The term “Wernicke’s area” refers to a section of the brain that is responsible for language comprehension. Named after the scientist who pinpointed it, this area is located in the left cerebral hemisphere. Damage to Wernicke’s area is closely associated with confused, yet fluent speech patterns known as Wernicke’s aphasia.
Wernicke’s area in the brain was identified in the late 19th century by Carl Wernicke, a German neurologist. The area’s position, which is traditionally considered to be in the temporal lobe of the left cerebral hemisphere, or the posterior section of the left half of the brain, means it is closely located to the brain’s auditory center. Interestingly, while this description of the location of Wernicke’s area is correct for the vast majority of the human population, approximately 10% of people do not use the left hemisphere of their brains for language, but use the right side instead.
The area of the brain described as Wernicke’s area is closely associated with the comprehension of both written language and speech. Carl Wernicke was able to determine this by studying the nature and location of brain injuries that disrupted normal language comprehension. He was able to determine that this particular area of the brain seemed to be responsible for deciphering the speech of others as well as producing coherent language.
The function of Wernicke’s area is best illustrated by considering examples where it is not working properly. Patients who have sustained damage to Wernicke’s area suffer from a condition generally known as Wernicke’s aphasia, also called receptive aphasia. People who are suffering from this condition usually show little evidence of being able to understand the speech of people around them. Additionally, they often have difficulty pinpointing the correct names of specific objects, instead suggesting words that sound similar to the intended phrase or replacing the object’s name with that of a related object.
Perhaps the most indicative symptom of Wernicke’s aphasia, and that which most accurately depicts the function of Wernicke’s area, is the way in which affected patients attempt to communicate. People with injuries to Wernicke’s area speak in sentences that are grammatically correct but verbally nonsensical. For example, the patient will most likely speak with the normal flow and fluency of correct language, but will use words that are either out of place, irrelevant, or possibly made up. This impairment of speech confirms that Wernicke’s area is responsible for a normal ability to comprehend language.