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NEUROLINGUISTIC PROCESSING

L.THBR F. s,Hs ..o

MARTIN R. GITTERMAN-

AND BRAIN FUNCTION: A G,

^^ ^

^^^' ^ FUNCTION

A

GENERAL

SEMANTICS

PERSPECTIVE

t

O NE OF ALFRED KORZYBSKI'S MAJOR CONTRIBUTIONS was his recognition

of the difference so often confiised

between the world of words and non-

words. One of the numerous examples of the possible confusion between

words

and non-words, or in Korzybski's terminology the verbal and non-verbal levels, is the word news. Consider, for instance, the Chinese students' demonstration in Beijing during the summer of 1989. The actual events that occurred there can be considered the news in the world of non-words. Dan Rather's account

of the student protest on the

CBS Evening News is a higher order abstraction

oi^news and exemplifies the world of words. Finally, if one person gives an account of these events based upon hearing Rather's broadcast and reading about them in the New York Times and the tabloid New York Post, it represents a still higher order of abstraction of the news in the world of words.

On the nonverbal level, Korzybski suggested, general semantics provides a method for the receive-education (i.e., rehabilitation of the nervous system) of individuals handicapped by the misevaluations engendered by the faulty Aristotelian influences of their language and such pernicious and erroneous influences as the "is of identity" "allness," and "either-or" misevaluations, among others. By means of indexing, dating, multi-valued orientation techniques, and delayed responses, Korzybski sought to train individuals how to incorporate scientific habits of evaluation and, therefore, attain healthier (saner) behavior by improving human nervous system fiinction. Clearly, what Korzybski was talking about was how the brain's neurolinguistic processing profoundly influences human behavior.

Words may indeed have important psychological consequences. As Korzybski pointed out they are neurophysiological events that alter brain fiinction and.

* Professors Luther F. Sies and Martin R. Gitterman conduct research and teach at Lehman College of the City University of New York.

t This study was funded in part by PSC-CUNY Grant #668434 from the Research Founda- tion of the City University of New York.

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therefore, for better or for worse all aspects of human behavior. Korzybski fur- nished an example of how linguistic stimuli could produce specific nervous system reaaions by describing an incident occurring at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Washington, D.C. He reported how once, when a physician introduced him to an immobile patient "frozen" in a catatonic state, a dramatic incident resulted. When the physician introduced Korzybski to the catatonic patient as "the Polish scientist," the patient immediately sprung at Korzybski. The patient's "signal reaction" to the word "Polish," which designated for him a group of thoroughly despised people, suggested a distinct change in the nervous system produced by hearing the word "Polish." As violent as the reaction was, the verbal stimuli w^s a neurolinguistic event indicating an unhealthy nervous system function.

During Korzybski's lifetime, there was little evidence from the physical or life sciences to support the foundations of general semantics theory. This sit- uation has changed during the past two decades. Medical literature now con- tains examples of how specific languages and their modalities (speaking, listen- ing, reading, or writing) may affect human nervous system function. The literature of neurology, for example, contains some case studies that suggest specific linguistic influences may affect brain function. Most dramatic, per- haps, is the example of language-induced epileptic seizures. Geschwind has reported a case in which epileptic seizures could be triggered by three modal- ities of language, i.e., reading, writing, and speaking.(6) Even more relevant, perhaps, is Stevens' account of a patient whose epileptic seizures were triggered by reading, but in which different languages showed marked variation in their ability to trigger seizures. Apparently, the focus and, possibly, the patterns of neural excitation may differ depending on the language utilized and the modal- ity by which it is employed. From this evidence, however, few have suggested that linguistic behavior permanently alters the brain's functioning structures.

In the past, distinguished social scientists from such diverse disciplines as anthropology, linguistics, psychology, and sociology have suggested, however, that society and culture play an important role in influencing the higher cog- nitive processes of individuals living in a particular cultural setting. We could find none of them, however, that ever questioned whether the actual site and pattern of neural organization of cognitive functions in the brain can be influenced by nonbiological factors such as linguistic behaviors.

