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Journal Article

Hierarchy processing in human neurobiology: How specific is it?


Friederici,  Angela D.
Department Neuropsychology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Friederici, A. D. (2020). Hierarchy processing in human neurobiology: How specific is it? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 375(1789): 20180391. doi:10.1098/rstb.2018.0391.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0004-DD1F-2
Although human and non-human animals share a number of perceptual and cognitive abilities, they differ in their ability to process hierarchically structured sequences. This becomes most evident in the human capacity to process natural language characterized by structural hierarchies. This capacity is neuroanatomically grounded in the posterior part of left Broca's area (Brodmann area (BA) 44), located in the inferior frontal gyrus, and its dorsal white matter fibre connection to the temporal cortex. Within this neural network, BA 44 itself subserves hierarchy building and the strength of its connection to the temporal cortex correlates with the processing of syntactically complex sentences. Whether these brain structures are also relevant for other human cognitive abilities is a current debate. Here, this question will be evaluated with respect to those human cognitive abilities that are assumed to require hierarchy building, such as music, mathematics and Theory of Mind. Rather than supporting a domain-general view, the data indicate domain-selective neural networks as the neurobiological basis for processing hierarchy in different cognitive domains. Recent cross-species white matter comparisons suggest that particular connections within the networks may make the crucial difference in the brain structure of human and non-human primates, thereby enabling cognitive functions specific to humans.