The brain is one of the most complicated and multifunctional organs in the human body. Medical specialists, psychologists, and neuroscientists have always been paying special attention to its abilities and role in the organism. One of the main functions of the brain is connected with the process of learning. Indeed, this organ is responsible for acquiring different knowledge and skills, for example, language learning, physical tasks, such as riding a bike and playing musical instruments. The relationship between certain brain structures and learning remains an important research issue. Therefore, the aim of this paper is to analyze the variety of brain structures and their functions with the use of specific examples. The description of learning tasks and the discussion of changes occurring in the brain will help understand the connection between its functions and the cognitive abilities of a human being.
The process of learning a language includes several interconnected activities. First of all, it requires the ability to process and store relevant information and inhibit unnecessary data. Working memory also plays an essential part in language learning, as it allows people to use new information they store (Legault et al., 2018). This data may include vocabulary, grammar rules, syntax, phonology, and other language-related peculiarities. Moreover, while acquiring a foreign language, a human learns how to react to different language inputs and switch from one language to another (Legault et al., 2018). Language learning also implies the ability to retrieve necessary vocabulary in particular situations and organize a speech.
Anterior Cingulate Cortex
Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) is a part of the brain responsible for cognitive control and conflict monitoring. This means that the function of ACC is to process congruent and incongruent input and control an individual’s reaction and the degree of conflict effect (Legault et al., 2018). In the process of language learning, this brain region is characterized by greater gray matter volume and less neural activity. Studies have shown that bilingual people demonstrate better conflict monitoring ability, as their ACC is used more actively (Legault et al., 2018). On the contrary, the executive function in monolinguals is less distinctive.
Another important factor that proves the role of ACC in conflict control is that it is connected with first and second language proficiency. According to the experiment conducted by Legault et al. (2018), cortical thickness in participants who were successful in their first language proficiency test was greater than in those with worse results. Therefore, people with high proficiency in their first language demonstrate better performance in foreign language learning.
Inferior Parietal Lobe
Inferior Parietal Lobe (IPL) is responsible for working memory and the processes connected with language production and maintenance. The learning-related tasks controlled by this part of the brain include remembering foreign words and understanding semantic aspects of the language input (Legault et al., 2018). Bzdok et al. (2016) also emphasize that IPL is responsible for semantic implications and connections between sounds and their meaning. The researchers add that the correct semantic interpretation of the context is necessary for an individual “to act in a coherent, purposeful manner regarding the meaning of words, objects, or situations” (p. 320). Therefore, besides playing an important role in language learning, IPL contributes to communication skills in general.
Researchers tend to pay more attention to the role of the left inferior parietal lobe, as more structural changes happen to this specific part of the brain. The left IPL of language learners is characterized by the increased gray matter volume and cortex thickness after second language training (Legault et al., 2018). Moreover, neurological experiments have shown that IPL functions are connected with accuracy and speed in performing tasks.
Inferior Frontal Gyros
Inferior Frontal Gyros, or IFG, is mainly responsible for the articulatory and phonological functions. For example, Legault et al. (2018) found that this brain structure plays a significant role in articulatory planning. The researchers mentioned the example of the Chinese language, which is characterized by its complicated phonological system, which defines the meanings of words. According to their discoveries, the learning of Chinese is followed by a greater neural activity in IFG connected with the identification of tones and pitches. It would be necessary to mention that the supramarginal gyrus (SMG) is also connected to IFG in its functions, as the increase of gray and white matter volume in left parietal areas also influence successful phonetic learning (Legault et al., 2018). This discovery proves the interconnection between the major brain structures.
The functions of the putamen in language learning are connected to ones of IFG and are related to phonetics. At the same time, while IFG is mainly focused on pitch differences and phonetic distinction, the functions of the putamen include articulatory processing and planning and the identification of phonological errors (Legault et al., 2018). The main structural change occurring in the region is connected with the increasing density of gray matter in multilinguals, while in monolinguals, this parameter remains unchanged. Moreover, fMRI studies demonstrated greater neural activity during short-term language learning, and the left putamen is considered more significant for the language learning process (Legault et al., 2018). There is also a connection between the types of learning experience and the structural changes of the putamen.
To sum up, language learning includes a significant variety of actions and processes controlled by different brain structures. ACC is mostly connected with conflict monitoring and reaction, IPL is responsible for memory and semantics, and IFG and the putamen influence the phonological understanding of the new language. The structural changes occurring in the brain are mainly connected with the increase in cortical thickness and gray matter volume, presented in Figure 1. These and other changes prove that while being responsible for separate tasks, these regions are interconnected and equally contribute to the process of learning.
