Thibault et al. show that tool use and language share syntactic processes. Functional magnetic resonance imaging reveals that tool use and syntax in language elicit similar patterns of brain activation within the basal ganglia. This indicates common neural resources for the two abilities. Indeed, learning transfer occurs across the two domains: Tool-use motor training improves syntactic processing in language and, reciprocally, linguistic training with syntactic structures improves tool use. Here is their entire structured abstract:
Tool use is a hallmark of human evolution. Beyond its sensorimotor components, the complexity of which has been extensively investigated, tool use affects cognition from a different perspective. Indeed, tool use requires integrating an external object as a body part and embedding its functional structure in the motor program. This adds a hierarchical level into the motor plan of manual actions, subtly modifying the relationship between interdependent subcomponents. Embedded structures also exist in language, and syntax is the cognitive function handling these linguistic hierarchies. One example is center-embedded object-relative clauses: “The poet [that the scientist admires] reads the paper.” Accordingly, researchers have advanced a role for syntax in action and the existence of similarities between the processes underlying tool use and language, so that shared neural resources for a common cognitive function could be at stake.RATIONALE
We first tested the existence of shared neural substrates for tool use and syntax in language. Second, we tested the prediction that training one ability should affect performance in the other. In a first experiment, we measured participants’ brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging during tool use or, as a control, manual actions. In separate runs, the same participants performed a linguistic task on complex syntactic structures. We looked for common activations between tool use and the linguistic task, predicting similar patterns of activity if they rely on common neural resources. In further behavioral experiments, we tested whether motor training with the tool selectively improves syntactic performance in language and if syntactic training in language, in turn, selectively improves motor performance with the tool.RESULTS
Tool-use planning and complex syntax processing (i.e., object relatives) elicited neural activity anatomically colocalized within the basal ganglia. A control experiment ruled out verbal working memory and manual (i.e., without a tool) control processes as an underlying component of this overlap. Multivariate analyses revealed similar spatial distributions of neural patterns prompted by tool-use planning and object-relative processing. This agrees with the recruitment of the same neural resources by both abilities and with the existence of a supramodal syntactic function. The shared neurofunctional resources were moreover reflected behaviorally by cross-domain learning transfer. Indeed, tool-use training significantly improved linguistic performance with complex syntactic structures. No learning transfer was observed on language syntactic abilities if participants trained without the tool. The reverse was also true: Syntactic training with complex sentences improved motor performance with the tool more than motor performance in a task without the tool and matched for sensorimotor difficulty. No learning transfer was observed on tool use if participants trained with simpler syntactic structures in language.CONCLUSION
These findings reveal the existence of a supramodal syntactic function that is shared between language and motor processes. As a consequence, training tool-use abilities improves linguistic syntax and, reciprocally, training linguistic syntax abilities improves tool use. The neural mechanisms allowing for boosting performance in one domain by training syntax in the other may involve priming processes through preactivation of common neural resources, as well as short-term plasticity within the shared network. Our findings point to the basal ganglia as the neural site of supramodal syntax that handles embedded structures in either domain and also support longstanding theories of the coevolution of tool use and language in humans.