Friday, May 30, 2008

Talking Brains

I just found out that David Poeppel, Professor of Linguistics and Biology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Gregory Hickok, Professor of Cognitive Sciences, and Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at UC Irvine, have a blog called Talking Brains, which focuses on "News and views on the neural organization of language."

They post a lot about mirror neurons, and they are pretty sceptical about the claims that the mirror neuron system is the basic foundation of action of action understanding.
Here's a statement form on of their posts:

"So far we have not found any evidence to support the claim that the mirror neuron system is the "basis" of action understanding. In fact, all of the evidence discussed so far, refutes this claim"
Most of the posts are based on Gregory Hikock's graduate course on mirror neurons whose goal it is
"to survey what we know about MNs in the monkey and presumed correlates in humans, and to consider what kind of theoretical conclusions the data allow. We will cover a range of empirical and theoretical topics related to MNs, but all with an eye toward the implications of this work on understanding the functional anatomy of speech/language."
There's really ton of material on the site, and I can't wait to check it all out, because I share their doubt that the mirror neurons system is the whole story when it comes to action understanding and especially social cognition.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

More on Human and Nonhuman Minds

The topic of human 'uniqueness' was brought up again lately by a paper in the recent issue of the Behavioral and Brain Sciences called "Darwin's Mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds" and was discussed a bit on the blogosphere (see, e.g. here, here, here, and here).

Now there are some other interesting post on the topic, for example:

  • Last but not least, on May 6 and May 8 there was a symposium in New York called "Darwin: 21st-Century Perspectives", where
    "Some of the world’s leading Darwin experts discussed the far-reaching legacy of Charles Darwin and the implications of his thinking for science and society today in a special two-part symposium, Darwin: 21st-Century Perspectives, hosted by The New York Botanical Garden and the American Museum of Natural History, which was open to the public."
Their website features high-quality videos and/or mp3s (depends on the talk) of the talks. Hiughlights (in my oppinion) include:

- Michael Ruse, philosopher, Is Darwinism an Exhausted Paradigm? (audio / video)
- Kenneth Miller, biologist, author, and expert court witness, Darwin, God, and Design: America’s New Battle over Evolution (audio)
- Gerald Edelman, biochemist and neurobiologist, Neural Darwinism

I've listened to some podcasts featuring Edelman lately, so I think by now I definitely know Gerald Edelman's favorite facts about the brain:

If you unfolded your cerebral cortex it would be the size of a (large) paper napkin. There would be 30 Billion Neurons and a Million Billion Connections. If you were to count every synaptic connections, counting one connection per second, you were only finished after 32 million years.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Digression on the History of Some Philosophical Ideas about Cognition and Evolution

Over at Evolving Thoughts, John Wilkins has drawn attention to a new article about Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach (1838-1916) in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Mach was an important figure for the philosophical theory of positivism, philosophy of science in general, gestalt theory, and even influenced Skinner’s behaviorism. Mach was also very interested in psychology, and focused on the question how sense data and sensory elements, constitute our perception, and especially our conscious experience and sense of selfhood, given that the starting point for our conscious experience and reasoning is actually made of elements like this :

According to Mach, we then shorten, bundle and anchor these “elements” into a unified body-image self concept. There is thus only a

“complex of memories, moods, and feelings, joined to a particular body (the human body), which is denominated the "I" or "Ego" (Mach, 1897. p. 3, cited in Pleh 1999) But: "The primary fact is not the I, the Ego, but the elements (sensations). The elements constitute the I. ... when I die... only an ideal mental-economical unity, not a real unity, has ceased to exist (Mach, 1897, p. 19-20, cited in Pléh 1999)"

To explain how these sensations are bundled and form concepts he draws on Darwin’s theory of evolution, which, as Wilkins notes, makes him one on of the first evolutionary epistemologists:

Here’s what Paul Rojman writes in his article:

"Mach is part of the empiricist tradition, but he also believed in an a priori. But it is a biologized a priori: what is a priori to an individual organism was a posteriori to its ancestors; not only does the a priori pre-form experience, but the a priori is itself formed from experience. It was simultaneously the contradiction and confirmation of Kantian epistemology. In as much as Kant used the a priori to explain how knowledge is possible, Mach uses the knowledge of the new sciences to explain how an a priori is possible. One more patch of philosophy, it was thought, yielded to science.”

