Broca’s Area and Grammar Learning.

A site search shows that Broca’s area has been mentioned a few times around here (e.g., “Unless the child has received damage to Broca’s area, how exactly does a child not know the grammar of her native language?”) but we’ve never discussed it in its own right. Since Trond Engen has sent me a link to “Cortical thickness of Broca’s area and right homologue is related to grammar learning aptitude and pitch discrimination proficiency,” by Mikael Novén, Andrea Schremm, Markus Nilsson, Merle Horne, and Mikae Roll (Brain and Language 188 [2019]: 42-47), this seems like a good occasion for it. Trond says:

Short version: A Swedish group of scientists show that the thickness of the frontal cortex in and asound Broca’s area is associated with grammar learning and that the mirror area in the right hemisphere has to do with pitch perception. Also a training effect: The more grammar you process, the thicker the cortex, which is good for grammar learning but seems to be bad for pitch perception.

Have at it!

Comments

  1. Trond Engen says:

    I don’t understand much of it, but it’s interesting that there seems to be a trade-off between immediate perception and complex analysis.

  2. Stu Clayton says:

    That would explain absent-minded professors.

    “Perception” and “analysis” are antithetical in a general way. “Perception” and “Immediate” both connote “takes no time to understand”. “Analysis” and “complex” both note”takes time to understand”. Thus “immediate perception” connotes “requires no complex analysis”,, and “complex analysis” connotes “requires more than immediate perception”.

    Broca areas are not needed to explain the conceptual trade-off.

    Apart from that, what complex analysis is for one person is not necessarily complex analysis for another. In the course of doing code reviews over decades, I have seen and analyzed a lot of code. The result is that I can look for a few seconds at a page of Java code. and immediately judge its quality. I may change my mind later after further analysis, but my perception is immediate.

  3. “Perception” and “analysis” are antithetical in a general way.

    That may be true but it doesn’t follow that the better you are at one, the worse you are at the other. Our brains can do more than one thing at a time.

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    I made no claim about relative ability in “immediate perception” of something, in contrast to “complex analysis” of another.

    My point was a verbal/conceptual/semantic one: to claim that a person immediately understands something is incompatible with a claim that the person needs to do a complex analysis of that same something in order to understand it. Whether at the same time or at different times. That has nothing to do with Broca areas.

  5. I don’t see where the article says there is a “trade off” or an implication that grammar study lessens one’s ability to discriminate pitch. (I only skimmed it.) The correlations were to different brain areas (one on the left, the other on the right).

    Judging the quality of Java code is still a cognitively high load skill, even if it is fast for an expert.

  6. Stu Clayton says:

    The article may not say that, I haven’t read it. I was addressing the first comment here, by Trond, who wrote “there seems to be a trade-off between immediate perception and complex analysis”.

  7. Stu Clayton says:

    Judging the quality of Java code is still a cognitively high load skill, even if it is fast for an expert.

    What in the world is “cognitively high load skill” ? I wouldn’t go so far as to objectivize my own acquired ability in that way. After all, whether it even counts as a “skill” depends on whether my judgements over time are found by others to be fair and accurate, who need more time to assess them. The few seconds are not what make my judgment reliable in the eyes of others. If anything, the slower kind are given to mutter about snap judgements.

    An experienced musicologist needs little time to form an initial judgement on a piece of music heard for the first time. Whether his initial judgements can be relied on as initial guidance, remains to be judged by others over time.

    Communication is a social system.

  8. Actually, I was probably wrong about your example. Cognitive load is a measure of how loaded the working memory is while performing a cognitive task.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    The more grammar you process, the thicker the cortex, which is good for grammar learning but seems to be bad for pitch perception.

    Then why are there whole language families where morphology is done by changing tones instead of adding affixes?

  10. Trond Engen says:

    Yes, sorry, the article doesn’t say ‘trade-off’. That was my interpretation based on passages such as these:

    From the abstract:

    It is becoming increasingly evident that language learning reshapes the brain (Li, Legault, & Litcofsky, 2014). Cortical thickness has been shown to increase in language-related areas as students learn a new language (Mårtensson et al., 2012).

    From the discussion:

    Interpreting our results in terms of cognitive load theory (Sweller, 1988) leads us to speculate that performance in tasks involving low cognitive load shows an inverse relation with cortical thickness due to demands on neuronal network efficiency. A thinner cortex could mean a more streamlined design for one type of task or input that can be represented with fewer connections and/or cells. Skills involving a high cognitive load, on the other hand, can be assumed to benefit from a neural environment capable of adapting to variations in input and associations between different kinds of information and therefore show a positive correlation with cortex thickness.

  11. Stu Clayton says:

    Then why are there whole language families where morphology is done by changing tones instead of adding affixes?

    In order to keep the cortex slim.

  12. Trond Engen says:

    Then why are there whole language families where morphology is done by changing tones instead of adding affixes?

    Don’t know, but it could be tested. Maybe speakers of such languages really do have more trouble discerning non-linguistic pitch. Or maybe they have more assymetrically developed cortices.

  13. Speaking tonal languages promotes perfect pitch. The study, of course, was not about absolute pitch, but pitch discrimination (the results were presented in somewhat absurd Hz scale. Hello, pitch perception is logarithmic), but it would be really surprising if speakers of the tonal languages were less adept at telling tones apart.

