The brain is both highly specialised and remarkably neuroplastic. This duality constantly astonishes me. How can neurones both specialise in terms of arrangement whilst also adapt their structural functioning to external stimuli ? Is there a ‘master control’ plan or a ‘central executive planner ?
The extent of neuroplasticity is becoming increasingly clear and impressive (e.g. see Norman Doidge: The Brain that changes itself). Further, the extent of specialised localisation of function is also becoming clear (for example see Miller & Cummings 2007).
Both localisation and plasticity are beautifully illustrated by a study of the whistling shepherds of La Gomera (Canary Islands) by Corina and Carreiras (2005). They studied the fascinating shepherds who communicate by whistling spanish vowels across long distances, this is a language known as Silbo. The psychologists then studied whistling Gomerans and non-whistling Gomerans in a fMRI scanner. They played the participants tapes of the whistled language. They found that the temporal regions of the left hemisphere were activated in ‘whistlers’, and not activated in non-whistlers when listening to the tapes. It is the left temporal regions which deal with speech functionality, thus showing that the whistles have the same neuro-cognitive function as speech.
This research demonstrates the specialisation of the brain whilst also showing that language learning is, in itself an essentially neuroplastic process.