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Claim: Monkeys recognize the basic structure of language

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Rhesus Macaque/Einar Fredriksen, Creative Commons

From ScienceDaily:

Monkey. Scanning the brains of humans and monkeys, the research team has identified the area at the front of the brain which in both humans and monkeys recognizes when sequences of sounds occur in a legal order or in an unexpected, illegal order.

Scanning the brains of humans and macaque monkeys, the research team has identified the area at the front of the brain which in both humans and monkeys recognises when sequences of sounds occur in a legal order or in an unexpected, illegal order.

Professor Petkov said: “Young children learn the rules of language as they develop, even before they are able to produce language. So, we used a ‘made up’ language first developed to study infants, which our lab has shown the monkeys can also learn. We then determined how the human and monkey brain evaluates the sequences of sounds from this made up language.”

The team first had the humans and monkeys listen to example sequences from the made up language, allowing them to hear what were correct orderings in the sequence of sounds. They then scanned the brain activity of both species as they listened to new sequences that either had a correct order or could not have been generated by the made up language.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed that in both groups a corresponding region of the brain — the ventral frontal and opercular cortex — responded to the order that both species had learned to expect.

More.

Well, this will doubtless prove helpful in assessing brain damage, and as the authors point out, animal models may help.

Incidentally, many species must use systems like that, in some part of their nervous system, because incorrect order can signal danger. But monkeys do not go on to develop a language because … ?

In general, there have been quite a few implausible claims about ape language in recent years. In the Middle Ages, one heard implausible miracle stories but today, the trend is implausible ape achievement stories. See, for example,

Apes close to speaking? No.

Bonobo peeps point to the origin of human language.
Despite having done nothing similar for the bonobos.

Noise made by bonobos challenges human uniqueness The fact that people don’t start openly mocking this nonsense shows how far pop science has diverged from common sense.

Bonobos prefigure language Note how little evidence is required to get a paper or a story that shows thy are really just like us. But if Neanderthals did speak, that shows it isn’t a big achievement.

BBC announces: Chimps have entered Stone AgeThey smash things with stones the way birds do. So, parrots, as well as chimps, are becoming like us?

Oh and, let’s swiftly whisk by stuff that doesn’t matter: Research claim that chimps learn other troupes’ language is not supported Never mind, some other trivia will be inflated into a big find about apes beginning to speak and entering the tone age. The unattractive alternative would be to acknowledge that human language is bound up with human consciousness. The evolution of human language cannot be considered apart from it.

None of this would be possible except for a gullible public for pop science, people who have unlearned the art of asking thoughtful questions—uncool these days.

So our forecast is for the apes r’ us business to continue strong, like astrology and crystals.

What should give pause for thought is, the projects we fund come at the expense of projects we don’t fund. If we can’t acknowledge that we probably won’t discover the origin of human language among life forms that do not speak, we won’t learn anything much.

But at least we will hear enough primate trivia to be sure we are the smart set.

See also: Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness

Here’s the abstract:

An evolutionary account of human language as a neurobiological system must distinguish between human-unique neurocognitive processes supporting language and evolutionarily conserved, domain-general processes that can be traced back to our primate ancestors. Neuroimaging studies across species may determine whether candidate neural processes are supported by homologous, functionally conserved brain areas or by different neurobiological substrates. Here we use functional magnetic resonance imaging in Rhesus macaques and humans to examine the brain regions involved in processing the ordering relationships between auditory nonsense words in rule-based sequences. We find that key regions in the human ventral frontal and opercular cortex have functional counterparts in the monkey brain. These regions are also known to be associated with initial stages of human syntactic processing. This study raises the possibility that certain ventral frontal neural systems, which play a significant role in language function in modern humans, originally evolved to support domain-general abilities involved in sequence processing. Open access – Benjamin Wilson, Yukiko Kikuchi, Li Sun, David Hunter, Frederic Dick, Kenny Smith, Alexander Thiele, Timothy D. Griffiths, William D. Marslen-Wilson, Christopher I. Petkov. Auditory sequence processing reveals evolutionarily conserved regions of frontal cortex in macaques and humans. Nature Communications, 2015; 6: 8901 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms9901

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2 Replies to “Claim: Monkeys recognize the basic structure of language

  1. 1
    Andre says:

    I wonder if the monkeys will recognise the complex grammar of the genome….

  2. 2
    Robert Byers says:

    They don’t understand structure of language or why these researchers get paid for this jazz. neither do I.
    The only thing being lighted up is memory. Creatures do memorize sounds and so the memory organizes it. Yet with people we are seeking more sounds for our thinking .
    They don’t should intelligence at work but only ba mechanism that is used. That is the memory.

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