Tag Archives: memory

Cultural Evolution and the Impending Singularity

Prof. Alfred Hubler is an actual mad professor who is a danger to life as we know it.  In a talk this evening he went from ball bearings in castor oil to hyper-advanced machine intelligence and from some bits of string to the boundary conditions of the universe.  Hubler suggests that he is building a hyper-intelligent computer.  However, will hyper-intelligent machines actually give us a better scientific understanding of the universe, or will they just spend their time playing Tetris?

Let him take you on a journey…

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Musings of a Palaeolinguist

Hannah recently directed me towards a new language evolution blog: Musings of a Palaeolinguist. From my reading of the blog, the general flavour seems to be focused on gradualist and abruptist accounts of language evolution. Here is a section from one of her posts, Evolution of Language and the evolution of syntax: Same debate, same solution?, which also touches on the protolanguage concept:

In my thesis, I went through a literature review of gradual and abruptist arguments for language evolution, and posited an intermediate stage of syntactic complexity where a language might have only one level of embedding in its grammar.  It’s a shaky and underdeveloped example of an intermediate stage of language, and requires a lot of exploration; but my reason for positing it in the first place is that I think we need to think of the evolution of syntax the way many researchers are seeing the evolution of language as a whole, not as a monolithic thing that evolved in one fell swoop as a consequence of a genetic mutation, but as a series of steps in increasing complexity.

Derek Bickerton, one of my favourite authors of evolutionary linguistics material, has written a number of excellent books and papers on the subject.  But he also argues that language likely experienced a jump from a syntax-less protolanguage to a fully modern version of complex syntax seen in languages today.  To me that seems unintuitive.  Children learn syntax in steps, and non-human species seem to only be able to grasp simple syntax.  Does this not suggest that it’s possible to have a stable stage of intermediate syntax?

I’ve generally avoided writing about these early stages of language, largely because I had little useful to say on the topic, but I’ve now got some semi-developed thoughts that I’ll share in another post. In regards to the above quote, I do agree with the author’s assertion of there being an intermediate stage, rather than Bickerton’s proposed jump. In fact, we see languages today (polysynthetic) where there are limitations on the level of embedding, with one example being Bininj Gun-wok. We can also stretch the discussion to look at recursion in languages, as Evans and Levinson (2009) demonstrate:

In discussions of the infinitude of language, it is normally assumed that once the possibility of embedding to one level has been demonstrated, iterated recursion can then go on to generate an infinite number of levels, subject only to memory limitations. And it was arguments from the need to generate an indefinite number of embeddings that were crucial in demonstrating the inadequacy of finite state grammars. But, as Kayardild shows, the step from one-level recursion to unbounded recursion cannot be assumed, and once recursion is quarantined to one level of nesting it is always possible to use a more limited type of grammar, such as finite state grammar, to generate it.

Under the Influence: An overview of recent insights into the CNTNAP2 gene

In my last post I outlined a number of experimental studies using the Zebra Finch that have highlighted an additional dimension to the FoxP2 gene – not only is it upregulated in the avian brain throughout song development, but it is also downregulated in important song nuclei of adult birds in singing contexts that seem to involve ‘listening to one’s own song’ and subsequent error correction.  Given that the pattern of expression of this gene is very similar in the developing brain of both humans and birds, one conclusion that has been drawn from this research is that FOXP2 downregulation may equivocally serve to facilitate online language processing function in the adult human brain.

General background on an intriguing new celebrity

Naturally, the next step has been to try and identify the downstream genes regulated by FOXP2 in order to build up a more detailed picture of how interactions between complex genetic networks influence key language-related disorders in humans.   It is as a result of such efforts that another gene, although discovered almost a decade ago, has found its way into the spotlight: CNTNAP2.

In the developing human brain, CNTNAP2 is enriched in functionally specialised regions such as the frontal cortex, the stratium, and the dorsal thalamus (circuits within these regions are referred to as cortico-striato-thalmic circuits) central to executive function, planning and executing complex sequential movements, and thus potentially, language.  This presents a striking contrast to the more uniform expression of Cntnap2 observed in the developing rodent brain where there is no evidence for enrichment in specific regions, suggesting a functional difference in the human version that could be related to vocal learning and modification.

