But when it comes to human-specific advanced abilities like language, the division of labor in the brain is quite complex. When you learn a new language, two areas in the brain are critical to this activity, one called Wernicke’s area and the other called Broca’s area, which together make up our language center. For most of us, they are usually located in the left brain. They allow you to understand and recognize, read and speak language patterns, including the ability to learn a foreign language.
Although the left brain is critical to language function, the right hemisphere is also involved in language communication. The left brain is the workplace of grammar, fonts, and dictionaries, while the right brain excels at interpreting rhythm and accent. Moreover, although the ability to learn a new language is mainly the responsibility of the left brain, researchers have also found that in some cases the right brain can take over these responsibilities.
In a study of foreigners learning Chinese, researchers scanned each participant’s brain with functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) at the beginning and end of the project. Scientists were able to see which part of the brain was most active when processing basic sound elements of Chinese. To their surprise, they found that the most successful learners had their right brains most active during the early stages of sound recognition, although as expected, the left hemisphere showed significant activation later in the learning process.
Researchers believe that in the early stages of learning a foreign language, people must first recognize its basic sounds or phonetic elements before moving on to vocabulary and grammar learning. The right brain is key to distinguishing acoustic details of sounds. These details affect learners’ early learning experiences. Generally speaking, it is easiest to give up in the early stages of foreign language learning. In other words, to some extent we can say that it is the right brain that determines whether learning Chinese will ultimately be successful.
Obviously, both sides of the brain are not competitive in language learning but also not equally effective. Our two sides of the brain are connected by a large number of nerve fibers called “corpus callosum.” It contains about 200-250 million nerve fibers. A large-scale study of patients born with incomplete development of corpus callosum showed that almost all people born with this disease have delays in language acquisition. Corpus callosum disease often leads to social and cognitive deficits similar to autism.
This indicates that proper communication between left and right brains is critical for advanced language skills development. When there are defects in connections between both sides of the brain, these people tend to use their right rather than left brains to process language. In other words, letting your right brain handle “language” may reduce your language ability. This also reflects that left brain’s role in developing language skills may be more important than previously realized.
Language is just one part of advanced brain function. Many more complex functions of the brain are not as directly observable as language. You can think of your brain as a city with many roads for transmitting information. There is a river running through the center dividing the city into two halves. But there are also many bridges across the river connecting both sides of the city. Some areas in the city will form bustling commercial districts, residential districts or factories. But if there are changes, new city centers may also emerge.
Neuroimaging studies have confirmed this conjecture. Neuroimaging shows that there are more roads in the right brain while many areas in left brain are more independent. This explains why it is easier to find specific functional areas in our left brains. But when we need to complete tasks that use integrated functions such as recognizing faces we need more roads to connect different areas. At this point right brain has an advantage.
Neuroimaging can also show actual communication capabilities between hemispheres of our brains. Studies have shown that unless their connections are physically severed such as being blocked by surgery trauma or disease information will be rapidly transmitted between both sides of our brains during most tasks our brains complete every second.
Therefore, the simple idea of categorizing a person as a “left-brained” or “right-brained” person is easily mistaken. It can make us feel that a person is naturally only capable of doing certain types of work. But in reality, the true strength or weakness is the brain itself, whether the brain as a whole is strong or weak.
It turns out that many scientists have shown artistic talents beyond ordinary people. For example, Einstein played the violin very well. Another physics master, Planck, was also proficient in piano. Pushing the lens of history further back, you will see that astronomer Galileo was also an art-loving literary youth.
In fact, what has a deeper impact is our postnatal training, including education and vocational training. But the problem is that on the one hand, the development of left and right hemispheres may not be completely synchronized during human growth. On the other hand, existing school education often favors left-brain abilities. This causes many right-brained people to often think they are left-brained in their early years. But the truth is that both hemispheres are actually very strong, but the right brain may have a little more advantage. There are actually many such people and Leonardo da Vinci may be one of the most famous.
Even more amazing is Beethoven who was forced to practice piano to make money by his alcoholic father since he was a child and did not receive a good formal education. As a result this musical genius was once considered mathematically retarded. Once he needed to calculate four times 36 Beethoven didn’t know multiplication so he had to add 36 four times in a row but after calculating for a long time he still got a wrong answer: “224.”
But later generations also found that many of Beethoven’s musical works were hidden behind mathematical laws and could be interpreted using mathematical sine curves. Beethoven once said: “I compose according to the images in my brain.” Perhaps the homogeneity of left and right brains explains why he later became deaf in both ears but still composed great artistic works like Symphony No. 9.