Thought Beyond Language: Neural Dissociation of Algebra and Natural Language
Martin M. Monti1, Lawrence M. Parsons, and Daniel N. Osherson
A central question in cognitive science is whether natural language provides combinatorial operations that are essential to diverse domains of thought. In the study reported here, we addressed this issue by examining the role of linguistic mechanisms in forging the hierarchical structures of algebra. In a 3-T functional MRI experiment, we showed that processing of the syntax-like operations of algebra does not rely on the neural mechanisms of natural language. Our findings indicate that processing the syntax of language elicits the known substrate of linguistic competence, whereas algebraic operations recruit bilateral parietal brain regions previously implicated in the representation of magnitude. This double dissociation argues against the view that language provides the structure of thought across all cognitive domains.