The idea that integrating abstract information drives many of the human brain’s unique abilities has been around for decades. But a paper published1 in Current Biology, which directly compares activity in human and macaque monkey brains as they listen to simple auditory patterns, provides the first physical evidence that a specific area for such integration may exist in humans. Other studies that compare monkeys and humans have revealed differences in the brain’s anatomy, for example, but not differences that could explain where humans’ abstract abilities come from, say neuroscientists.
“This gives us a powerful clue about what is special about our minds,” says psychologist Gary Marcus at New York University. “Nothing is more important than understanding how we got to be how we are.”
Always the search for simple answers. As if.
Here’s the abstract:
The ability to extract deep structures from auditory sequences is a fundamental prerequisite of language acquisition. Using fMRI in untrained macaques and humans, we investigated the brain areas involved in representing two abstract properties of a series of tones: total number of items and tone-repetition pattern. Both species represented the number of tones in intraparietal and dorsal premotor areas and the tone-repetition pattern in ventral prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia. However, we observed a joint sensitivity to both parameters only in humans, within bilateral inferior frontal and superior temporal regions. In the left hemisphere, those sites coincided with areas involved in language processing. Thus, while some abstract properties of auditory sequences are available to non-human primates, a recently evolved circuit may endow humans with a unique ability for representing linguistic and non-linguistic sequences in a unified manner. (paywall) – Wang, L., Uhrig, L., Jarraya, B. & Dehaene, S. Curr. Biol.