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Annoying urban legends: language and pop psychology

Okay, I want to rant and vent about this pop pscyhology stuff that keeps popping up. As a linguist and cognitive psychologist, I find references to "left brain / right brain" annoying, and this stuff pops up on the Internet, in business or marketing contexts, in sermons, on TV, etc. This is pop psychology because it is a grossly inaccurate distortion of what psychology and neuroscience tells us about differences between the two brain hemispheres, and is always misapplied. It is wrong for these reasons.

1. You use all of your brain all the time, not just half of it (unless you're a politician or TV/movie celebrity). Just because the whole think doesn't light up under an MRI or CT scan at a given moment doesn't mean the rest is dormant; it's working, too, just at a lower level. And there's more than the left and right cerebral cortices (upper advanced mammalian brain) that this pop theory refers to. There's the front brain (frontal corex), which is neither left nor right, where working memory, decision making, executive control of conscious function, attention, and such take place. And there are lower brain structures (less advanced, evolutionarily) for a lot of non-conscious and automatic brain functions go on, as well as the limbic system and other stuff that regulate basic emotions, formation of long-term memories, etc. And don't even say we use 10% of the brain. Not true (unless you're a politician) - that's a pop psychology / new age distortion of few old neuroscience studies; no neurologists never actually reported or claimed that we only use 10% of the noggin.

2. There is allocation of different functions to different hemispheres (not "brains" - let's use proper terminology). But nothing so simplistic as this pop psych stuff. It's not true that the "right brain" is musical or artistic, or that only the left is logical and analytical or houses language. These various functions and abilities are distributed throughout different brain regions. According to recent studies, as in the journal Nature Neuroscience a couple of years ago, musical notes and their affective qualities are processed in the right, but note sequences are processed in the left (it looks for regular patterns and sequences in the music). And many language functions are in both hemispheres (read next point). Some grammatical functions are handled by the left - syntax (word order and hierarchy), morphology (word formation, conjugation, inflection), and phonology (sound structure of language). But that's only true for about 90% of the population, i.e., most of the right-handed people. There's a minority of people, including lefties, where these functions are in the right, or distributed across both hemispheres.

3. Yes, the right side does its share of language processing and ability. This has been known in psychology for a long time, and there's plenty of research on this. This is nothing new, and research on this (and controversy over some points) is on-going. For most people, the systematic components of language - syntax, morphology, phonology - are housed in the inferior temporal gyrus (Wernicke's area), but that may have more to do with the fact that they involve learned, automated skills and procedures, skill based and procedural memory systems, and are related to other skill based abilities (i.e., complex learned skills) that are in nearby cerebral regions (at least acc. to Prof. Ullman at Georgetown Univ.), and not because langauge is "logical" or "analytical".

There's a lot more to langauge than those components, though, like lexicon (the words you know), semantics (word meanings) and pragmatics (interpretation of words and utterances in context). The right hemisphere handles things like general sentence or utterance intonation (and its affective or implied meanings), irregular morphology, interpretation of metaphors and non-literal word meaning, integration of linguistic information, discourse level language structure, etc. It's even been proposed that some basic syntax is handled by the right - basic word order (linear precedence) versus more complex hierarchical syntax. And when it comes to how word meanings and concepts are stored and accessed (the mental lexicon and related components), these are distributed all over the brain. This area in fact is quite complex, and still poorly understood.

[To be continued...]

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