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Right Brain, Left Brain: Where Does Language Live?

Story posted July 07, 2005

A research subject
A research subject responds to words with differing syllabic stresses.

The theory that the right and left hemispheres of the brain each control various functions of body and mind is one of the major developments in cognitive psychology.

Until fairly recently, it was believed that language was not bilaterally situated, but resided solely in the left hemisphere. Professor of Psychology Louisa Slowiaczek says it's an assumption that may be "somewhat simplistic."

"As people have done more research, we have found evidence that the right hemisphere actually does control some aspects of language. The question is, which aspects are primarily left and which are primarily right?"

Slowiaczek is among cognitive psychologists currently examining this question. Her research centers on some of the more subtle language processing features- linguistic cues such as sounds, timing, and syllabic emphasis - about which relatively little is understood.

"When you look at what makes up language, there are many pieces to it," says Slowiaczek. "Sounds make syllables, the syllables make words, the words become phrases, then sentences. Within a conversation there are many levels of linguistic information that are available, but much of it is not consciously considered."

This unconscious aspect of language processing increasingly engaged Slowiaczek during her recently completed sabbatical year.

"Within a conversation there are many levels of linguistic information ... but much of it is not consciously considered."

As a result, one area of her new research concerns what is known in psycholinguistics as the "stress typicality effect," in which listeners have been observed to be faster to respond to typically stressed words, rather than atypically stressed ones. (Typically stressed nouns, for instance, place emphasis on the first syllable. Alternately, verbs typically are stressed on the second syllable.)

This summer, Slowiaczek is conducting a grammatical classification experiment at Bowdoin that measures how people process and respond to typically and atypically stressed words presented to either the right or left ear.

"We hope to find that stress typicality effects are greater in the left hemisphere," says Slowiaczek. "It may help us understand a bit more about how words are organized in the brain and how the process of language retrieval works."

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