Chinese characters and the left-brain vs. right-brain hypothesis

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Report of the results of a study that I've been long awaiting:

"Different languages spark same brain activity: study"

by Chen Wei-han Taipei Times (1/6/16)

  An NTNU [National Taiwan Normal University] psychology professor said the results debunk a myth that Chinese and alphabetic languages are processed by different sides of the brain

Here are the first three paragraphs of the report:

Researchers have discovered that speakers of four highly contrasting languages — Spanish, English, Hebrew and Chinese — show very similar patterns of brain activity during reading and speech, which suggests the underlying network for language processing might be more universal than previously understood.

At a news conference yesterday, where results of three international and interdisciplinary studies were announced, National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) psychology professor Li Jun-ren (李俊仁) said his team tracked and compared reading and speech perception of native speakers of the four languages using functional magnetic resonance imaging and found mostly identical brain activation.

“We could not tell what language a participant speaks from their brain scan, because the same brain areas are activated regardless of what language they speak. We showed, for the first time, that there could be an invariant and universal brain network for reading and speech processing regardless of linguistic differences,” Li said.

Here's a paragraph from the middle describing the crux of the matter:

The finding debunks a myth that Chinese languages were predominantly processed by the right hemisphere, compared with alphabetic languages processed by the left hemisphere, because Chinese was considered a pictorial language and the right hemisphere has been associated with image processing, he added.

And here's the final paragraph that puts the study in historical context:

“About 150 years ago, [French physician] Paul Broca proposed that the left hemisphere is responsible for language processing. Today, our team confirmed that reading, writing and arithmetic processing is done by the left hemisphere, which is a universal phenomenon across languages. The team’s findings are to be remembered for a long time,” former minister of education Ovid Tzeng (曾志朗) said.

Other related investigations conducted by teams at National Yang Ming University led by neuroscience professor Kuo Wen-jui (郭文瑞) and at National Central University led by neuroscience professor Denise Wu (吳嫻) complemented the findings of the NTNU group.

These coordinated studies in Taiwan, carried out with the collaboration of researchers in other countries, have major implications for brain function, particularly in relation to the processing of language.

For those who are interested in pursuing this topic more deeply, I have a pdf with a detailed report in Chinese, together with images of the brain scans and links to numerous reports in Chinese and English.

[UPDATE:  At 9:02 a.m. this morning (1/7/16), I received a note from Professor Jun Ren Lee stating clearly that the project involved 18 authors in 4 countries.  He wanted me to know that, although he was the one who reported  the results at the press interviews held in Taiwan, he was not the leading figure in this study.  The first author is Jay G. Rueckl, the corresponding author is Stephen Frost. Both of them are from Haskins laboratories, Yale university.  Kenneth Pugh, the president of Haskins laboratories, was the key person who brought all the others together.]

Here is a list of three scientific papers mentioned in the news reports on these major findings:

(1)Rueckl, J. G., PazAlonso, P. M., Molfese, P. J., Kuo, W. J., 
Bick, A., Frost, S. J., Hancock, R., Wu, D. H., Mencl, W. E., 
Duñabeitia, J. A., Lee, J. R., Oliver, M., Zevin, J. D., 
Hoeft, F., Carreiras, M., Tzeng, O. J.,Pugh, K. R., Frost, R. 
(2015). Universal brain signature of proficient reading: Evidence 
from four contrasting languages. Proceedings of National Academy 
of Sciences, 122(5), 15510–15515.

(2)Nakamura, K., Kuo, W.J., Pegado, F., Cohen, L., Tzeng, O. J. L., 
& Dehaene, S. (2012) Universal brain systems for recognizing word 
shapes and handwriting gestures during reading. Proceedings of 
National Academy of Sciences, 109, 20762–20767.

(3)Hung, Y. H., Pallier, C., Dehaene, S., Lin, Y. C., Chang, A., 
Tzeng, O. J. L., & Wu, D. H. (2015). Neuralcorrelates of merging 
number words. NeuroImage, 122, 3343


  1. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 8:49 am

    I should have mentioned in the original post that, overall, the investigations described above that were undertaken by the Taiwan Cognitive Neuroscience Team were led by Prof. Ovid Tzeng.

  2. Guy said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 2:47 pm

    I'm a little confused by the hypothesis (or myth) that they're discussing. I assume this belief is only supposed to apply to reading, and not speaking, and so maybe you would find activity in both hemispheres, the story might go (since it seems pretty implausible that processing the Chinese once it's been converted to words in a sequence wouldn't involve essentially the same mental processes). But even that seems odd. Alphabetic writing systems are still visual. Of course, such investigation is still worthwhile even if some of the ideas it might discredit seem poorly motivated to begin with.

