Lateralization of brain function

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The human brain is divided into two hemispheres-left and right. Scientists continue to explore how some cognitive functions tend to be dominated by one side or the other; that is, how they are lateralized. Cerebral lobes.png
The human brain is divided into two hemispheresleft and right. Scientists continue to explore how some cognitive functions tend to be dominated by one side or the other; that is, how they are lateralized.

The lateralization of brain function is the tendency for some neural functions or cognitive processes to be specialized to one side of the brain or the other. The medial longitudinal fissure separates the human brain into two distinct cerebral hemispheres, connected by the corpus callosum. Although the macrostructure of the two hemispheres appears to be almost identical, different composition of neuronal networks allows for specialized function that is different in each hemisphere.


Lateralization of brain structures is based on general trends expressed in healthy patients; however, there are numerous counterexamples to each generalization. Each human's brain develops differently, leading to unique lateralization in individuals. This is different from specialization, as lateralization refers only to the function of one structure divided between two hemispheres. Specialization is much easier to observe as a trend, since it has a stronger anthropological history. [1]

The best example of an established lateralization is that of Broca's and Wernicke's areas, where both are often found exclusively on the left hemisphere. Function lateralization, such as semantics, intonation, accentuation, and prosody, has since been called into question and largely been found to have a neuronal basis in both hemispheres. [2] Another example is that each hemisphere in the brain tends to represent one side of the body. In the cerebellum, this is the same body side, but in the forebrain this is predominantly the contralateral side.

Lateralized functions


Language functions such as grammar, vocabulary and literal meaning are typically lateralized to the left hemisphere, especially in right-handed individuals. [3] While language production is left-lateralized in up to 90% of right-handers, it is more bilateral, or even right-lateralized, in approximately 50% of left-handers. [4]

Broca's area and Wernicke's area, associated with the production of speech and comprehension of speech, respectively, are located in the left cerebral hemisphere for about 95% of right-handers but about 70% of left-handers. [5] :69 Individuals who speak multiple languages demonstrate separate speech areas for each language. [6]

Sensory processing

The processing of basic sensory information is lateralized by being divided into left and right sides of the body or the space around the body.

In vision, about half the neurons of the optic nerve from each eye cross to project to the opposite hemisphere, and about half do not cross to project to the hemisphere on the same side. [7] This means that the left side of the visual field is processed largely by the visual cortex of the right hemisphere and vice versa for the right side of the visual field.

In hearing, about 90% of the neurons of the auditory nerve from one ear cross to project to the auditory cortex of the opposite hemisphere.

In the sense of touch, most of the neurons from the skin cross to project to the somatosensory cortex of the opposite hemisphere.

Because of this functional division of the left and right sides of the body and of the space that surrounds it, the processing of information in the sensory cortices is essentially identical. That is, the processing of visual and auditory stimuli, spatial manipulation, facial perception, and artistic ability are represented bilaterally. [4] Numerical estimation, comparison and online calculation depend on bilateral parietal regions [8] [9] while exact calculation and fact retrieval are associated with left parietal regions, perhaps due to their ties to linguistic processing. [8] [9]

Value systems

Rather than just being a series of places where different brain modules occur, there are running similarities in the kind of function seen in each side, for instance how right-side impairment of drawing ability making patients draw the parts of the subject matter with wholly incoherent relationships, or where the kind of left-side damage seen in language impairment not damaging the patient's ability to catch the significance of intonation in speech. [10] This has led British psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist to say that the two hemispheres as having different value systems, where the left hemisphere tends to reduce complex matters such as ethics to rules and measures, where the right hemisphere is disposed to the holistic and metaphorical. [11]

Clinical significance

Depression is linked with a hyperactive right hemisphere, with evidence of selective involvement in "processing negative emotions, pessimistic thoughts and unconstructive thinking styles", as well as vigilance, arousal and self-reflection, and a relatively hypoactive left hemisphere, "specifically involved in processing pleasurable experiences" and "relatively more involved in decision-making processes". [12] Additionally, "left hemisphere lesions result in an omissive response bias or error pattern whereas right hemisphere lesions result in a commissive response bias or error pattern." [13] The delusional misidentification syndromes, reduplicative paramnesia and Capgras delusion are also often the result of right hemisphere lesions. [14]

