Brain’s Language Secrets Revealed in Groundbreaking New Investigations into Speech Processing

An investigation into how humans process speech is revealing new deep insights into what happens in our brains when we use language in our daily communication with others.

The research relied on functional magnetic resonance imaging to help reveal new insights into the brain activity of individuals engaging in both listening and speaking during ordinary conversation.

The findings present new insights into how the processes behind speaking and listening are similar but also function differently to optimize how our brains process language and social cues while we converse with others.

While conversation is something that most of us engage in daily, we seldom think about what is happening in our brains while we communicate with others. Verbal speech, combined with a range of other social and cognitive skills humans develop throughout our lives are employed as we seamlessly move between speech and listening.

One of the remaining mysteries about how our brains process language has to do with what regions of the brain are utilized in various modes of communication. In past research, experiments primarily offered a one-sided view of what happens when a person speaks or listens.

Now, a study by researchers with Stockholm University and KTH Royal Institute of Technology went deeper by comparing these separate brain functions in the context of real conversation for the first time.

In their study, the team relied on publicly available data derived from participants who engaged in natural conversations while being monitored in a magnetic resonance scanner, allowing their brain activity to be measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

This revealed significant differences in the way regions in the participant’s brains, which researchers often call the “language network,” reacted under conditions of both listening and speaking. While some regions became more active while speaking, different regions of the brain became more engaged while listening to an experimenter each of the participants spoke with while being monitored.

The different regions of the brain that were utilized seems to point to different language processes behind the two activities, as opposed to the use of a singular network of brain functions during communication.

Additionally, the study appeared to show that when participants spoke, regions of their brains that are associated with social processing were engaged more than when they were listening to the experimenter speaking. The research team says this could point to the fact that there is greater demand on the processes underlying how an individual thinks about what an individual is saying, as well as committing these views to memory, while also preparing a response.

Caroline Arvidsson, a Ph.D. student at the Department of Linguistics at Stockholm University who was involved with the research, says this complex process is likely associated with the developmental stages we undergo during adolescence.

Julia Uddén, an associate professor in the university’s Department of Psychology, says that in addition to current tests, the researchers are conducting that may provide a better understanding of the brain’s development for conversation in adolescents with ADHD, the team hopes their ongoing research will expand our knowledge of related to other neurodevelopmental conditions.

“We are building on research that may lead to a deeper understanding of diagnoses such as Autism and ADHD,” Uddén said in a statement.

The team’s experimental study, “Conversational production and comprehension: fMRI-evidence reminiscent of but deviant from the classical Broca-Wernicke model,” was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

Micah Hanks is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of The Debrief. He can be reached by email at Follow his work at and on X: @MicahHanks.