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Alcohol Consumption affects Morphological Complexity

I previously talked about how changes in the demography of learners can affect the cultural evolution of a language.  The hypothesis is that language adapts to the balance between declarative and procedural memory users.  Since alcohol consumption affects procedural but not declarative memory (Smith & Smith, 2003), we might expect to see communities that have a high alcohol consumption using less complex morphology.

I find that communities that have a morphologically marked future tense have significantly higher alcohol consumption than communities that have a lexically marked future tense (Alcohol consumption data from WHO, language structure data from World atlas of language structures, 198 languages, t = 14.8, p<0.0001).  This statistic does not take into account many factors, but is meant as a motivation for further research into language structure and social structure.

Smith C, & Smith D (2003). Ingestion of ethanol just prior to sleep onset impairs memory for procedural but not declarative tasks. Sleep, 26 (2), 185-91 PMID: 12683478

Memory, Social Structure and Language: Why Siestas affect Morphological Complexity

Children are better than adults at learning second languages.  Children find it easy, can do it implicitly and achieve a native-like competence.  However, as we get older we find learning a new language difficult, we need explicit teaching and find some aspects difficult to master such as grammar and pronunciation.  What is the reason for this?  The foremost theories suggest it is linked to memory constraints (Paradis, 2004; Ullman, 2005).  Children find it easy to incorporate knowledge into procedural memory – memory that encodes procedures and motor skills and has been linked to grammar, morphology and pronunciation.  Procedural memory atrophies in adults, but they develop good declarative memory – memory that stores facts and is used for retrieving lexical items.  This seems to explain the difference between adults and children in second language learning.  However, this is a proximate explanation.  What about the ultimate explanation about why languages are like this?

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Language, Thought, and Space (II): Universals and Variation

Spatial orientation is crucial when we try to navigate the world around us. It is a fundamental domain of human experience and depends on a wide array of cognitive capacities and integrated neural subsystems. What is most important for spatial cognition however, are the frames of references we use to locate and classify ourselves, others, objects, and events.

Often, we define a landmark (say ourselves, or a tree, or the telly) and then define an object’s location in relation to this landmark (the mouse is to my right, the bike lies left of the tree, my keys have fallen behind the telly). But as it turns out, many languages are not able to express a coordinate system with the meaning of the English expression “left of.” Instead, they employ a compass-like system of orientation.

They do not use a relative frame of reference, like in the English “the cat is behind the truck” but instead use an absolute frame of reference that can be illustrated in English by sentences such as “the cat is north of the truck.” (Levinson 2003: 3). This may seem exotic for us, but for many languages it is the dominant – although often not the only – way of locating things in space.

What cognitive consequences follow from this?

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Evolution of Colour Terms: 9 Niche Construction

In a series of posts, I’ve been discussing constraints on the evolution of colour terms. For the full dissertation and references, go here.

This section reiterates how a link between linguistic categories and perception fits into Niche Construction Theory.  If concepts can influence perception, and people share the same concepts, their perceptions will become synchronised.  This would render them more effective at communication, since referents would be perceived as similar (‘red’ can refer to the same domain of entities for each individual).  Furthermore, it may render them more able to co-operatively build a better model of the actual environment (for instance, describing an unseen danger, or researching physics).  However, this will only be true if language is grounded in constraints that come from the actual environment.  If this were not the case, apart from being inefficient at describing the actual environment, a language may drift to influence the perceived environment in a way that results in a worse fit with the actual environment.

Returning to the constraints diagram (above), note that the influence of categorisation continues, through action, to change the environment.  In other words, if language influences the perceived environment and facilitates communication, then it may also facilitate the way we change the actual environment.  In this sense, language’s influence on perception can be regarded as a form of Niche Construction (Laland, Odling-Smee & Feldman, 2000).  Therefore, not only does language become better at describing the actual environment, but the environment becomes better suited to being described by language.  This creates a better fit between perceived and actual environments and possibly increases the fitness of language users.  Essentially, then, this study presents evidence for language-specific niche construction where language can influence the environment.  This dynamic would be a consequence of an Embodied system, and more efficient as part of an Embodied system than a Symbolist account.  I therefore argue that the Embodied account is supported.

