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How Language Shapes the Brain

August 14, 2019

From Scientific American

Crucial point: Just as having stronger muscles allows you to lift weights with less effort, increased gray matter in classic executive control regions may make it easier for bilinguals to manage irrelevant information. Bilinguals also have increased white matter in the tracts connecting frontal control areas to posterior and subcortical sensory and motor regions, which may allow them to off-load some of the work to areas that handle more procedural activities. Because the same neural machinery can be used for both linguistic and non-linguistic tasks, multilingual experience can even affect performance in contexts that involve no language at all.

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As Emperor Akihito steps down from the Chrysanthemum Throne in Japan’s first abdication in 200 years, Naruhito officially becomes the new Emperor on May 1, 2019, ushering in a new era called Reiwa (令和; “harmony”). Japan’s tradition of naming eras reflects the ancient belief in the divine spirit of language. Kotodama (言霊; “word spirit”) is the idea that words have an almost magical power to alter physical reality. Through its pervasive impact on society, including its influence on superstitions and social etiquette, traditional poetry and modern pop songs, the word kotodama has, in a way, provided proof of its own concept.

For centuries, many cultures have believed in the spiritual force of language. Over time, these ideas have extended from the realm of magic and mythology to become a topic of scientific investigation—ultimately leading to the discovery that language can indeed affect the physical world, for example, by altering our physiology.

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