Cognitive Benefit of Lifelong Bilingualism

Jan. 5, 2013 — Seniors who have spoken two languages since childhood are faster than single-language speakers at switching from one task to another, according to a study published in the January 9 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. Compared to their monolingual peers, lifelong bilinguals also show different patterns of brain activity when making the switch, the study found.


The findings suggest the value of regular stimulating mental activity across the lifetime. As people age, cognitive flexibility — the ability to adapt to unfamiliar or unexpected circumstances — and related “executive” functions decline. Recent studies suggest lifelong bilingualism may reduce this decline — a boost that may stem from the experience of constantly switching between languages. However, how brain activity differs between older bilinguals and monolinguals was previously unclear.

In the current study, Brian T. Gold, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain activity of healthy bilingual seniors (ages 60-68) with that of healthy monolingual seniors as they completed a task that tested their cognitive flexibility. The researchers found that both groups performed the task accurately. However, bilingual seniors were faster at completing the task than their monolingual peers despite expending less energy in the frontal cortex — an area known to be involved in task switching.

“This study provides some of the first evidence of an association between a particular cognitively stimulating activity — in this case, speaking multiple languages on a daily basis — and brain function,” said John L. Woodard, PhD, an aging expert from Wayne State University, who was not involved with the study. “The authors provide clear evidence of a different pattern of neural functioning in bilingual versus monolingual individuals.”

The researchers also measured the brain activity of younger bilingual and monolingual adults while they performed the cognitive flexibility task.

Overall, the young adults were faster than the seniors at performing the task. Being bilingual did not affect task performance or brain activity in the young participants. In contrast, older bilinguals performed the task faster than their monolingual peers and expended less energy in the frontal parts of their brain.

“This suggests that bilingual seniors use their brains more efficiently than monolingual seniors,” Gold said. “Together, these results suggest that lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging.”

This research was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

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Society for Neuroscience (SfN) (2013, January 5). Cognitive benefit of lifelong bilingualism.ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 12, 2013, from

When Rules Change, Brain Falters

ScienceDaily (July 30, 2012) — For the human brain, learning a new task when rules change can be a surprisingly difficult process marred by repeated mistakes, according to a new study by Michigan State University psychology researchers.

A cap worn by subjects in a Michigan State University experiment picks up EEG signals at the scalp; the signals are then transmitted via optical cable to a computer where the data is stored for analysis. (Credit: Photo by G.L. Kohuth)

Imagine traveling to Ireland and suddenly having to drive on the left side of the road. The brain, trained for right-side driving, becomes overburdened trying to suppress the old rules while simultaneously focusing on the new rules, said Hans Schroder, primary researcher on the study.

“There’s so much conflict in your brain,” said Schroder, “that when you make a mistake like forgetting to turn on your blinker you don’t even realize it and make the same mistake again. What you learned initially is hard to overcome when rules change.”

The study, in the research journal Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, is one of the first to show how the brain responds to mistakes that occur after rules change.

Study participants were given a computer task that involved recognizing the middle letter in strings such as “NNMNN” or “MMNMM.” If “M” was in the middle, they were to press the left button; if “N” was in the middle, they were to press the right. After 50 trials, the rules were reversed so the participants had to press the right button if “M” was in the middle and the left if “N” was in the middle.

Participants made more repeated errors when the rules were reversed, meaning they weren’t learning from their mistakes. In addition, a cap measuring brain activity showed they were less aware of their errors. When participants did respond correctly after the rules changed, their brain activity showed they had to work harder than when they were given the first set of rules.

“We expected they were going to get better at the task over time,” said Schroder, a graduate student in MSU’s Department of Psychology. “But after the rules changed they were slower and less accurate throughout the task and couldn’t seem to get the hang of it.”

Continually making these mistakes in the work environment can lead to frustration, exhaustion and even anxiety and depression, said Jason Moser, assistant professor of psychology and director of MSU’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab.

“These findings and our past research suggest that when you have multiple things to juggle in your mind — essentially, when you are multitasking — you are more likely to mess up,” Moser said. “It takes effort and practice for you to be more aware of the mistakes you are missing and stay focused.”

In addition to Schroder and Moser, co-researchers include Erik Altmann, associate professor of psychology, and master’s student Tim Moran.



Journal Reference:

  1. Hans S. Schroder, Tim P. Moran, Jason S. Moser, Erik M. Altmann. When the rules are reversed: Action-monitoring consequences of reversing stimulus–response mappings. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 2012; DOI: 10.3758/s13415-012-0105-y


Michigan State University (2012, July 30). When rules change, brain falters. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 1, 2012, from­ /releases/2012/07/120730124239.htm