Hemisphere damage

Damage to either the right or left hemisphere, and its resulting deficits provide insight into the function of the damaged area. Left hemisphere damage has many effects on language production and perception. Damage or lesions to the right hemisphere can result in a lack of emotional prosody or intonation when speaking. Right hemisphere damage also has grave effects on understanding discourse. People with damage to the right hemisphere have a reduced ability to generate inferences, comprehend and produce main concepts, and a reduced ability to manage alternative meanings. Furthermore, people with right hemisphere damage often exhibit discourse that is abrupt and perfunctory or verbose and excessive. They can also have pragmatic deficits in situations of turn taking, topic maintenance and shared knowledge.

Lateral brain damage can also affect visual perceptual spatial resolution. People with left hemisphere damage may have impaired perception of high resolution, or detailed, aspects of an image. People with right hemisphere damage may have impaired perception of low resolution, or big picture, aspects of an image.


If a specific region of the brain, or even an entire hemisphere, is injured or destroyed, its functions can sometimes be assumed by a neighboring region in the same hemisphere or the corresponding region in the other hemisphere, depending upon the area damaged and the patient's age. [15] When injury interferes with pathways from one area to another, alternative (indirect) connections may develop to communicate information with detached areas, despite the inefficiencies.

Broca's aphasia

Broca's aphasia is a specific type of expressive aphasia and is so named due to the aphasia that results from damage or lesions to the Broca's area of the brain, that exists most commonly in the left inferior frontal hemisphere. Thus, the aphasia that develops from the lack of functioning of the Broca's area is an expressive and non-fluent aphasia. It is called 'non-fluent' due to the issues that arise because Broca's area is critical for language pronunciation and production. The area controls some motor aspects of speech production and articulation of thoughts to words and as such lesions to the area result in specific non-fluent aphasia. [16]

Wernicke's aphasia

Wernicke's aphasia is the result of damage to the area of the brain that is commonly in the left hemisphere above the Sylvian fissure. Damage to this area causes primarily a deficit in language comprehension. While the ability to speak fluently with normal melodic intonation is spared, the language produced by a person with Wernicke's aphasia is riddled with semantic errors and may sound nonsensical to the listener. Wernicke's aphasia is characterized by phonemic paraphasias, neologism or jargon. Another characteristic of a person with Wernicke's aphasia is that they are unconcerned by the mistakes that they are making.

Society and culture


Gross oversimplification of hemisphericity RightBrainDominant.jpg
Gross oversimplification of hemisphericity

Terence Hines states that the research on brain lateralization is valid as a research program, though commercial promoters have applied it to promote subjects and products far outside the implications of the research. [17] For example, the implications of the research have no bearing on psychological interventions such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and neurolinguistic programming, [18] brain-training equipment, or management training. [19]

The oversimplification of lateralization in pop psychology. This belief was widely held even in the scientific community for some years. Brain Lateralization.svg
The oversimplification of lateralization in pop psychology. This belief was widely held even in the scientific community for some years.

Some popularizations oversimplify the science about lateralization, by presenting the functional differences between hemispheres as being more absolute than is actually the case. [20] :107 [21] Interestingly, research shown quite opposite function of brain lateralisation, i.e. left hemisphere creatively and chaotically link between concepts and right hemisphere tend to adhere to specific date and time. [22] [23] [24]

Sex differences

In the 19th century and to a lesser extent the 20th, it was thought that each side of the brain was associated with a specific gender: the left corresponding with masculinity and the right with femininity and each half could function independently. [25] The right side of the brain was seen as the inferior and thought to be prominent in women, savages, children, criminals, and the insane. A prime example of this in fictional literature can be seen in Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde . [26]

Evolutionary advantage

The widespread lateralization of many vertebrate animals suggests an evolutionary advantage associated with the specialization of each hemisphere. [1]



