Saturday 20 November 2010

Brains and fears

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.


  1. [T]he 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.

    I think this statement is true. I'd like to tell you a story.

    My son was tested before entering 1st grade. We got a call from the school. They needed to speak with us. My son scored well on eight of nine subtests but did poorly on one. The test was in English and we speak both English and Spanish in our home depending on the context. The subtest he scored poorly on was in the context of a family eating dinner. We hardly ever speak English at the dinner table.

  2. Brings us back to the weird question we get all the time from monolinguals: What language do you think in? I haven't thought of a really clever answer to that!

  3. ms_bobdog

    I think in our case the question is...What language do we eat in?

  4. ms_bobdog: Maybe one answer to your question is another question, something like ‘Who says people have to think in one language?’
    OK, this is not an answer, but it might get some people thinking a bit, in whatever language.

  5. Theodore: Your story is a perfect example of the kind of testing that keeps failing multilingual children – in both senses of the word ‘fail’. The belief is that any language of a multilingual must match the standards of assessment, which are all monolingual.
    Your second comment really made my day. It gave me the giggles too. It would have been so simple (perhaps too simple?) for whoever tested your son to ask you first the question that you ask here!

  6. Something I saw quoted (in a quite different context) on a news group seemed so pertinent to your post that I would like to quote it here:


    His [Holmes'] ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

    "You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

    "To forget it!"

    "You see," he explained, I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

    "But the Solar System!" I protested.

    "What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently: "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."

    [Arthur Conan Doyle, "A Study in Scarlet", 1887]


    I think Holmes's view of the brain as a sort of attic is quite widespread, and I may have seen it like that myself until I had a trilingual daughter. She is now 27, and has been completely at ease in English, Spanish and French since she was about 4 or 5, and was acquiring new words in each of the three simultaneously at the same rate as a normal monolingual child acquires them in just one. Rather than there being a finite amount of information that a brain can store, I have the impression that if a limit exists at all it is so huge that it is more that the more things you know the better you are at learning more. My daughter used all three languages daily, and never showed any sign of confusing them. She sometimes used a French word in the middle of an English sentence, but always with just perceptible pauses before and after it that suggested to me that she knew perfectly well that it was a French word that she was using because she didn't know the English word.

  7. Thank you for these thoughts, Athel!
    I didn’t find either that my children had any trouble with their languages. Like your girl, they grew up trilingual and they’re adults now. They used the same strategies as your daughter when some word either failed them in one language, or was just too difficult for them to pronounce in that language yet. They always kept their “attic” well dusted too.
    I never understood the fuss about languages and brains. As I wrote before here, why languages?? My views on brain power match yours: the more the better, music, books, people, languages, interests, you name it. It’s like training up your body.

  8. It’s like training up your body.

    It's exactly like that, Madalena. (I need to remember that you're Portuguese and not Spanish -- otherwise you'll find me putting an unwanted g in there.) No sane athlete would say that it was best not to exercise as that would wear out their muscles. On the contrary, everyone agrees that the more you use your muscles the better they work. I think the brain is the same. In a general way I've always understood that, but my daughter taught me that it applies to language acquisition. Incidentally, although she doesn't speak Portuguese, Catalan or Italian she has much less difficulty understanding them than most people do.

  9. Athel: It is true that sister languages give you a low-cost backdoor to their siblings. More brain workout there too.
    And thank you for spelling my name right. That doesn’t happen all the time – not to mention the surname, of course...


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