Interestingly, Mach even made some interesting comment on what today we would call Theory of Mind Research:

"We predict in thought the acts and behavior of men by assuming sensations, feelings, and wills similar to our own connected with their bodies" (Mach, 1910, p. 207, cited in Pleh 1999). He even speculates on how early and in what way these capacities emerge: "every child unconsciously accomplished it" (Mach, 1910: 208, cited in Pleh 1999).

This would thus make Mach a Simulationist in the current debate.

In his Article “Ernst Mach and Daniel Dennett: Two Evolutionary Models of Cognition” Csaba Pléh shows that there is are interesting historical developments that “create a continuity from Mach to Dennett“ starting from Ernst Mach and other Viennese Scholars. Pléh argues that Mach influenced psychologist Karl Bühler, taught and influenced both philosopher Karl Popper, who focused on the logical aspect of evolutionary transmission and ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who focused on evolutionary explanations for biological traits. Both then influenced the work of Dan Dennett either directly or indirectly.

Thus, the two philosophical traditions which had their origin in Vienna, Logical Positivism and evolutionary-minded behaviorally studies/evolutionary epistemology, finally unite in modern cognitive science-oriented philosophy:

What we have today in the work of Dennett and others is a meeting of the Frege-Russell-Vienna traditions with the Darwinian traditions so clearly exposed by Mach.” (Pléh 1999)
Interestingly, speaking of historical forebears of modern ideas about cognition, I looked at the wikipedia articles on gestalt theorists, in the German wikipedia entry for famous gestalt theorist Wolfgang Köhler I found a reference to a paper in the journal Gestalt Theory, in which Morris Eagle and Jerome Wakefield claim that Köhler anticipated the discovery and function of mirror neurons with his theory of psychophysical isomorphism. Here are the abstracts:

"Recent work in cognitive neuroscience reveals that, when one observes another person performing some action, neurons fire in one’s own motor cortex that are the very same neurons that would fire if one were also performing the observed action; these have been dubbed “mirror neurons”. The principle of external or interpersonal isomorphism, formulated by the Gestalt psychologists, Köhler and Koffka, during the 1920’s through to the 1940’s, anticipated important aspects of the mirror neuron discovery. Moreover, both the Gestaltists’ theory, based on the principle of interpersonal isomorphism, and Gallese’s (2003) contemporary theory of “embodied simulation”, inspired by the mirror neuron discovery, converge on the central claim that our general ability to understand another’s actions, emotions, and intentions, is implicit, automatic, and non-inferential. (Eagle and Morris 2007)"

"This paper aims to give a constructive contribution to Eagle & Wakefield’s contention (in their article in Gestalt Theory 29, 59-64) that the Gestaltists’ hypotheses regarding isomorphism and phenomenological direct access to other’s mind anticipate recent accounts of mind-reading ability. I attempt to specify the extent to which Gestalt psychology might be seen to be consistent under certain respects with mirror neurons system theory and embodied simulation theory, claimed to be founding the aforementioned ability. Therefore, empirical and theoretical issues such as the neurobiological features of the mirror neuron system, the psychological explanation of its functions, and the features of the embodied simulation theory are briefly addressed. Further, some points about the consistence of this explanatory view with some key Gestaltist notions are made. It is argued that talk of off-line action planning as internal pretending states might not be consonant with Koffka’s attempt to explaining other’s mental states as a special class of phenomenal qualities." (Cali 2007)

"Recent work in cognitive neuroscience reveals that, when one observes another person performing some action, neurons fire in one’s own motor cortex that are the very same neurons that would fire if one were also performing the observed action; these have been dubbed “mirror neurons”. The principle of external or interpersonal isomorphism, formulated by the Gestalt psychologists, Köhler and Koffka, during the 1920’s through to the 1940’s, anticipated important aspects of the mirror neuron discovery. Moreover, both the Gestaltists’ theory, based on the principle of interpersonal isomorphism, and Gallese’s (2003) contemporary theory of “embodied simulation”, inspired by the mirror neuron discovery, converge on the central claim that our general ability to understand another’s actions, emotions, and intentions, is implicit, automatic, and non-inferential." (Morris and Wakefield 2007)

