Philosophers and biologists agree that the great talent that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal world is the power of language, but that does not help to answer the big question: how do we acquire language? Neuroscientists now found a crucial clue: when a person hears verbs and nouns associated with a body part, such as kicking or throwing, the motor regions of the cortex that normally direct movement of these parts are activated immediately without any reasoning to do so. Inside the brain, the words and their meanings seem to be almost the same.
From Sir William Jones discovered the family of Indo-European languages and formulating the first evolutionary theory a century before Darwin – linguistics has occupied a prominent place in evolutionary thought, and this trend has done nothing but intensify in our time. No wonder that one of the key issues of modern biology is to understand precisely how the language faculty evolved, perhaps the quintessential human attribute. And biologists are well aware that evolution never invent anything from scratch: is an opportunistic, as the Nobel prize François Jacob said.
In an fMRI study with 21 volunteers, Yury Shtyrov and colleagues at the Center for Integrative Neuroscience, University of Aarhus, Denmark, show now that the verbs and nouns of action, jump, throw, kick, dance – inducing almost immediately, in just 80 milliseconds, the activity of the motor cortex, the part of the brain located above the ears that normally handles muscles movement. And not only that: the activity house with the specific area of the body involved in the meaning of the word in question.
Moreover Shtyrov and colleagues have shown that activation of the relevant area of the motor cortex, such as moving the legs if it is the jump – verb is suppressed if presented to the volunteer semantically inconsistent with another word, such as sit still. This effect corresponds to the phenomenon well documented by neuroscientists lateral inhibition during processing of the meaning of the words, and many other phenomena of perception and knowledge.
Brain activation in 80 milliseconds engine is much faster than conscious perception, which takes the brain about 300 milliseconds, or almost a third of a second. Moreover, the phenomenon is completely independent of whether the subject is paying attention or not. These two observations, together with the fact that the phenomenon works both names as verbs lead the authors to propose that motor circuits are involved in the interpretation of language in an automatic way. This operator is the brand of the mental body proposed by the great linguist Noam Chomsky in middle of last century.
Neuroscience is gradually carving a radically new theory of the old problem of semantics: the sign and significance are two closely related brain mechanisms.