One of the first indications of brain function lateralization resulted from the research of French physician Pierre Paul Broca, in 1861. His research involved the male patient nicknamed "Tan", who suffered a speech deficit (aphasia); "tan" was one of the few words he could articulate, hence his nickname. In Tan's autopsy, Broca determined he had a syphilitic lesion in the left cerebral hemisphere. This left frontal lobe brain area (Broca's area) is an important speech production region. The motor aspects of speech production deficits caused by damage to Broca's area are known as expressive aphasia. In clinical assessment of this type of aphasia, patients have difficulty producing speech. [27]


German physician Karl Wernicke continued in the vein of Broca's research by studying language deficits unlike expressive aphasia. Wernicke noted that not every deficit was in speech production; some were linguistic. He found that damage to the left posterior, superior temporal gyrus (Wernicke's area) caused language comprehension deficits rather than speech production deficits, a syndrome known as receptive aphasia.


These seminal works on hemispheric specialization were done on patients or postmortem brains, raising questions about the potential impact of pathology on the research findings. New methods permit the in vivo comparison of the hemispheres in healthy subjects. Particularly, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) are important because of their high spatial resolution and ability to image subcortical brain structures.

Movement and sensation

In the 1940s, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield and his neurologist colleague Herbert Jasper developed a technique of brain mapping to help reduce side effects caused by surgery to treat epilepsy. They stimulated motor and somatosensory cortices of the brain with small electrical currents to activate discrete brain regions. They found that stimulation of one hemisphere's motor cortex produces muscle contraction on the opposite side of the body. Furthermore, the functional map of the motor and sensory cortices is fairly consistent from person to person; Penfield and Jasper's famous pictures of the motor and sensory homunculi were the result.

Split-brain patients

Research by Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Wolcott Sperry in the 1960s on split-brain patients led to an even greater understanding of functional laterality. Split-brain patients are patients who have undergone corpus callosotomy (usually as a treatment for severe epilepsy), a severing of a large part of the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres of the brain and allows them to communicate. When these connections are cut, the two halves of the brain have a reduced capacity to communicate with each other. This led to many interesting behavioral phenomena that allowed Gazzaniga and Sperry to study the contributions of each hemisphere to various cognitive and perceptual processes. One of their main findings was that the right hemisphere was capable of rudimentary language processing, but often has no lexical or grammatical abilities. [28] Eran Zaidel also studied such patients and found some evidence for the right hemisphere having at least some syntactic ability.[ citation needed ]

Language is primarily localized in the left hemisphere. While the left hemisphere has proven to be more optimized for language, the right hemisphere has the capacity with emotions, such as sarcasm, that can express prosody in sentences when speaking. According to Sheppard and Hillis, "The right hemisphere is critical for perceiving sarcasm (Davis et al., 2016), integrating context required for understanding metaphor, inference, and humour, as well as recognizing and expressing affective or emotional prosody—changes in pitch, rhythm, rate, and loudness that convey emotions". [29] One of the experiments carried out by Gazzaniga involved a split-brain male patient sitting in front of a computer screen while having words and images presented on either side of the screen, and the visual stimuli would go to either the right or left visual field, and thus the left or right brain, respectively. It was observed that if the patient was presented with an image to his left visual field (right brain), he would report not seeing anything. If he was able to feel around for certain objects, he could accurately pick out the correct object, despite not having the ability to verbalize what he saw.

Additional images

See also

Related Research Articles

Aphasia Inability to use spoken language

Aphasia is an inability to comprehend or formulate language because of damage to specific brain regions. The major causes are a cerebral vascular accident (stroke) or head trauma. Aphasia can also be the result of brain tumors, brain infections, or neurodegenerative diseases, but the latter are far less prevalent.

Expressive aphasia Language disorder involving inability to produce language

Expressive aphasia, also known as Broca's aphasia, is a type of aphasia characterized by partial loss of the ability to produce language, although comprehension generally remains intact. A person with expressive aphasia will exhibit effortful speech. Speech generally includes important content words but leaves out function words that have more grammatical significance than physical meaning, such as prepositions and articles. This is known as "telegraphic speech". The person's intended message may still be understood, but their sentence will not be grammatically correct. In very severe forms of expressive aphasia, a person may only speak using single word utterances. Typically, comprehension is mildly to moderately impaired in expressive aphasia due to difficulty understanding complex grammar.