Monday, May 19, 2008

Darwin's Mistake and Darwin's Triumph

After Chris of Mixing Memory and Deric Bownds of Deric Bownds' Mindblog had already drawn attention to the prefinal version of this article, “Darwin’s mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds” by Derek Penn, Keith Holyoak and Daniel Povinelli has now finally been published in the current issue of the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Penn, who’s affiliated with the Cognitive Evolution Group at the University of Louisiana, and the University of California, Los Angeles, Holyoak, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, and Povinelli, Professor of Biology at the University of Louisiana, and also a member of the Cognitive Evolution Group, argue that

“Over the last quarter century, the dominant tendency in comparative cognitive psychology has been to emphasize the similarities between human and nonhuman minds and to downplay the differences as “one of degree and not of kind” (Darwin 1871). In the present target article, we argue that Darwin was mistaken: the profound biological continuity between human and nonhuman animals masks an equally profound discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. To wit, there is a significant discontinuity in the degree to which human and nonhuman animals are able to approximate the higher-order, systematic, relational capabilities of a physical symbol system (PSS) (Newell 1980). We show that this symbolic-relational discontinuity pervades nearly every domain of cognition and runs much deeper than even the spectacular scaffolding provided by language or culture alone can explain. We propose a representational-level specification as to where human and nonhuman animals’ abilities to approximate a PSS are similar and where they differ. We conclude by suggesting that recent symbolic-connectionist models of cognition shed new light on the mechanisms that underlie the gap between human and nonhuman minds.”

As was to expected the article sparked quite a lot of heated responses in the comment section both for it’s title and for its discontinuist view of human cognitive which emphasizes the large gulf that lies between human and nonhuman cognition. Those who are afraid that again a creationist/ID paper has made it into a respectable science journal, can calm down. In their first footnote Penn et al. make clear that:

"All similarities and differences in biology are ultimately a matter of degree. Any apparent discontinuities between living species belie the underlying continuity of the evolutionary process and largely result from the fact that many, and often all, of the intermediate steps are no longer extant. In the present article, our claim that there is a “discontinuity” between human and nonhuman cognition is based on our claim that there is a significant gap between the functional capabilities of the human mind and those of all other extant species on the planet. Our point, to cut to the chase, is that the functional discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds is at least as great as the much more widely acknowledged discontinuity between human and nonhuman forms of communication. But we do not doubt that both evolved through standard evolutionary mechanisms. (Penn et al. 2008: 129)

Interestingly, when you google “Darwin’s mistake” your fist hit is an amazon link for a book called “Darwin's Mistake: Antediluvian Discoveries Prove Dinosaurs and Humans Co-Existed” to which I won’t link because I don’t want to raise the page rank of such junk. The second link is a funny little poem called "Darwin's mistake", which goes like this:

“Three monkeys sat on a coconut tree

Discussing things as they're said to be.

Said one to the others, "Now listen, you two,

There is a certain rumor that can't be true

That man descended from our noble race.

That very idea is a disgrace.

No monkey ever deserted his wife,

Starved her babies or ruined her life.

And another thing you will never see:

A monkey build a fence around a coconut tree

And let the coconuts go to waste

Forbidding all the other monkeys to taste.

If I put a fence around this tree,

Starvation would force you to steal from me.

Here's another thing a monkey won't do:

Go out at night and get on a stew,

And use a gun, or club, or knife

To take some other monkey's life.

Yes, man descended, the ornery cuss -

But, brother, he didn't descend from us.”

I must say this poem is actually pretty funny (given that it's not meant as anti-evolutionary propaganda), although, as primatologists and the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis tell us, non-human primates surely aren’t saints either.

But Penn et al. make their scientific standpoint absolutely clear with the title of their response, which is called:

Darwin’s triumph: Explaining the uniqueness of the human mind without a deus ex machina”

I am particularly excited by the comment of Graeme Halford, professor emeritus at the University of Queensland, Australia, and his colleagues, who write that they

“agree with Penn et al. that the ability to recognise structural correspondences between relational representations accounts for many distinctive properties of higher cognition. We propose to take this argument further by defining both a conceptual and a methodological link between animal and human cognition. The conceptual link is to treat relational processing (Halford et al. 1998a) as dynamic bindings of chunks to a coordinate system in working memory (Oberauer et al. 2007). Such a coordinate system consists of slots and relations between them, and includes relational schemas (Halford & Busby 2007)” (Halford et al. 2008: 138)

This of course reminds me of Karl Bühler’s (1934) coordinate system of subjective orientation which I tried to use as a starting point for a cognitive theory which sees mental representations as intersubjectively overlapping and thus shared systemic spaces in the form of a cognitive coordinate system/frame of reference into which and in which conceptual representations are imported, integrated, unified, and blended. In the future, I will have another look at both Penn et al.’s and Graeme Halford’s claims.

