American Sign Language, or even simple gestures are processed by deaf people in the part of the brain that is used for spoken language, according to a recent international research study headed up by a neuroscientist from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Aaron Newman, Associate Professor with the university’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, and collaborators Ted Supalla and Elissa Newport from Georgetown University, student Nina Fernandez, and Daphne Bavelier from the Universities of Geneva and Rochester, were able to show those who are congenitally deaf process signs and gestures in the left hemisphere of the brain. Those test subjects who were not deaf and not users of sign language processed the information in the portion of the brain used to process human movement. “It is a basic science study, with no immediate implications for people in the area of health,” Newman said in an interview.

However, it does give credence and stature to the importance of American Sign Language and supports the idea that it is a language. “There is research going back to the ’60s showing that ASL is not universally appreciated, and it touches on issues concerning the idea it is not a language,” Newman said. Since most people typically think of sound when language is employed or view language as something that can be written down, there has been some argument from some individuals suggesting sign language is not an actual language.

“Sign language uses space (as opposed to sound or writing), and it looks like a gesture but behaves like a language. Brains really can adapt to different forms of expression and still impose rules,” Newman said. “This research confirms sign language is treated by the brain as a language.” The study, which employed 19 deaf and 19 hearing subjects, is further proof of the adaptability of the brain. “Brains are so adaptable, as soon as something looks like a language, the brain uses it that way,” Newman said.

The research results have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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