As an example of this dynamic, Hansen et al. (2006) showed that perception is affected by semantic knowledge, specifically that achromatic bananas look yellow.  However, bananas are domesticated (Heslop-Harrison & Schwarzacher, 2007).  The link between a banana’s structure and colour, therefore, is a constructed niche – cultivators fertilise the ‘best’ bananas, which go on to influence the way they perceive bananas, which affects which bananas they fertilise, and so on.  This means that the effect found in Hansen et al. cannot be innate, since the colour and structure of a banana have changed (see below).  Modulating perception with flexible, high-level categories is a way of keeping up with rapidly changing environments.

Differing structures and colours of six species of banana, all ripe. Top left: Musa balbisiana, ancestor of modern cultivated bananas. Top right: Pink Banana (Musa velutina). Bottom, from left to right: Plantains (Musa paradisiacal), red bananas (Musa rutilus), Bananito (Musa acuminate) and Cavendish bananas (Musa cavendishii). Images from Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org

Less anecdotally, Griffin’s (2006) model, which classified objects using colour (see section 5.2.2), found that natural colour categories optimally aid the identification of objects.  Furthermore, the model performed equally well for natural and manufactured objects.  That is, manufactured objects have been coloured to be maximally classifiable by colour, according to linguistic colour categorisations.  This would be an intuitive and efficient tactic if, as Embodied Cognition suggests, comprehension is scaffolded onto systems of object recognition (MacWhinney, 1999).  There would be no advantage in doing this in a Symbolist system where perceptions and concepts have arbitrary connections.

Next, why universal patterns are not evidence for innate constraints ->

Laland, K., Odling-Smee, J., & Feldman, M. (2000). Niche construction, biological evolution, and cultural change Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23 (1), 131-146 DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X00002417

Hansen, T., Olkkonen, M., Walter, S., & Gegenfurtner, K. (2006). Memory modulates color appearance Nature Neuroscience, 9 (11), 1367-1368 DOI: 10.1038/nn1794

Heslop-Harrison, J., & Schwarzacher, T. (2007). Domestication, Genomics and the Future for Banana Annals of Botany, 100 (5), 1073-1084 DOI: 10.1093/aob/mcm191

Griffin, L. (2004). Optimality of the Basic Colours Categories Journal of Vision, 4 (8), 309-309 DOI: 10.1167/4.8.309

Evolution of Colour Terms: 7 Perceptual Warping

The last few posts have showed that several domains of constraint influence colour categorisation. There is evidence that these categorisations can influence perception, which has been identified as a crucial argument for Relativism. This section considers the Cultural implication, summarised in the last section, in greater depth. First, the idea of perceptual warping is explained and applied to colour categorisation. Next, the impact of a feedback loop caused by an Embodied approach is discussed in terms of Niche Construction. Thirdly, perceptual warping, within a system with Niche Construction dynamics is argued to lead to convergence of perceptual spaces, resulting in better communication. Finally, a note is made on compositionality in language. It is concluded that Embodied Cognition may explain some of the features of the emergence of language.

Perceptual Spaces

This section explains perceptual warping. Many models of the cultural transmission of denotation systems begin by defining a perceptual space for each individual which is then divided up with loci and boundaries (e.g., deBoer, 1999). Eventually, a kind of ‘lookup table’ is produced where an individual calculates within which boundary a given stimulus falls in order to classify it. An alternate view would be that each individual alters (warps) the perceptual space to suit the categories (Goldstone, 1994; Kuhl, 1994). This is not a controversial theory for the auditory modality. For instance, although born with the ability to detect any meaningful difference in any language, children eventually become unable to detect those differences that do not exist in the languages spoken around them (Eimas, 1978, Miyawaki, 1975, Kuhl, 1983). In other words, humans do not merely categorise areas of the audible spectrum as belonging to particular phonemes, but actually alter their perceptual space to suit the phonemic system. In the visual domain, Kuhl (1994) argues that the perceptual space is permanently changed by exposure to graphemes, although Lupyan (2008) shows that categorical perception can emerge on-line.