American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf are best known for their theory of the relationship of language and thought known as the Sapir- Whorf hypothesis. Their hypothesis states that differences in cognition and behavior can result from differences between languages. Speakers of different languages, the theory suggests, perceive, think, and act in uniquely different ways because of the patterns imposed upon them by their language. The idea that a particular language forces its possessor to perceive, think, and act in a certain way is not a new one. It has also been known by such names as the Whorfian hypothesis, the Korzybskian hypothesis, the Weltanshauung hypothesis, the linguistic relativity hypothesis, and the Sapir-Whorf Korzybski

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WINTER 1989

hypothesis. Other scholars have expressed somewhat similar views. Wilhelm von Hum- boldt not only claimed thought without language was impossible, but went on to state that human thought is constrained by the language we use. This seems to be echoed by twentieth century philosopher Wittgenstein's frequently quoted assertion: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." Cas- sirer has pointed out and illustrated the possible constraints language imposes upon its possessor.(4) Then, too, Bronowski argues that humans possess a cog- nitive base upon which language builds and enhances.(3) In the U.S.S.R., V>^otsky and Luria performed experimental studies to deter- mine the possible effects of social and cultural conditions upon human cog- nition. Both were influenced by the thought of French sociologists Emile Durk- heim and Lucien Levy-Bruhl. Durkheim believed that the collective effects of society shaped the mental life of its individual members, and his subsequent work was conducted within this framework. Levy-Bruhl, operating with a simi- lar viewpoint some years later, studied "primitive cultures," and concluded that individual thinking was the product of collective cultural beliefs held by society in general. Individual cognitive processes, he thought, were influenced by col- lective society. None of the theoretical or experimental researchers discussed above, how- ever, ever suggested that nonbiological factors could influence the actual site and pattern of the organization and function of cognitive processes in the human brain. Biological factors, in fact, generally have been identified as the major determinants of the organization of language in the brain and its functional processes. Recent studies, however, suggest some possible contributions of non- biological influences — mostly of the linguistic nature—that influence language organization and function by humans. Tone languages and bilingualism, for example, are two possible nonbiological infiuences that have been identified. An interdisciplinary group that includes investigators from neurology, linguis- tics, and language pathology appears to be a fruitful means for discovering lin- guistic determinants of brain flinction.

"One of the most dependable findings in neurophysiology," according to Brookshire, "is that the left hemisphere is primarily responsible for speech and language in almost all right-handed individuals," and for right-handers, at least, it has generally been agreed that the left hemisphere of the brain is dominant for speech and language. For this reason, it general has been assumed that damage to the right cerebral hemisphere will not produce aphasia. Aphasia is a condition that may produce differential disturbances of all aspects of lan- guage behavior (speaking, reading, writing, and listening) that sometimes fol- lows brain damage. It is the speech and language disorder laymen usually iden- tify following a "stroke."

Each of the brain's cerebral hemispheres apparently has its own specialized function. Studies suggest, for instance, that the nondominant (for speech and language) right hemisphere is responsible for vocal tone, rhythm, and inflec-

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tions, as well as their perception and pattern recognition. Ross reported that

some patients with right hemispheric damage typically spoke

in a flat mono-

tone even about the most emotionally charged topics.(9) Ross used the word aprosodia to refer to such problems of vocal pitch, melody, rhythm, and into- nation as a right hemispheric version of aphasia. The right hemisphere's role in input and output processing related to pitch suggests the importance of inves- tigating the relatively rare phenomenon o^crossed aphasia.

Crossed aphasia refers to those cases in which language (aphasic) disorders follow cerebral lesions on the same side as the dominant hand. That is, right- handed persons would experience aphasic disorders following damage to their right cerebral hemisphere. Its prevalence has variously been reported as from 1.8 percent to 2.6 percent. This disorder provides a potentially valuable means

to study the influences of certain features of language {such as tone) upon the organization of language in the brain. Specifically, medical studies by April and Tse and April and Han reported two cases of crossed aphasia in native

speakers of Chinese.(1,2) This caused them

to hypothesize that since the tonal

inflection of Chinese spoken language may be processed to a greater extent in the right hemisphere than are nontonal languages such as English, there is therefore a higher incidence of crossed aphasia among Chinese speakers. If there is a greater incidence of crossed aphasia in native speakers of Chinese, it may indicate that Chinese, because it is a tone language, may significantly influence structural functioning of their brain.

Spoken Chinese is a tonal language in which tone has a specific semantic function. In English and other western languages, vocal tone and inflection have only peripheral functions; in Chinese, however, pitch conveys specific meaning. The same word in Mandarin Chinese, for example, may have four different meanings depending upon the pitch used to diflerentiate them. In the Cantonese dialect, by contrast, there are nine diflerent pitch levels used to convey meaning. Since the right hemisphere is responsible for many aspects of tone processing, the nature of the Chinese language makes it worthy of inves- tigation to determine whether the brain function of its speakers differs signi- ficantly from those of nontonal languages. If it can be determined that there is a greater incidence of crossed aphasia among native speakers of Chinese, it may indicate that contrary to present thought, language may indeed change the modes and patterns of neurological processing in the brain and even the site of its primary function. Although there is at present insufficient evidence to determine if this is the case, the variable of bilingualism is also worthy of investigation to better understand possible nonbiological influences on how language is organized in the brain.