    Here’s the description of LLAMA F test used in the paper for checking the grammar aptitude (quote is from some other paper(pdf)):
    “LLAMA_F is a grammar inferencing test. The presentation phase of the program shows the test-taker a series of
    pictures depicting shapes and objects, and a short sentence in an artificial language which describes each picture. An example is shown in Figure 3. The test-taker is expected to work out how the descriptions relate to the pictures. From this, they should be able to intuit some of the grammatical and morphological features of the language: word order, gender, singular, dual and plural numbers, conjugating prepositions, and so on. Test-takers have five minutes to explore this data set. Then they are presented with a new set of pictures that incorporate new elements. Each picture is accompanied by two sentences which might describe it,
    and test-takers indicate which is the correct description.They should be able to do this if they have internalised the grammatical rules evidenced in the presentation phase.”

    In other words, it’s a written language grammar test.

  14. John Cowan says:

    An experienced musicologist needs little time to form an initial judgement on a piece of music heard for the first time.

    I think it was Robert Benchley who was asked why he left a play at intermission and then wrote a scathing review of it rather than seeing the whole thing before making a judgement. He replied that he presumed the author of the first act had also written the second.

    But then there was the man who gave a speech on the youthful follies of Robert Burns to a Scottish audience, who booed him off the stage before he could get to the second part of his talk, in which he explained how triumphantly Burns overcame them.

  15. Do other higher primates have a Broca’s area? Or is it human-specific?

    Are there studies on giving primates cognitive tests and examining effects on their Broca’s area?

    Are there studies on giving humans non-linguistic cognitive tests and examining effects on their Broca’s area? (For example, musicians learning to play by ear; or learning to sight-read; or learning to extemporise.)

    IOW every time I see a claim for some human-specific, language-specific Faculty, I want to see a control to demonstrate it’s not just general cognitive ability.

  16. John Cowan says:

    Quoth WP s.v. “Broca’s area”:

    More recently, the neocortical distribution of activity-dependent gene expression in marmosets provided direct evidence that the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which comprises Broca’s area in humans and has been associated with auditory processing of species-specific vocalizations and orofacial control in macaques, is engaged during vocal output in a New World monkey. These findings putatively set the origin of vocalization-related neocortical circuits to at least 35 million years ago, when the Old and New World monkey lineages split.

  17. But then there was the man who gave a speech on the youthful follies of Robert Burns to a Scottish audience, who booed him off the stage before he could get to the second part of his talk, in which he explained how triumphantly Burns overcame them.

    I once made the bad mistake of trying to introduce a friend to the music of the Mekons, which helped me get through the Reagan years with my sanity intact, but instead of playing him Fear and Whiskey like a sensible person, I decided to adopt the historical approach and started with their first single, “Never Been in a Riot.” He hated it so much (and it really is terrible, I don’t know what I was thinking — probably the same thing as the Burns guy, “See how far they came!”) that he flatly refused to listen to anything else of theirs. I learned a valuable lesson that day.

  18. Trond Engen says:

    AntC: Do other higher primates have a Broca’s area? Or is it human-specific?

    [….]

    IOW every time I see a claim for some human-specific, language-specific Faculty, I want to see a control to demonstrate it’s not just general cognitive ability.

    I don’t expect any area of the brain to be human-specific any more than kidneys or nostrils. But it would be very interesting to see how and when our closer and more distant relatives use the cognate forms. It should be possible to say something about how it was used in the last common ancestor and how it developed the function it has in humans today. The comparative method.

  19. And the coolest kid in our entire school, JD– of course– he came up to me after school one day, and he said, if I bring in my dad’s Rolling Stones album, will you tell me a cool song to play? I said, absolutely. No doubt.

    Next day, he brought in the Rolling Stones album Let it Bleed. I looked it over. I said, this song. Play this one. And I pointed at “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

    He said, are you sure? I was like, I couldn’t be more positive. This is the coolest song that you could possibly play. And he was like, OK.

    So the teacher asked if anyone had a song. And JD raised his hand. She called him up to the front. He pointed out that song. And at that point, this is what the entire classroom heard.

    [MUSIC – “YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT” BY THE ROLLING STONES]

    JD was furious. He’s looking at me like, what is this? And I’m like frantically signing, no, no, no, this is an amazing song. It gets better.

    [MUSIC – “YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT” BY THE ROLLING STONES]

    And then the bell rang. Nobody got to hear any more of that song. And the coolest kid in school just marched down there, grabbed his record, and turned to me and was like, thanks a lot, and then just bolted out of the classroom. I was like, no! It gets better! And I guess you can’t always get what you want.

    Tig Notaro

  20. squiff-marie von bladet accepts no responsibility for these opinions, which are his says:

    Relatively many Chinese people have perfect pitch; Mandarin famously has hardly any grammar. Hashtag makeuthink.

  21. John Cowan says:

    what complex analysis is for one person is not necessarily complex analysis for another

    Well, it certainly isn’t real analysis. Or algebraic topology.

  22. I have an ingrained habit of saying “complicated analysis” when the meaning is supposed to be compositional, because “complex analysis” is something different altogether.

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