The figure above is a graphical illustration of warping a perceptual space (Colour space of Culina, from Regier, Kay & Khertarpal, 2007, p. 1439). The division of the Munsell colour space by speakers of Culina is warped and rotated to optimally encode the colour categories. Formally, the parameterisations are the same. However, warping the perceptual space allows for compression of information. For example, the initial encoding of the Figure takes up to 40 x 8 units, while the final encoding takes only 4 units . This can ease processing and storage requirements. Compression reduces the uncertainty between categories (e.g., red vs. green) and the ability for individuals to differentiate within categories (e.g., different shades of red), similar to the effects of categorical perception.

This approach has already been suggested. Buchsbaum and Bloch’s (2002) study showed that the NMF algorithm approximates colour categorisation in real languages (Non-negative Matrix Factorisation – a factor analysis algorithm like PCA, except that it is designed for values that are inherently positive and cannot be centred). NMF essentially warps the perceptual space to best describe its limits. The current study suggests that language sets constraints on an NMF-like process which works to alter the perceptual space to suit culturally salient colour contrasts. However, it is suggested that this optimisation is not primarily a response to an adaptive pressure, but a consequence of the way we understand language. Indeed, it is only because our perceptions can be aligned with our language system that semantics works at all. This would fit better with an Embodied view than a Symbolist view.

However, humans are able to perceive gradients in colours within categories.  There are two explanations for this.  Firstly, there may be two separate, competing perceptual and ‘categorical’ colour spaces, similar to Connell and Lynott’s (2009) hypothesis.  Since the categorical system is shared and can quickly adapt to immediate environmental pressures, one would expect agents with two systems to increasingly rely on the categorical system, especially for communication (see code duality theory, e.g., Hoffmeyer & Emmeche, 1991).  In contrast, novel tasks which involved no communication (e.g., comparing colours and choosing an ‘odd one out’) may rely more on the true perceptual system.  A second explanation for the flexibility of categories is suggested by Lupyan (2008) who shows that perceptual spaces can be warped, but by context-specific, online processes rather than long-term, memory-based processes.  This would allow a single conceptual/perceptual system (as Embodied Cognition hypothesises), as well as explaining the plasticity of language.

Next, a look at how Embodied Cognition fits into this picture ->

DEBOER, B. (2000). Self-organization in vowel systems Journal of Phonetics, 28 (4), 441-465 DOI: 10.1006/jpho.2000.0125

Goldstone, R. (1994). Influences of categorization on perceptual discrimination. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 123 (2), 178-200 DOI: 10.1037//0096-3445.123.2.178

Kuhl, P. (1994). Learning and representation in speech and language Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 4 (6), 812-822 DOI: 10.1016/0959-4388(94)90128-7

Miyawaki, K., Strange, W., Verbrugge, R. R., Liberman, A. M., Jenkins, J. J., & Fujimura, O. (1975). An effect of linguistic experience: The discrimination of (r) and (l) by native speakers of Japanese and
Perception and Psychophysics, 18, 331-340

KUHL, P. (1983). Perception of auditory equivalence classes for speech in early infancy Infant Behavior and Development, 6 (2-3), 263-285 DOI: 10.1016/S0163-6383(83)80036-8

Lupyan G (2008). From chair to “chair”: a representational shift account of object labeling effects on memory. Journal of experimental psychology. General, 137 (2), 348-69 PMID: 18473663

Buchsbaum, G. (2002). Color categories revealed by non-negative matrix factorization of Munsell color spectra Vision Research, 42 (5), 559-563 DOI: 10.1016/S0042-6989(01)00303-0

Connell, L., & Lynott, D. (2009). Is a bear white in the woods? Parallel representation of implied object color during language comprehension Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16 (3), 573-577 DOI: 10.3758/PBR.16.3.573

Evolution of Colour Terms: 6 Categorisation Constraints

Continuing my series on the Evolution of Colour terms, this post reviews evidence for categorisation constraints on colour perception. For the full dissertation and for references, go here.

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