Learning to Play Musical Instruments
Playing music is a complicated process that activates even more varied brain structures than in the case of learning languages. In the brain of a musician, strong associations are needed to connect movement and sound (Segado et al., 2018). Moreover, the process includes the work of memory and the ability to imagine music and interpret its visual representation. Recent discoveries showed that a musician’s performance strongly depends on how auditory areas are connected to motor regions of the brain, which implies the interconnection of all major structures involved (Segado et al., 2018). In order to fully understand the peculiarities of this process, it is necessary to consider these structures and functions separately.
Anterior Cingulate Cortex
Like in language learning, ACC plays an important role in musical training. The main function of this brain structure is to control coordination and the movements of hands (Segado et al., 2018). Movement control and the degree of synchronization may depend on the type of musical instrument. For example, playing a keyboard “requires the coordinated action of muscles, joints, limbs, and possibly body posture” (Segado et al., 2018, p. 12). As a result, the structural changes of the brain increase the control over limb movements, primarily hands, and facilitate other activities, such as typing.
The cerebellum is another brain area responsible for the movement and optimization of actions. The multisensory information that the cerebellum integrates activates sensorimotor functions and cognitive control. According to the discoveries of Bruchhage et al. (2020), there are certain changes happening to the cerebellum in non-musicians after learning how to play drums. Training in music “has been shown to increase posterior cerebellar volume and plastic changes in connected cortical regions such as parietal and frontal regions” (Bruchhage et al., 2020, p. 1). The research suggests that musical training positively affects cortical thickness and gray matter and lobule volume, as demonstrated in Figure 2.
Processing auditory information is necessary for perceiving and producing music. Auditory Cortex (AC) is the main brain region responsible for hearing and processing sounds. Being a part of the temporal lobe, AC identifies acoustic cues and transfers auditory signals to the frontal brain regions. Right and left ACs have different functions: the former contributes to processing spectral information, while the latter is more sensitive to acoustic changes (Segado et al., 2018). Therefore, learners with developed ACs are able to identify wide varieties of acoustic variations and demonstrate better performance in their further training.
Superior Frontal Gyrus
Memory is essential in the process of playing music, as learners have to remember long sequences of notes and sounds to produce music. Superior Frontal Gyrus (SFG) is an important brain region responsible for executive processing and working memory (Bruchhage et al., 2020). The proves for this function can be found in structural changes of the brain in people learning how to play drums.
According to Bruchhage et al. (2020), “in musicians, deconstructing and organizing a rhythm’s temporal structure relates to greater involvement of the prefrontal cortex mediating working memory” (p. 7). This means that when a learner attends to a motor sequence, activity in the prefrontal cortex increases.
There are certain functions of the brain that are not connected with producing sound. One of them refers to musical imagery, which means imagining music without hearing it (Zhang et al., 2017). This skill is especially important for musicians, as they have to deal with the visual representation of music – notes. MRI studies demonstrated that Wernicke’s area is a region characterized by increased activity during imagining music.
Besides music perception, Wernicke’s Area is also connected with language processing. Comparing music to language, Zhang et al. (2017) state that “the syntax in music refers to the principles of combining tones into chords, and chords into harmony,” like language is a combination of words and phrases (p. 7). As a result, language and music are processed in a partly similar way. Besides, recent findings suggest that music is processed and imagined by both hemispheres (Zhang et al., 2017). The role of Wernicke’s Area in musical training also includes the processing of timbre and other auditory features of the musical input.
The discussion demonstrated that learning to play musical instruments increases activity in various brain areas. As a result, people with developed sensorimotor, auditory, and cognitive brain structures succeed most in musical training. As the process requires synchronization of movements and sound, as well as memory and imagination, the interconnection of the corresponding brain areas positively influences a musician’s performance. Moreover, structural changes, such as an increase in white matter and gray matter volume and cortex thickness, result from musical training.
As it is possible to notice from the analysis of two learning tasks, different brain structures contribute to the process of acquiring new knowledge and skills. For example, the brain of language learners is characterized by increased activity in ACC, IPL, IFG, and the putamen. These brain regions activate learners’ memory and comprehension skills; they also control people’s reactions in unusual situations, for example, when it is necessary to switch to another language. As for music learners, ACC, the cerebellum, ARC, SFG, and Wernicke’s area are some of the regions that facilitate the process of learning. The main challenge that future musicians face is connected with the coordination of movements and sound, and the associated work of the structures mentioned above is a key to successful learning.
The knowledge about certain brain structures significantly contributes to the field of cognitive psychology. The information about different regions of the brain is necessary to facilitate the process of learning and to define how they interact with each other. Moreover, this knowledge may help identify brain dysfunctions or critical structural changes and understand particular behavioral and cognitive peculiarities of learning, which is essential for general psychology. Finally, learners themselves need to know that different brain regions are interconnected, and comprehensive development is needed for better performance in different learning experiences.
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