Talk to the Virtual Hands

A new paper in PlosOne has used new fancy research methods to look at whether humans are more capable of describing a word using just spoken communication, or whether the use of gesture also helps. This research is pertinent to the field of language evolution because it might help us understand if spoken language co-evolved with gesture as well as helping us understand how language is processed in the brain.

This new study builds on previous research in this area by using avatars in a virtual reality setting. Participants were either in control of the movements of their avatar, or not.

The study found that participants were much more successful in communicating concepts when the speaker was able to use their own gestures when explaining a concept using spoken language. The body language of the listener also impacted success at the task, showing the need for nonverbal feedback from the listener.

It’s worth noting that the primary purpose of this research wasn’t to find if gesture is helpful in communication (though that is certainly interesting and worthwhile) but rather whether using virtual reality is fruitful in these kinds of experiments.

The press release discusses some of the problems with using avatars:

The researchers note that there are limitations to nonverbal communication in virtual reality environments. First, they found that participants move much less in a virtual environment than they do in the “real world.” They also found that the perspective of the camera in the virtual environment affected the results.

Lead author, Dr. Trevor Dodds maintains, “this research demonstrates that virtual reality technology can help us gain a greater understanding of the role of body gestures in communication. We show that body gestures carry extra information when communicating the meaning of words. Additionally, with virtual reality technology we have learned that body gestures from both the speaker and listener contribute to the successful communication of the meaning of words.  These findings are also important for the development of virtual environments, with applications including medical training, urban planning, entertainment and telecommunication.”

The work was led by Dr. Trevor Dodds at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany.

 Dodds TJ, Mohler BJ, Bu¨ lthoff HH (2011) Talk to the Virtual Hands: Self-Animated Avatars Improve Communication in Head-Mounted Display Virtual Environments. PLoS ONE 6(10): e25759. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025759

New Book. New Ideas?

A new book is to be published on May the 24th. By John F. Hoffecker the book is entitled “Landscape of the Mind: Human Evolution and the Archaeology of Thought” – it aims to look at the emergence of human thought and language through archaeological evidence

Archeologists often struggle to find fossil evidence pertaining to the evolution of the brain. Thoughts are a hard thing to fossilize. However, John Hoffecker claims that this is not the case and fossils and archaeological evidence for the evolution of the human mind are abundant.

Hoffecker has developed a concept which he calls the “super-brain” which he hypothesises emerged in Africa some 75,000 years ago. He claims that human’s ability to share thoughts between individuals is analogous to the abilities of honey bees who are able to communicate the location of food both in terms of distance and direction. They do this using a waggle-dance. Humans are able to share thoughts between brains using communicative methods, the most obvious of these being language.

Fossil evidence for the emergence of speech is thin on the ground and, where it does exist, is quite controversial. However, symbols emerging in the archaeological record coincides with an increase in evidence of creativity being displayed in many artifacts from the same time. Creative, artistic designs scratched on mineral pigment show up in Africa about 75,000 years ago and are thought to be evidence for symbolism and language

Hoffecker also hypothesises that his concept of the super-brain is likely to be connected to things like bipedalism and tool making. He claims that it was tool making which helped early humans first develop the ability to represent complex thoughts to others.

He claims that tools were a consequence of bipedalism as this freed up the hands to make and use tools. Hoffecker pin points his “super-brain” as beginning to emerge 1.6 million years ago when the first hand axes began to appear in the fossil record. This is because hand axes are thought to be an external realisation of human thought as they bear little resemblance to the natural objects they were made from.

By 75,00 years ago humans were producing perforated shell ornaments, polished bone awls and simple geometric designs incised into lumps of red ochre.

Humans are known to have emerged from Africa between 60,00 to 50,000 years ago based on archeological evidence. Hoeffecker hypothesises that – “Since all languages have basically the same structure, it is inconceivable to me that they could have evolved independently at different times and places.”

Hoeffecker also lead a study in 2007 that discovered a carved piece of mammoth ivory that appears to be the head of a small figurine dating to more than 40,000 years ago. This is claimed to be the oldest piece of figurative art ever discovered. Finds like this illustrate the creative mind of humans as they spread out of Africa.

Figurative art and musical instruments which date back to before 30,000 years ago have also been discovered in caves in France and Germany.

This looks to be nothing new but archaeological evidence is something which a lot of people interested in language evolution do not often discuss. I also don’t really know what to think of Hoeffecker’s claim that “all languages basically have the same structure”. What do you think?

There's definitely something wrong with your model when Serbia are finalists

I came across this rather amusing model for predicting football results using mostly economic data (click on image for full screen):

Now, we all know Brazil aren’t going to win the world cup, but most of us would’ve predicted they’d fare quite well, and possibly win it (my own failed prediction was with Argentina). What’s dubious about the algorithm their using is it predicted Serbia to be finalists! How the hell did they arrive at that conclusion? Well, to give you an indication they do discuss some of the factors included in the model. I’ll definitely be coming back to this when I’ve got a spare moment… They did, however, predict Germany would face, and subsequently knock out, England in the last 16.