It seems clear that any attempt to gain a fuller understanding of language organization in the brain must include an investigation of subjects who are bilin- gual. If it is the case that the two languages of bilinguals are not represented in the same area of the brain, then it would appear that another major nonbi- ological determinant of language representation exists (i.e., first as opposed to

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second language). Fortunately, researchers have begun to address this issue. Galloway suggests that the right hemisphere may play more of a role in processing language in bilinguals than it plays in monolinguals.(5) This belief is motivated by research revealing that a right hemisphere lesion will cause apha- sia in bilinguals more often than in monolinguals. Obler reports similar flndings about the possible increased role of the right hemisphere in language processing in bilinguals (see Hakuta for a concise discussion of this issue.(8,7) Hakuta wisely cautions, "One should be carefiil, however, not to interpret these studies as showing that one language is contained in the left hemisphere, the other in the right. Indeed, it is very rare that one finds right-hemisphere dominance in either of the two languages. Usually the picture is one of less right- hemisphere dominance in one language than in the other, but in most cases, the left hemisphere is the dominant one." The crucial factor seems to be that the two languages may be represented in different areas of the brain.

Vaid and Genesee suggest that other variables must also be assessed in an attempt to determine the role of the right hemisphere in language processing in bilinguals.(11) They suggest that the degree of right hemisphere participa- tion may be affected by when the second language was acquired, how it was acquired (formally or informally), and the degree of mastery of the second lan- guage. Clearly, all hypotheses discussed here are subject to much additional research. Doubtless some researchers would argue that any claims based on current findings are, at best, premature. Nevertheless, it should be apparent that an investigation of determinants of language representation in the brain must address the issue of bilingualism. We are currently studying what unique neurolinguistic processes, if any, are present in speakers of tone language and those who are bilingual. Our inter- disciplinary research team includes a semanticist/language pathologist (Sies), a linguist (Gitterman), and a neurologist (Dr. Sun-Hoo Foci, Chief ofNeurology, Beekman BYI Hospital, New York City). The data collected on crossed aphasia and bihngualism may provide additional insights as to how the nature of a lan- guage's neurolinguistic processing may affect the structure, organization, and function of the human brain. Evidence of this nature may provide additional data supporting some of Korzybski's fundamental concepts.

NOTES

Geschwind, N., "Language-Induced Epilepsy" in Selected Papers on Language and the Brain. R. S. Cohen andM. W. Wariofsky, eds. (Boston, MA: D. Reidel, 1974), p. 189-199. Stevens, H., "Reading Epilepsy" New England youmal of Medicine, 257, 1957, pp.

165-170.

Brookshire, R., An Introduction to Aphasia (Minneapolis: BRK Publishers, 1986), p. 30. Ross, E., "The Aprosodias" Archives ofNeurology, 38, 1981, pp. 561-569.

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Hakuta, K

,

Mirror of Language: The Debate on Bilingualism (New York: Basic Books,

 

1986), pp. 88-89.

REFERENCES

1. April R. and Han., "Crossed Aphasia in a Right-Handed Bilingual Chinese Man"

Archives of Neurology, 37, 1980, pp. 341-346.

  • 2. April, R. and Tse, P., "Crossed Aphasia in a Chinese Bilingual DextraF Archives of Neurology, 54, 1977, pp. 766-770.

  • 3. Bronowski, J., The Identity of Man (Garden City, N.Y.: Natural History Press, 1971).

  • 4. Cassirer, E., An Essay on Man (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1944).

  • 5. Galloway, L., Conmbutions of the Right Cerebral Hemisphere to Language and Com-

munication: Issues in Cerebral Dominance with Special Emphasis on Bilingualism,

Second Language Acquisition, Sex Differences and Certain Ethnic Groups, Un-

published Ph.D. Dissertation (Los Angeles, CA: University of California at Los

Angeles, 1981).

  • 6. Geschwind, N., "Language-Induced Epilepsy." In Selected Papers on Language and

the Brain R. S. Cohen and M. W. Wartofsky, eds. (Boston, Nih: D. Reidel, 1974).

  • 7. Hakuta, K., Mirror of Language: The Debate on Bilingualism {New York: Basic

Books, 1986).

  • 8. Obler, K., "Right Hemisphere Participation in Second Language Learning." In

Individual Differences and Universals in Language Learning Aptitude, ed. K. Diller

(Rawley, MA: Newbury House, 1979).

  • 9. Ross, E., "The Aprosodias" Archives of Neurology, 38, 1981, pp. 561-569.

  • 10. Stevens, H., "Reading Epilepsy" New England Journal of Medicine, 257,1957, pp. 165-170.

  • 11. Vaid, J. and Genesee, E, *TsJeuropsychological Appmaches to Bilingualism: A Crit- ical Review" Canadian Journal of Psychology, 34, 12980, pp. ^^21-AM.