The Neural Basis of Recursion and Complex Syntactic Hierarchy

Angela Dorkas Friederici, Jörg Bahlmann, Roland Friedrich, Michiru Makuuchi


Language is a faculty specific to humans. It is characterized by hierarchical, recursive structures. The processing of hierarchically complex sentences is known to recruit Broca’s area. Comparisons across brain imaging studies investigating similar hierarchical structures in different domains revealed that complex hierarchical structures that mimic those of natural languages mainly activate Broca’s area, that is, left Brodmann area (BA) 44/45, whereas hierarchically structured mathematical formulae, moreover, strongly recruit more anteriorly located region BA 47. The present results call for a model of the prefrontal cortex assuming two systems of processing complex hierarchy: one system determined by cognitive control for which the posterior-to-anterior gradient applies active in the case of processing hierarchically structured mathematical formulae, and one system which is confined to the posterior parts of the prefrontal cortex processing complex syntactic hierarchies in language efficiently.


Broca’s area; hierarchy; recursion

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