Language center speech processing in the brain

In neuroscience and psychology, the term language center refers collectively to the areas of the brain which serve a particular function for speech processing and production. Language is a core system, which gives humans the capacity to solve difficult problems and provides them with a unique type of social interaction. Language allows individuals to attribute symbols to specific concepts and display them through sentences and phrases that follow proper grammatical rules. Moreover, speech is the mechanism in which language is orally expressed.

Receptive aphasia Language disorder involving inability to understand language

Wernicke's aphasia, also known as receptive aphasia, sensory aphasia or posterior aphasia, is a type of aphasia in which individuals have difficulty understanding written and spoken language. Patients with Wernicke's aphasia demonstrate fluent speech, which is characterized by typical speech rate, intact syntactic abilities and effortless speech output. Writing often reflects speech in that it tends to lack content or meaning. In most cases, motor deficits do not occur in individuals with Wernicke's aphasia. Therefore, they may produce a large amount of speech without much meaning. Individuals with Wernicke's aphasia are typically unaware of their errors in speech and do not realize their speech may lack meaning. They typically remain unaware of even their most profound language deficits.

Brocas area Speech production region in the dominant hemisphere of the hominid brain

Broca's area, or the Broca area, is a region in the frontal lobe of the dominant hemisphere, usually the left, of the brain with functions linked to speech production.

Aphasiology is the study of language impairment usually resulting from brain damage, due to neurovascular accident—hemorrhage, stroke—or associated with a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, including different types of dementia. It is also the name of a scientific journal covering the area. These specific language deficits, termed aphasias, may be defined as impairments of language production or comprehension that cannot be attributed to trivial causes such as deafness or oral paralysis. A number of aphasias have been described, but two are best known: expressive aphasia and receptive aphasia.

Brain damage Destruction or degeneration of brain cells

Neurotrauma, brain damage or brain injury (BI) is the destruction or degeneration of brain cells. Brain injuries occur due to a wide range of internal and external factors. In general, brain damage refers to significant, undiscriminating trauma-induced damage, while neurotoxicity typically refers to selective, chemically induced neuron damage.

Anomic aphasia Medical condition

Anomic aphasia is a mild, fluent type of aphasia where individuals have word retrieval failures and cannot express the words they want to say. Anomia is a deficit of expressive language. Anomia is a symptom of all forms of aphasia, but patients whose primary deficit is word retrieval are diagnosed with anomic aphasia. Some level of anomia is seen in all of the aphasias. Individuals with aphasia who display anomia can often describe an object in detail and maybe even use hand gestures to demonstrate how the object is used, but cannot find the appropriate word to name the object. Patients with anomic aphasia have relatively preserved speech fluency, repetition, comprehension, and grammatical speech.

Temporal lobe One of the four lobes of the mammalian brain

The temporal lobe is one of the four major lobes of the cerebral cortex in the brain of mammals. The temporal lobe is located beneath the lateral fissure on both cerebral hemispheres of the mammalian brain.

Split-brain or callosal syndrome is a type of disconnection syndrome when the corpus callosum connecting the two hemispheres of the brain is severed to some degree. It is an association of symptoms produced by disruption of, or interference with, the connection between the hemispheres of the brain. The surgical operation to produce this condition involves transection of the corpus callosum, and is usually a last resort to treat refractory epilepsy. Initially, partial callosotomies are performed; if this operation does not succeed, a complete callosotomy is performed to mitigate the risk of accidental physical injury by reducing the severity and violence of epileptic seizures. Before using callosotomies, epilepsy is instead treated through pharmaceutical means. After surgery, neuropsychological assessments are often performed.

Wernickes area Speech comprehension region in the dominant hemisphere of the hominid brain

Wernicke's area, also called Wernicke's speech area, is one of the two parts of the cerebral cortex that are linked to speech, the other being Broca's area. It is involved in the comprehension of written and spoken language, in contrast to Broca's area, which is involved in the production of language. It is traditionally thought to reside in Brodmann area 22, which is located in the superior temporal gyrus in the dominant cerebral hemisphere, which is the left hemisphere in about 95% of right-handed individuals and 70% of left-handed individuals.

