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I am America’s Wernicke’s area

May 5, 2012

Two days ago in Forbes, contributor Jerry Bowyer wrote a piece entitled “I Am America’s Amygdala” in which Bowyer writes about brains and politics. The piece is written from the perspective of that part of the human brain that modern neuroscience believes largely responsible for fear and anxiety, the amygdala. Bowyer writes:

I am America’s amygdala. I reside in the temporal lobe of the human brain, near the hippocampus.

(sounds like Fight Club) – continuing:

I am in charge of America at the moment, and have been for some time.


I cannot tell the difference on my own between a physical fight and a non-physical one, nor between real dangers and perceived dangers: Grizzly bears, zombies, economic collapses, …

Then mentioning “Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, and father of the art of public relations” and continuing:

I tend to be subjected, at least in America, to cycles of hyper stimulation on the last year of every four year cycle.


I am not designed to be in charge for more than very short spans of time, but I nevertheless I have been.

This is a cute article but as this blog is about language I thought I would suggest we stop being the amygdala and try to be Wernicke’s area instead.

Something like:

I am America’s Wernicke’s area. I reside in that grey area known as cerebral cortex and usually mostly on the left side. I work to help understand language. Like when legislator’s draft laws. I haven’t been used in a while.

I sit at the Sylvian fissure between temporal lobe and parietal, at the back of Brodmann #22. I do complex language processing tasks with help from the whole temporal lobe and my friends in Broca’s area, located at Brodmann’s #44 & #45. Despite the complexity of our task, recent findings suggest that we use simple basic computational methods to accomplish it.

Neurons function as small on/off (0/1) switches that upon sufficient activation energy release neurotransmitters to signal other neurons which respond accordingly. Through patterns of neuronal activation, the neural network computes and controls all the body functions.

When the language systems break down (sometimes from brain lesions, a stroke, or other brain injuries), it can result in a class of disorders known as aphasia. Politically speaking, perhaps all of America has had a form of aphasia these past few years.

Voters seem to have expressive aphasia (also called Broca’s aphasia) which may cause agrammatism where the person cannot speak in grammatically correct patterns or other articulation issues where the person may seem to know what they want to say but is unable to get the words out.

Meanwhile politicians seem to have a form of receptive aphasia (also called Wernicke’s aphasia) which occurs where the person can speak articulately but is unable to understand the language presented to them. Similar symptoms can arise from encephalopathy, caused by deficiencies in vitamin B1 (thiamine), a result of chronic alcoholism (drunk politicians?). In that case the condition is called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and can also effect memory and cause patients to dislike sunlight and stay indoors (like vampires?).

When I and the other language areas of the brain are functioning, we can find and name differences that were not there before. I can contrast, distinguish, and label. But I can also find synonyms that bring two very different things together. I can compare, summarize and unify. So I do know the difference between bears, zombies and economic collapses but at the same time I can tell you about bearish markets and zombie economics.

Sigmund Freud, father of talk therapy, following the Gestalt psychology method of introspection, knew that language can provide a view into the mind. My choice of words reflects and associates to the entire human experience. We should not fear to go down the rabbit hole of language analysis. Now more than ever, America needs to examine the inconsistencies between our words and our actions.

The vibrancy of our democracy depends on our ability and willingness to communicate with each other. We are not reptiles. We have evolved higher brain functions that can override the fear functions. Let’s get back to a Democracy based on texts and dialogue and content analysis and debate. It’s not too difficult, just basic computation, and cooperation across a few separate areas.


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