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The presence of asymmetry in the human cerebral hemispheres is detectable at both the macroscopic and microscopic scales. The horizontal expansion of cortical surface during development (within individual brains), and across evolutionary time (between species), is largely due to the proliferation and spacing of the microscopic vertical columns of cells that form the cortex. In the asymmetric planum temporale (PT), minicolumn width asymmetry is associated with surface area asymmetry. Although the human minicolumn asymmetry is not large, it is estimated to account for a surface area asymmetry of approximately 9% of the region's size. Critically, this asymmetry of minicolumns is absent in the equivalent areas of the brains of other apes. The left-hemisphere dominance for processing speech is thought to depend, partly, on a bias for higher resolution processing across widely spaced minicolumns with less overlapping dendritic fields, whereas dense minicolumn spacing in the right hemisphere is associated with more overlapping, lower resolution, holistic processing. This concept refines the simple notion that a larger brain area is associated with dominance for a function and offers an alternative explanation associated with "processing type." This account is mechanistic in the sense that it offers a mechanism whereby asymmetrical components of structure are related to specific functional biases yielding testable predictions, rather than the generalization that "bigger is better" for any given function. Face processing provides a test case - it is the opposite of language, being dominant in the right hemisphere. Consistent with the bias for holistic, configural processing of faces, the minicolumns in the right-hemisphere fusiform gyrus are thinner than in the left hemisphere, which is associated with featural processing. Again, this asymmetry is not found in chimpanzees. The difference between hemispheres may also be seen in terms of processing speed, facilitated by asymmetric myelination of white matter tracts (Anderson et al., 1999 found that axons of the left posterior superior temporal lobe were more thickly myelinated). By cross-referencing the differences between the active fields of the two hemispheres, via tracts such as the corpus callosum, the relationship of local features to global features may be encoded. The emergent hierarchy of features within features is a recursive structure that may functionally contribute to generativity - the ability to perceive and express layers of structure and their relations to each other. The inference is that recursive generativity, an essential component of language, reflects an interaction between processing biases that may be traceable in the microstructure of the cerebral cortex. Minicolumn organization in the PT and the prefrontal cortex has been found to correlate with cognitive scores in humans. Altered minicolumn organization is also observed in neuropsychiatric disorders including autism and schizophrenia. Indeed, altered interhemispheric connections correlated with minicolumn asymmetry in schizophrenia may relate to language-processing anomalies that occur in the disorder. Schizophrenia is associated with over-interpretation of word meaning at the semantic level and over-interpretation of relevance at the level of pragmatic competence, whereas autism is associated with overly literal interpretation of word meaning and under-interpretation of social relevance at the pragmatic level. Both appear to emerge from a disruption of the ability to interpret layers of meaning and their relations to each other. This may be a consequence of disequilibrium in the processing of local and global features related to disorganization of minicolumnar units of processing.

Original publication




Journal article


Front Psychol

Publication Date





asymmetry, autism, cytoarchitecture, face-processing, language, lateralization, minicolumn, schizophrenia