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

Cultural differences in lateral transmission: Phylogenetic trees are OK for Linguistics but not biology

The three areas under analysis

An article in PLos ONE debunks the myth that hunter-gatherer societies borrow more words than agriculturalist societies. In doing so, it suggests that horizontal transmission is low enough for phylogenetic analyses to be a valid linguistic tool.

Lexicons from around 20% of the extant languages spoken by hunter-gatherer societies were coded for etymology (available in the supplementary material). The levels of borrowed words were compared with the languages of agriculturalist and urban societies taken from the World Loanword Database.  The study focussed on three locations:  Northern Australia, northwest Amazonia, and California and the Great Basin.

In opposition to some previous hypotheses, hunter-gatherer societies did not borrow significantly more words than agricultural societies in any of the regions studied.

The rates of borrowing were universally low, with most languages not borrowing more than 10% of their basic vocabulary.  The mean rate for hunter-gatherer societies was 6.38% while the mean for 5.15%.  This difference is actually significant overall, but not within particular regions.  Therefore, the authors claim, “individual area variation is more important than any general tendencies of HG or AG languages”.

Interestingly, in some regions, mobility, population size and population density were significant factors.  Mobile populations and low-density populations had significantly lower borrowing rates, while smaller populations borrowed proportionately more words.  This may be in line with the theory of linguistic carrying capacity as discussed by Wintz (see here and here).  The level of exogamy was a significant factor in Australia.

The study concludes that phylogenetic analyses are a valid form of linguistic analysis because the level of horizontal transmission is low.  That is, languages are tree-like enough for phylogenetic assumptions to be valid:

“While it is important to identify the occasional aberrant cases of high borrowing, our results support the idea that lexical evolution is largely tree-like, and justify the continued application of quantitative phylogenetic methods to examine linguistic evolution at the level of the lexicon. As is the case with biological evolution, it will be important to test the fit of trees produced by these methods to the data used to reconstruct them. However, one advantage linguists have over biologists is that they can use the methods we have described to identify borrowed lexical items and remove them from the dataset. For this reason, it has been proposed that, in cases of short to medium time depth (e.g., hundreds to several thousand years), linguistic data are superior to genetic data for reconstructing human prehistory “

Excellent – linguistics beats biology for a change!

However, while the level of horizontal transmission might not be a problem in this analysis, there may be a problem in the paths of borrowing.  If a language borrows relatively few words, but those words come from many different languages, and may have many paths through previous generations, there may be a subtle effect of horizontal transition that is being masked.  The authors acknowledge that they did not address the direction of transmission in a quantitative way.

A while ago, I did study of English etymology trying to quantify the level of horizontal transmission through time (description here).  The graph for English doesn’t look tree-like to me, perhaps the dynamics of borrowing works differently for languages with a high level of contact:

Claire Bowern, Patience Epps, Russell Gray, Jane Hill, Keith Hunley, Patrick McConvell, Jason Zentz (2011). Does Lateral Transmission Obscure Inheritance in Hunter-Gatherer Languages? PLoS ONE, 6 (9) : doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025195

Tool making and Language Evolution

There’s an often cited gap in tool making history in which humans did not advance from simple Oldowan tools (which date back to about 2.5 million years ago) until about 500,000 years ago when progress became much faster. There is much debate as to whether this gap in progress is the result of the cognitive abilities to make more innovative tools or if it was an issue of dexterity.

A recent article by Faisal et al. (2010) “The Manipulative Complexity of Lower Paleolithic Stone Toolmaking” has tried to address these problems by assessing the manipulative complexity of tool making tasks from the Oldowan tools to the more advanced hand axes from much later.

A stone ‘core’ (A) is struck with a hammerstone (B) in order to detach sharp stone ‘flakes’. In Oldowan toolmaking (C, top) the detached flakes (left in photo) are used as simple cutting tools and the core (right in photo) is waste. In Acheulean toolmaking (C, bottom), strategic flake detachments are used to shape the core into a desired form, such as a handaxe. Both forms of toolmaking are associated with activation of left ventral premotor cortex (PMv), Acheulean toolmaking activates additional regions in the right hemisphere, including the supramarginal gyrus (SMG) of the inferior parietal lobule, right PMv, and the right hemisphere homolog of anterior Broca's area: Brodmann area 45 (BA 45).

The following is taken from a press release from

Researchers used computer modelling and tiny sensors embedded in gloves to assess the complex hand skills that early humans needed in order to make two types of tools during the Lower Palaeolithic period, which began around 2.5 million years ago. The cross-disciplinary team, involving researchers from Imperial College London, employed a craftsperson called a flintnapper to faithfully replicate ancient tool-making techniques.

The team say that comparing the manufacturing techniques used for both Stone Age tools provides evidence of how the human brain and human behaviour evolved during the Lower Palaeolithic period.

The flintnapper who participated in today’s study created two types tools including the razor-sharp flakes and hand-held axes. He wore a data glove with sensors enmeshed into its fabric to record hand and arm movements during the production of these tools.

After analysing this data, the researchers discovered that both flake and hand-held axe manufacturing techniques were equally complex, requiring the same kind of hand and arm dexterity. This enabled the scientists to rule out motor skills as the principal factor for holding up stone tool development.

The team deduced from their results that the axe-tool required a high level of brain processing.

This has implications for language evolution as brain scans from tool makers have shown significant overlap with areas involved in discourse-level language processing as well as complex hand gestures. The study finishes with the following:

…the anatomical overlap of Late Acheulean toolmaking and right hemisphere linguistic processing may reflect the flexible “mapping” of diverse overt behaviors onto shared functional substrates in the brain. This implies that: 1) selection acting on either language or toolmaking abilities could have indirectly favored elaboration of neural substrates important for the other, and 2) archaeological evidence of Paleolithic toolmaking can provide evidence for the presence of cognitive capacities also important to the modern human faculty for language.

Read the original article at PLoS ONE:

Never Too Old to Learn: FoxP2 Gene Has Important Post-developmental On-line Function

Experimental studies (e.g. Jones & Munhall 2000) indicate that humans monitor their own speech through hearing in order to maintain accurate vocal articulation throughout the lifespan. Similarly, songbirds not only rely on song input from tutors and conspecifics in the early stages of song development, but also on the ability to hear and detect production errors in their own song and adjust it accordingly with reference to an internal ‘sensory target’ following the initial song learning phase.

This phenomenon also extends to ‘closed-ended learners’  – birds who do not acquire novel song elements after an initial learning period, but who still demonstrate song variability in adulthood. Experimental studies have shown that in such species, vocal learning is more prolonged and fundamental to song production than originally thought. For example, Okanoya and Yamaguchi (1997) showed that afflicted deafening in adult Bengalese Finches resulted in the production of abnormal song syntax in a matter of days. This is parallel to the human condition whereby linguistic fidelity, particularly with regards to prosodic aspects such as pitch and intensity, gradually degrades in human adults with postlinguistically acquired auditory impairments.

Continue reading “Never Too Old to Learn: FoxP2 Gene Has Important Post-developmental On-line Function”