Language and thought are not the same thing: evidence from neuroimaging and neurological patients

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016 Apr;1369(1):132-53. doi: 10.1111/nyas.13046. Epub 2016 Apr 20.


Is thought possible without language? Individuals with global aphasia, who have almost no ability to understand or produce language, provide a powerful opportunity to find out. Surprisingly, despite their near-total loss of language, these individuals are nonetheless able to add and subtract, solve logic problems, think about another person's thoughts, appreciate music, and successfully navigate their environments. Further, neuroimaging studies show that healthy adults strongly engage the brain's language areas when they understand a sentence, but not when they perform other nonlinguistic tasks such as arithmetic, storing information in working memory, inhibiting prepotent responses, or listening to music. Together, these two complementary lines of evidence provide a clear answer: many aspects of thought engage distinct brain regions from, and do not depend on, language.

Keywords: aphasia; cognitive control; executive functions; fMRI; functional specificity; language; music; navigation; neuropsychology; numerical cognition; semantics; syntax; theory of mind.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aphasia / diagnostic imaging*
  • Aphasia / physiopathology
  • Aphasia / psychology
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Thinking / physiology*