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Does Tool-Use Improve Language Skills?

By: Inas Essa


The brain functions in a complex way, which neuroscientists have been exploring over years. Previous studies suggested that the brain areas that control language functions, such as processing words meanings, are also involved in the control of fine motor skills, which involve the small muscles of the body that enable functions such as writing, grasping small objects, etc.

The new study aimed to know whether the use of tools engages parts of the brain similar to those mobilized when we are thinking about the construction of sentences; the findings have shown that this is indeed the case.



Shared Neural Resources

Across a series of experiments, researchers invited 244 participants to perform tests consisting of motor training and exercises involving syntax—the ability to correctly structure words into a sentence. Through the experiments, researchers used brain imaging techniques (fMRI) to identify the brain networks activated during each task.

In the first experiment, the researchers conducted a motor training in which they asked participants to insert small pegs into different holes using mechanical pliers. In the syntax exercise, participants were shown sentences like “The scientist who admires the poet writes an article” or similar sentences with a more complex structure like “The scientist whom the poet admires writes an article”. After that, the participants had to judge statements such as “The poet admires the scientist” as true or false.

The researchers observed that the motor training and the syntactic exercises activated common areas in the brain in similar ways. The results, published in Science, showed that these two skills engage the same region of the brain, and that motor training with a tool improved the ability to understand the syntax of complex sentences and vice versa.



A Step Further

The researchers continued their study trying to identify whether it is possible if training in one activity, tool use, or comprehension of a complex sentence improves the other.

So, in the second part of our study, they designed an experiment that required a new sample of participants to complete a syntactic comprehension task before and after a 30-minute motor training with the pliers.

Results of the second experiment confirmed a positive interaction. After the motor training, participants performed better with sentences comprehension considered more difficult compared to before motor training. Compared to other control groups that did not receive any motor training between the syntax activities, results showed that none of these groups showed a significant improvement in the language task.



Future Applications

The new study has offered new insights on how language mobilizes brain networks, not only dedicated to linguistic processing. As the new research findings highlight a bidirectional behavioral enhancement of tool-use and syntactic skills in language, researchers are considering how that could be applied clinically, for example, supporting the development of language skills in some patients with relatively well-preserved motor skills, such as young people with developmental language disorders.