Another ‘interesting’ comment is that of R. Allen Gardner, a Professor of Cognitive and Brain Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno. Here’s the abstract:

Sound comparative psychology and modern evolutionary and developmental biology emphasize powerful effects of developmental conditions on the expression of genetic endowment. Both demand that evolutionary theorists recognize these effects. Sound comparative psychology also demands experimental procedures that prevent experimenters from shaping the responses of human and nonhuman beings to conform to theoretical expectations.” (Gardner 2008: 135).

What now, you may ask, is ‘interesting’ about this article?. Well let’s take a look at what agrdner had to say about another important Paper on the difference between human and nonhuman cognition, namely Tomasello et al.’s (2005): Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition:

Sound comparative psychology and modern evolutionary and developmental biology (often called evo-devo) emphasize powerful effects of developmental conditions on the expression of genetic endowment. Both demand that evolutionary theorists recognize these effects. Instead, Tomasello et al. compares studies of normal human children with studies of chimpanzees reared and maintained in cognitively deprived conditions, while ignoring studies of chimpanzees in cognitively appropriate environments.” (Gardner 2005: 699)

To me this sounds a bit like flogging a dead horse, but what do I know. (not much about evo-devo, that’s for sure)

At least both feature this nice photo of the test apparatus for chimpanzee Basso, who first was believed to be able to count but, as was found out in 1917, instead was only reacting to the unconscious cues of the experimenter:


Chris of Mixing Memory, John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts and George Junior have already posted about the article, I hope there are more to come!


Bühler, Karl (1934) Sprachtheorie. Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Jena: Gustav Fischer.

Gardner, R. Allen (2005): Animal cognition meets evo-devo. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28:5. 699-700.

Gardner, R. Allen (2008): Comparative intelligence and intelligent comparisons. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences (31:2): 135-136.

Halford, Graeme S..Steven Phillips, and William H Wilson (2008): The missing link: Dynamic, modifiable representations in working memory. In: In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences (31:2) : 137-138.

Penn, Derek C, Keith J. Holyoak. and Daniel J. Povinelli (2008): Darwin's mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences (31:2): 109-130.

Tomasello, Michael Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, and Henrike Moll (2005a): Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28:5, 675–691

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Another Theory of the Evolution of Language: Peter F. MacNeilage on the Origin of Speech

There is a new book in the Oxford „Studies in the Evolution of Language“ Series by Peter F. MacNeilage, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, called quite simply, “The Origin of Speech.”

MacNeilage advances something he calls the Frame/Content Theory of vocal communication: It poses that

segmental ‘‘content’’ elements are placed into syllable-structure ‘‘frames.’’“ (MacNeilage 2008: 57).

Taking evidence form speech errors, MacNeilage assumes that frame, “the continual rhythmic alternation between an open and closed mouth” (MacNeilage 1998), and content (the actual vowels and consonants) are two fundamentally different mechanisms included in speech.

He proposes

“that in both evolution and in development, frames come first and content later.” (MacNeilage 2008: 58)

So here’s his account of how the evolution of language took place:

"As I reconstruct the process, motor frames for speech evolved from mandibular cyclicities [i.e. the movements made when ingesting food, such as chewing] via an intermediate stage of visuofacial communicative smacks [i.e. the kind of communicative lipsmacks found in non-human primates], which eventually became paired with phonation to form protosyllables. These protosyllables initially filled a vocal-grooming role. They proved effective because they made for the omnidirectional transmission of a standard communicative signal, readily extended across time, and with sharp acoustic alternations between closed and open states of suffcient complexity to sustain a listener’s interest. At some point, one of the limited sets of protosyllabic forms – a nasalized variant –became paired with a female parental concept, resulting in the form [mama]. This was a social invention—and a momentous one. It paved the way for a series of similar single events linking, one by one, additional items at two hitherto unrelated levels of function – concepts and sound patterns. Once this invention got from the infant – parent matrix into broader society, subsequent concept – sound pairings for new words got established by cultural agreement, and the history of these agreements got passed along to successive generations of language users. This led to the one-word stage of true language, which is as far as the F/C theory goes (MacNeilage 2008: 293)"

To me this sounds like another of these „just so“ stories, which I though we’d been over by now. However, the framework surely doesn’t rise or fall with the fairytale part, and I don’t know enough about the book and about phonology in general to judge its validity. The parts that I’ve read, for example his discussion of the genetic underpinnings of language, including the FOXP2 gene, are really interesting. People interested in the motoric, neural and phonological/phonetics aspects of language should check out the book, there’s a lot of cool stuff in there.

