Lateralization of brain functions

Two findings from biopsychology that point to the localization of language in the left hemisphere of the brain:

Broca’s Aphasia

The process of identifying the parts of the brain that are involved in language began in 1861, when Paul Broca, a French neurosurgeon, examined the brain of a recently deceased patient who had had an unusual disorder. Though he had been able to understand spoken language and did not have any motor impairments of the mouth or tongue that might have affected his ability to speak, he could neither speak a complete sentence nor express his thoughts in writing. The only articulate sound he could make was the syllable “tan”, which had come to be used as his name.

When Broca autopsied Tan’s brain, he found a sizable lesion in the left inferior frontal cortex. Subsequently, Broca studied eight other patients, all of whom had similar language deficits along with lesions in their left frontal hemisphere. This led him to make his famous statement that “we speak with the left hemisphere” and to identify, for the first time, the existence of a “language centre” in the posterior portion of the frontal lobe of this hemisphere. Now known as Broca’s area, this was in fact the first area of the brain to be associated with a specific function—in this case, language.

Wernicke’s Aphasia

Ten years later, Carl Wernicke, a German neurologist, discovered another part of the brain, this one involved in understanding language, in the posterior portion of the left temporal lobe. People who had a lesion at this location could speak, but their speech was often incoherent and made no sense.

Wernicke’s observations have been confirmed many times since. Neuroscientists now agree that running around the lateral sulcus (also known as the fissure of Sylvius) in the left hemisphere of the brain, there is a sort of neural loop that is involved both in understanding and in producing spoken language. At the frontal end of this loop lies Broca’s area, which is usually associated with the production of language, or language outputs . At the other end (more specifically, in the superior posterior temporal lobe), lies Wernicke’s area, which is associated with the processing of words that we hear being spoken, or language inputs. Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are connected by a large bundle of nerve fibres called the arcuate fasciculus.

This language loop is found in the left hemisphere in about 90% of right-handed persons and 70% of left-handed persons, language being one of the functions that is performed asymmetrically in the brain. Surprisingly, this loop is also found at the same location in deaf persons who use sign language. This loop would therefore not appear to be specific to heard or spoken language, but rather to be more broadly associated with whatever the individual’s primary language modality happens to be.


These two anecdotes are very interesting, nonetheless recent research however shows evidence for language processing abilities in the right hemisphere. More on that in future.


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