Study Notes

Biopsychology: Evaluating Localisation of Function

A Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Here are some key evaluation points relating to localisation of function.

The claim that functions are localised to certain areas of the brain has been criticised. Lashley proposed the equipotentiality theory, which suggests that the basic motor and sensory functions are localised, but that higher mental functions are not. He claimed that intact areas of the cortex could take over responsibility for specific cognitive functions following brain injury. This therefore casts doubt on theories about the localisation of functions, suggesting that functions are not localised to just one region, as other regions can take over specific functions following brain injury. 

There is a wealth of case studies on patients with damage to Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas that have demonstrated their functions. For example, Broca’s aphasia is an impaired ability to produce language; in most cases, this is caused by brain damage in Broca’s area. Wernicke’s aphasia is an impairment of language perception, demonstrating the important role played by this brain region in the comprehension of language.

However, although there is evidence from case studies to support the function of the Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, more recent research has provided contradictory evidence. Dronkers et al. (2007) conducted an MRI scan on Tan’s brain, to try to confirm Broca’s findings. Although there was a lesion found in Broca’s area, they also found evidence to suggest other areas may have contributed to the failure in speech production. These results suggest that the Broca’s area may not be the only region responsible for speech production and the deficits found in patients with Broca’s aphasia could be the result of damage to other neighbouring regions.

Furthermore, psychologists suggest that it is more important to investigate how the brain areas communicate with each other, rather than focusing on specific brain regions. Wernicke claimed that although the different areas of the brain are independent, they must interact with each other in order to function. An example to demonstrate this is a man who lost his ability to read, following damage to the connection between the visual cortex and the Wernicke’s area, which was reported by Dejerine. This suggests that interactions between different areas produce complex behaviours such as language. Therefore, damage to the connection between any two points can result in impairments that resemble damage to the localised brain region associated with that specific function. This reduces the credibility of the localisation theory.

Also, critics argue that theories of localisation are biologically reductionist in nature and try to reduce very complex human behaviours and cognitive processes to one specific brain region. Such critics suggest that a more thorough understanding of the brain is required to truly understand complex cognitive processes like language.  

Finally, some psychologists argue that the idea of localisation fails to take into account individual differences. Herasty (1997) found that women have proportionally larger Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas than men, which can perhaps explain the greater ease of language use amongst women. This, however, suggests a level of beta bias in the theory: the differences between men and woman are ignored, and variations in the pattern of activation and the size of areas observed during various language activities are not considered. 

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