Conduction aphasia Medical condition

Conduction aphasia, also called associative aphasia, is an uncommon form of difficulty in speaking (aphasia). It is caused by damage to the parietal lobe of the brain. An acquired language disorder, it is characterised by intact auditory comprehension, coherent speech production, but poor speech repetition. Affected people are fully capable of understanding what they are hearing, but fail to encode phonological information for production. This deficit is load-sensitive as the person shows significant difficulty repeating phrases, particularly as the phrases increase in length and complexity and as they stumble over words they are attempting to pronounce. People have frequent errors during spontaneous speech, such as substituting or transposing sounds. They are also aware of their errors and will show significant difficulty correcting them.

Global aphasia Medical condition

Global aphasia is a severe form of nonfluent aphasia, caused by damage to the left side of the brain, that affects receptive and expressive language skills as well as auditory and visual comprehension. Acquired impairments of communicative abilities are present across all language modalities, impacting language production, comprehension, and repetition. Patients with global aphasia may be able to verbalize a few short utterances and use non-word neologisms, but their overall production ability is limited. Their ability to repeat words, utterances, or phrases is also affected. Due to the preservation of the right hemisphere, an individual with global aphasia may still be able to express themselves through facial expressions, gestures, and intonation. This type of aphasia often results from a large lesion of the left perisylvian cortex. The lesion is caused by an occlusion of the left middle cerebral artery and is associated with damage to Broca's area, Wernicke's area, and insular regions which are associated with aspects of language.

Arcuate fasciculus

The arcuate fasciculus (AF) is a bundle of axons that generally connects the Broca's area and the Wernicke's area in the brain. It is an association fiber tract connecting caudal temporal cortex and inferior frontal lobe. Fasciculus arcuatus is latin for curved bundle.

Transcortical sensory aphasia (TSA) is a kind of aphasia that involves damage to specific areas of the temporal lobe of the brain, resulting in symptoms such as poor auditory comprehension, relatively intact repetition, and fluent speech with semantic paraphasias present. TSA is a fluent aphasia similar to Wernicke's aphasia, with the exception of a strong ability to repeat words and phrases. The person may repeat questions rather than answer them ("echolalia").

Brodmann area 22

Brodmann area 22 is a Brodmann's area that is cytoarchitecturally located in the posterior superior temporal gyrus of the brain. In the left cerebral hemisphere, it is one portion of Wernicke's area. The left hemisphere BA22 helps with generation and understanding of individual words. On the right side of the brain, BA22 helps to discriminate pitch and sound intensity, both of which are necessary to perceive melody and prosody. Wernicke's area is active in processing language and consists of the left Brodmann area 22 and Brodmann area 40, the supramarginal gyrus.

Aprosodia is a neurological condition characterized by the inability of a person to properly convey or interpret emotional prosody. Prosody in language refers to the ranges of rhythm, pitch, stress, intonation, etc. These neurological deficits can be the result of damage of some form to the non-dominant hemisphere areas of language production. The prevalence of aprosodias in individuals is currently unknown, as testing for aprosodia secondary to other brain injury is only a recent occurrence.

Brain asymmetry Term in human neuroanatomy referring to several things

In human neuroanatomy, brain asymmetry can refer to at least two quite distinct findings:

Auditory agnosia is a form of agnosia that manifests itself primarily in the inability to recognize or differentiate between sounds. It is not a defect of the ear or "hearing", but rather a neurological inability of the brain to process sound meaning. It is caused by bilateral damage to the anterior superior temporal gyrus, which is part of the auditory pathway responsible for sound recognition, the auditory "what" pathway.

Disconnection syndrome

Disconnection syndrome is a general term for a collection of neurological symptoms caused -- via lesions to associational or commissural nerve fibres -- by damage to the white matter axons of communication pathways in the cerebrum, independent of any lesions to the cortex. The behavioral effects of such disconnections are relatively predictable in adults. Disconnection syndromes usually reflect circumstances where regions A and B still have their functional specializations except in domains that depend on the interconnections between the two regions.


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