Brain matters tend to become profoundly distorted in popular convictions, and sometimes in less popular ones too. This could well be because we haven’t yet found a way of dealing with brains without using our brains. Here, for example, is a common representation of the human brain:
The human encephalon, according to some human encephalons.
Photo: Sheila Thomson (Wikimedia Commons)
In what concerns languages, this view matches the misconception that languages are boxed up into brain compartments, that I mentioned before. The same view has led to the belief that each language takes up (precious) brain space from other languages (read: from your single “main” language), or even from other intellectual abilities.
It is true that specific regions of the brain are in charge of certain functions, as we’re learning from research using functional neuroimaging and/or research on brain damage: certain areas of the cortex, and lesions in those areas, correlate with certain effects. But the same research also shows two other findings that somehow have failed to meet (or please) the popular imagination: that brain power also means recovery power, in that healthy cortex can take over functions of damaged cortex, and that the brain monitors itself in order to keep itself usable.
Speaking of misrepresentations, I must take this chance to set the record straight on my fellow countryman, neurologist and Nobel laureate Egas Moniz. He became less known for his own work than for the misuse that others made of his leucotomy procedure (*not* lobotomy). In addition, he is seldom credited with his other major discovery, angiography, a clinical imaging technique which has been in widespread use ever since he first introduced it in the 1920’s. Perhaps another example of how fact-starved discussions tend to mangle brain reputations?
Keeping themselves usable appears indeed to be the core job of brains. They are there to evolve, because they adapt to whatever uses they are called on to serve, throughout life. They die when we die, not before. One example has been reported for London cab drivers in 2000, and updated in 2009. The view that brains develop up to certain stages in the life of their users, to then inexorably decay, characterises last century’s thought, and cannot hold against the inherent plasticity of the human brain that current research keeps unveiling. As far as I understand, London cabbies do not exercise their functions during early childhood.
Multilinguals may be unaware that they are living proof of lively brain social networking, as it were. I have one example, about an email exchange I once had with a colleague. We are both multilingual with Swedish, and we met in Sweden, so it was only natural to continue our business, and start our correspondence, in this language. Later on, I had to look for a message, where I knew a crucial matter had been discussed. So I scanned my inbox using Swedish search words. Nothing. The message was gone. After two days of despair, my colleague wrote back to me asking why I was taking so long to fix the crucial matter. She wrote in English. She had switched language during a trip to the UK a few weeks before, and so had I, in natural response to her first message in that language. You don’t need to ask: the message had been there all the time, safely in my inbox, and in English.
To me, this is further proof that our brain doesn’t work like an inbox. When we search for things in it, we don’t need to search in languages, because the brain doesn’t seem to pay special attention to languages: it gathers knowledge and, in doing so, discards the tools that we happened to use to encode it.
Moral of the story: if you think you’re losing your usual neat control over where and how you’ve stored things around your brain, you’re not. You’re just being multilingual. Which is an interesting thing to be, in light of another quite popular issue: the lack of agreement about what a multilingual actually might be. I’ll leave it for next time.
© MCF 2010
Next post: There are multilinguals and multilinguals. Wednesday 24th November 2010.