  3. Aaron said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 4:38 pm

    I'm glad to see this work being done. Years ago I got into a debate online with someone who had read a book by Leonard Shlain called "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess", which (among many other questionable ideas) argued that logographic writing is processed differently in the brain than alphabetic scripts. I took a look at the book at my local library and was appalled by its many inaccuracies and unfounded assumptions, but when I went to look for evidence against the statements made about logographic vs. alphabetic scripts, I had a hard time finding anything that addressed that point specifically. It may sound ridiculous, but it is something that some people do actually believe.

  4. Ellen K. said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 7:42 pm

    That Chinese could ever be considered a pictorial language, as distinct from a pictorial writing system, seems odd to me. Not that the writing system is pictorial, but even if it was, that wouldn't make the language pictorial. Of course, I'm well aware of the perspective of seeing the written language as THE language, but it seems like, and is, a strange way to look at it. Of course, the incorrectness of seeing Chinese as a language (of whatever sort) is related to that bias toward written language.

  5. Jenny Chu said,

    January 7, 2016 @ 7:45 pm

    I remember vaguely a claim from Maryanne Wolf
    that Chinese reading (not writing!) also activated parts of the brain related to physical motion – and the proposed explanation was that characters are learned by repetitive writing. I also recall her referencing a patient with brain damage who could no longer read English but could read Chinese. Will have to look this up again since I haven't picked up that book for a while.

  6. Jon said,

    January 8, 2016 @ 3:09 am

    Is this new? I've been reading 'Reading in the Brain' by Stanislaus Dehaene, and he cites research papers from 2000-2004 showing that "…brain activations related to word recognition in Chinese readers lie only a few millimeters away from those of English readers" (page 94).
    I highly recommend the book.

  7. Jon said,

    January 8, 2016 @ 3:57 am

    That should be Stanislas, not Stanislaus.

  8. Zeppelin said,

    January 8, 2016 @ 5:57 am

    I've got nothing to add really, seeing as the results confirm my preconceptions (which is always nice!). But I'm wondering in what way English and Spanish are "highly contrasting".

  9. Tim Kelby said,

    January 8, 2016 @ 6:48 am

    @Zeppelin: I'd guess the biggest contrast is orthographic depth (as described in Spanish and English represent two quite different languages in terms of orthographic and syllabic complexity, even though they use the same alphabet.

  10. Manos said,

    January 8, 2016 @ 7:42 am

    Where can I find the scientific paper of this study?

  11. Victor Mair said,

    January 8, 2016 @ 8:46 am

    From William C. Hannas:

    I hardly know where to begin. This matter was settled decades ago (I summarize it in my 1997 book*). Isolated Chinese characters presented out of their linguistic context to subjects of experiments tend to be processed as images in the RH. In their linguistic context, e.g., paired with another character or followed by okurigana,** they are processed in the LH, like any other language-related task. If that's all this study (correctly) showed, it's no revelation.

    *VHM: Asia's Orthographic Dilemma (University of Hawaii Press)


  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 8, 2016 @ 8:49 am


    It's noted at the bottom of the original post — the first item among the three references.

  13. Manos said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 1:19 pm

    Oh thank you, I haven't noticed it. But as I can see it's not available yet
    PMID: 26621710 [PubMed – in process] PMCID: PMC4687557 [Available on 2016-06-15],
    We' ll wait a few more months!!

  14. Apollo Wu said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 2:14 am

    I have translated the article in Taipei Times into Chinese as below>


    研究人員發現,使用四種非常不同語言 – 西班牙語,英語,希伯來語和中國語 – 的人在閱讀和講話時顯示出非常相似的大腦活動模式,這表明大腦運用相同的部分來處理語言,比以前所理解的更加集中。
    在昨天舉行的新聞發布會上,公佈了三個國際和跨學科研究的結果。 國立台灣師範大學(師大)的心理學教授李俊仁(Li Jun-ren)表示,他的團隊利用功能性磁共振成像儀器(functional MRI)來跟踪和比較四種語言母語使用者的閱讀和言語感知,發現他們有大致相同的大腦活動。
    其他研究支持李的調查結果:陽明大學神經科學教授郭文瑞(Kuo Wen-jui)的一項研究發現,中、法兩語文的使用者對兩個特定的神經迴路 – 形狀識別系統和手勢識別系統 – 都顯示相同的激活模式。
    同時,國立中央大學神經學教授丹尼斯·吳(Denise Wu)的一項研究發現,中法參與者在處理諸如七百九十四那樣的複數字時,大腦左下額葉兩個區域有類似的活動模式。 這表明不同語言都使用這些區域來作為形成複數的神經基地。
    台灣教育部前部長曾志朗(Ovid Tzang)說 “大約150年前,法國醫生保羅·布羅卡(Paul Broca) 提出,大腦左半球主要負責語言處理。今天,我們的團隊證實,閱讀,寫作和算術處理都是由左腦進行的。我们应该牢记团队的这些发现。”

    *原文來自英文版的台灣時報 Taipei Times 2016年1月6日 Copyright © 1999-2016 The Taipei Times. All rights reserved.

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