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Linguists have more white matter: official

Brains asymmetrical, too

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Neuroscientists at University College London reckon they may have pinpointed the reason some people have an aptitude for languages, and apparently it's all about more "white brain matter" where it counts - packed into the area in which sound is processed.

The team took 59 French speakers and subjected them to two combinations of "d" plus "a" - one from their own lingo where the "d" is dental (tongue placed against top teeth) and a retroflex alternative from Hindi, where the tongue curls upwards towards the roof of the mouth.

The difference in the two "das" is, the BBC notes, in the first 40 milliseconds, so you have to be pretty quick off the mark (try* the "spot-the-difference" here, which has some mp3s of the two).

During the test, those who could quickly differentiate the two sounds were moved on "even more acoustically similar" challenges.

The fastest guns "were able to tell these apart within a few minutes, while the slowest learners were only able to make random guesses at the less difficult stage after 20 minutes of training".

This disparity is explained, says the team, by more white brain matter "in the left auditory region known as Heschl's gyrus, where sound is processed" - as brain scans of the linguistically-gifted showed.

White brain matter fibres play a role in connecting bits of your brain together, and more of it might indicate "more or perhaps thicker fibres" and an "increased ability to process sound", according to Dr Narly Golestani from UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Specifically, Golestani said white brain matter was involved in the "efficient processing of sound information into the lower levels of the brain - known as the primary cortex."

There's more: the researchers also found - among the fast learners - a "greater asymmetry in the volume of the parietal lobes, which are also involved in the processing of speech sound in the left hemisphere of the brain".

Those of you with loads of white matter and an asymmetrical brain will doubtless have taken all that in and it just remains for us to add a final bit from Golestani, who concluded: "The bigger picture is that we are starting to understand that brain shape and structure can be informative about people's abilities or pathologies - why people are good at some things and not others is evident from these scans.

"We can start to make predictions regarding whether people will be good at something or not based on their brain structure, or diagnose clinical problems."

The results of the study - entitled "Brain structure predicts the learning of foreign speech sounds" - can be found in the journal Cerebral Cortex

Bootnote

* We gave it a go and couldn't discern the slightest bloody difference between the two. We have therefore concluded that we have beautifully symmetrical brains - as God intended - packed with grey matter and without wasting space on white stuff which serves only to tell the difference between Hindi and French.

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