“Language provides us with a supernatural ability”

Chair in Neuroscience

Jul 13, 2022

You are currently receiving a mental implant. When you read these lines, you are accurately reproducing in your mind the same sequence of words that my brain generated some time ago. If we were face to face, I could perform this implant almost instantaneously, using oral language -or that of signs-, to transmit to your mind the flow of ideas and thoughts that flow through mine”

This is how Xurxo Mariño begins his book “The conquest of language”, where he traces why and how we have come to develop the capacity for symbolic thought and language.

By Rut de la Vega Ruiz, student of the Master in Neuroscience at the UAM

What are the main milestones of evolution that have promoted that we have this linguistic capacity?

Mammals have a highly developed cerebral cortex, which provides flexibility and allows behavior to be managed in a not totally automatic way. The step that is considered very important is the development of the prefrontal cortex in primates, which is where we take this capacity for flexible behavior to the extreme and allow us to have a great working memory. Working memory is that virtual space in which we are at all times managing what our mind is. From there, based on the information that is entering at all times through our senses and using the information that we have stored, we can generate all kinds of behavioral adaptations on the fly, which were not stored genetically and that is wonderful.

Parallel to the great increase in the prefrontal cortex, we are part of a lineage that began to walk upright, and left their hands free. This led to the development of stone tools, such as the hand ax, and for this you need to have an idea of ​​the final product in your mind, which is directly related to thinking beyond the here and now.

For symbolic thought you need great cognitive abilities, that is, many neurons, and you need to think beyond the here and now. From there, we don’t know how, the need arose to develop complex thoughts and communicate them.

Are we born with language or do we learn to develop it?

The Homo sapiens we have intrinsic capacities that prepare us to absorb language. A 1-year-old baby absorbs phonemes without any problem. There is debate about how innateness works in our grammatical abilities: if human beings have an innate grammar or if grammar is something that is built. It is not clear if we have a kind of brain grammar module that makes it easier for us to absorb and produce grammar almost automatically or if what has happened is that it is the languages ​​that we have generated that have adapted to our way of thinking.

An interesting case is that of Helen Keller: until she was able to understand what symbolism was and to learn words, she explains that she was not aware of her own existence. She was a being with visceral instincts: she thought she remembered that she felt anger or hunger, but she was not aware of her own existence.

Interaction with a cultural and social language is critical, not only for the ability to interact through language to develop, but even for our own self-awareness to emerge.

Is it possible that other animals develop this same ability?

There is no way to answer this question. Possible, of course. Evolutionarily, if we became extinct, it may be that other species developed that kind of complex thinking. If human beings do not become extinct, it is very complicated, because we have an extraordinary capacity to manipulate and dominate the planet. If any animal develops some capacity to develop a complex thought and transmit it so that we human beings can understand it, at that moment it would be like coming into contact with an alien civilization. It is the barrier that most separates us from other animals. What is happening is that there is a supremacy of cultural evolution over biological, simply because it goes faster, nothing more. Of course, biological evolution is deep down to the roots of living beings. But the cultural evolution, related to the biological one, is the one that derives from our activities and dominates everything. Biological evolution cannot go at the same pace as cultural evolution and if there is any animal that may have the ability to develop it, it would be within millions of years. Language provides us with a supernatural ability.

What are the most widespread myths about the brain and language?

Unfortunately, several of the most important myths, or I could say the most dangerous, have to do with education, because educational programs are supposedly based on them. For example, the myth of multiple intelligences, which have not been proven at all and generate quite striking paradoxes: If a person has a musical intelligence, should education focus on that or precisely because you have more developed that musical intelligence you have to develop more education in others?

Other myth is that of the two cerebral hemispheres and the two types of thinking associated with them: analytical, rigid and stereotyped thinking of the left hemisphere and creative, musical, artistic thinking of the right hemisphere. Although there is a certain specialization and lateralization, the self, the self-conscious mind, emerges from the combined activity of the two hemispheres. One idea that is outdated is that language is controlled by the left hemisphere, but Actually the two hemispheres are very involved in the production and handling of language and in the memory of words.


Chair in Neuroscience

Jul 13, 2022

“Language provides us with a supernatural ability”