Dorsal and ventral streams: A framework for understanding aspects of the functional anatomy of language

Gregory Hickok, David Poeppel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite intensive work on language-brain relations, and a fairly impressive accumulation of knowledge over the last several decades, there has been little progress in developing large-scale models of the functional anatomy of language that integrate neuropsychological, neuroimaging, and psycholinguistic data. Drawing on relatively recent developments in the cortical organization of vision, and on data from a variety of sources, we propose a new framework for understanding aspects of the functional anatomy of language which moves towards remedying this situation. The framework posits that early cortical stages of speech perception involve auditory fields in the superior temporal gyrus bilaterally (although asymmetrically). This cortical processing system then diverges into two broad processing streams, a ventral stream, which is involved in mapping sound onto meaning, and a dorsal stream, which is involved in mapping sound onto articulatory-based representations. The ventral stream projects ventro-laterally toward inferior posterior temporal cortex (posterior middle temporal gyrus) which serves as an interface between sound-based representations of speech in the superior temporal gyrus (again bilaterally) and widely distributed conceptual representations. The dorsal stream projects dorso-posteriorly involving a region in the posterior Sylvian fissure at the parietal-temporal boundary (area Spt), and ultimately projecting to frontal regions. This network provides a mechanism for the development and maintenance of "parity" between auditory and motor representations of speech. Although the proposed dorsal stream represents a very tight connection between processes involved in speech perception and speech production, it does not appear to be a critical component of the speech perception process under normal (ecologically natural) listening conditions, that is, when speech input is mapped onto a conceptual representation. We also propose some degree of bi-directionality in both the dorsal and ventral pathways. We discuss some recent empirical tests of this framework that utilize a range of methods. We also show how damage to different components of this framework can account for the major symptom clusters of the fluent aphasias, and discuss some recent evidence concerning how sentence-level processing might be integrated into the framework.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)67-99
Number of pages33
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - 2004


  • Aphasia
  • Dorsal and ventral streams
  • Functional anatomy
  • Language
  • Speech perception
  • Speech production

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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