Do you read their mind as a piece of fiction that tells a story or think of their mind as a complex collection of neurons and connections between them? Is it a combination of the two?”
Neuroscientist Robert Leshin is a senior author of the new study. He and his research team at the University of California, San Francisco, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique that’s been used to scan the brains of people whose brains are wired differently, to analyze the brain’s activity while subjects read passages written in two different languages.
“When two people learn a new language, the brain processes a new set of vocabulary,” Leshin says. “The brain has to process a set of associations from both languages to create a new mental representation. One of the ways we do that is with the brain’s language system, the left and right hemispheres of the brain, that processes words. Our study showed that the left hemisphere processes the word ‘crown’ and the right hemisphere processes the word ‘panda.’ But these are two completely unrelated words, and we find that the right hemisphere can’t use only one word at a time to process them. So it’s as if we’re reading two words and we can’t read the word ‘crown’ at the same time, and we can’t read the word ‘panda’ at the same time because these two words are entirely different.”
In another experiment published today in the journal Nature Communications, Leshin and his team were able to show that the left hemisphere can effectively make use of two words at the same time because the other hemisphere is using its “cognitive resources,” or mental representations, to work out which word to use.
It’s something of a revelation for linguists because while scientists have long believed that language is a matter of word patterns — each word is a kind of word with a specific meaning — it’s never been clear which hemisphere is the “language architect.” Could it be that the language you speak may need two words at the same time just to operate? Leshin thinks it is. “The fact that the language system can use two words at the same time suggests it can operate in two different ways,” he says.
“What we do in this study is actually really remarkable,” David Lewis, chair and professor of anthropology at Stanford University, says. He studies language with the help or assistance of Leshin. Lewis says the two groups’ results suggest “that we should be
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