastic, and distributed view of brain organization for language is actually much more compatible with new findings using brain imaging techniques (where profiles of activation change markedly in accord with changes in the task, and the subject's level of expertise). It is also more compatible with research in developmental neurobiology, including our new understanding of genetic contributions to normal and abnormal brain development.
Elizabeth Bates (Ph.D., University of Chicago, 1974) is Professor of Psychology and Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego, where she also directs the Center for Research in Language and the Project in Cognitive and Neural Development. Her research interests include brain organization for language in children and adults, language and cognitive development in normal and neurologically impaired populations of children, real-time language processing in monolinguals and bilinguals, and cross-linguistic comparisons of language development, language use, and language loss (involving more than a dozen languages since 1974, including current collaborative studies in English, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, German, Bulgarian, and Russian). Her most recent book is Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development, with Jeffrey Elman, Mark Johnson, Annette Karmiloff-Smith, Domenico Parisi, and Kim Plunkett (MIT Press, 1996). Other books include Language and Context (Academic Press, 1976), The Emergence of Symbols (Academic Press, 1979), From First Words to Grammar (Cambridge University Press, 1988--with I. Bretherton and L. Snyder), and The Cross-Linguistic Study of Sentence Processing (Cambridge University Press, 1989--with B. MacWhinney).