For instance, I didn’t know that there is a “phonological loop” in short-time memory”/ “working memory” – which is "some kind of temporary storage of information [...] necessary for performing a wide range of cognitive skills including comprehension, learning and reasoning" (Baddeley 1995: 755) which organizes linguistic input and output and controls articulation. MacNeilage follows the proposal of Alan Baddely, a leading researcher in the area of short-time memor, who proposes that the “phonological loop”:

"has evolved, probably from more basic auditory and verbal production mechanisms, as a device for language acquisition’’ (Baddeley, 1995: 762)
Both see it as a central system in language evolution, because it allows

  1. for the comparison of the production attempt and target representation, which for example, may be important in world learning.
  2. to put together and hold in memory incoming information during comprehension.
  3. for “the holding of output information in various stages of completion during the assembly of a spoken sentence“ (MacNeilage 2008: 191).

MacNeilage also places his approach into the “emerging intellectual context” of Embodiment, because he shares its desire to explain higher mental functions in terms of the integral interaction of mind and body. He is also opposed to nativism and nativistic brands of evolutionary psychology. Instead, he sets his hopes on Dynamical systems theory and self-organization,

"the emergence of new states from the interaction of variables in a complex system, in the absence of an external controller.“

Thus his approach blends in well with the stance taken by people like Simon Kirby and others, which I briefly described here.

Almost needless to say, he also discusses mirror neurons, which are in the news about any other day and are often seen as the explanation for about everything ranging from empathy (see for example this blog post over at Complex Adaptive Systems), to understanding the beliefs of others, to the evolution of language. For an interesting discussion, see this interdiciplinary discussion forum on the question: What do mirror neurons mean?

MacNeilage also holds that

"these neurons […] presumably played a crucial role in our evolving the capacity to relate observation and action as required in mimesis,” (MacNeilage 2008: 171)
which in turn, is crucial for learning speech and language, as well as for about every kind of social interaction in general. MacNeilage relates this to Merlin Donald’s (1991) notion of a general-purpose mimetic capacity being the underpinning and necessary precursors to language as well as to all cultural behaviors.

Furthermore, there are also mirror neurons implicated both in call production and call comprehension of monkeys, which might be seen as the neural basis of our capacity for vocal learning and speech. MacNeilage’s theory that speech evolved from ingestive rythms via smacks is also supported by the fact that there are neurons in the monkey mirror neuron system that are implicated both in chewing and communicative behaviors such as lipsmacks (Ferrari et al 2003, MacNeilage 2008: 175ff.).

In general, the research on mirror neurons thus seem to confirm MacNeilage’s proposals.

In sum: for me the book is a bit too technical, but MacNeilage’s approach seems to be pretty interesting., especially for people with a footing or interest in the neurobiological aspects of language.

On a related note, Edmund Blair Bolles of Babel’s Dawn has published a short piece on the evolang conference in the journal BioScience, titled "Case for Biological Origins of Language Grows Stronger", in which he reports on the new evidence for the evolution of language presented at the conference.

Also have a look at this post over at the Language Evolution blog, where Chris discusses the evolang talks of famous archaeologist Franceso d'Errico, who speculated on the possibility of Neanderthals having language, and the talk of infamous linguist Derek Bickerton, who proposed the major factor in language evolution was the emergence of a mental lexicon and not the evolution of syntax.


Baddeley, Alan D. (1995). ‘Working memory.’ In M. S. Gazzaniga (ed.), The Cognitive Neurosciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 755–764.

Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ferrari, P. F., Gallese, P., Rizzolatti, G., and Fogassi, L. (2003). ‘Mirror neurons responding to the observation of ingestive and communicative mouth movements in the monkey ventral premotor cortex.’ European Journal of Neuroscience, 17, 1703–1714.

MacNeilage, Peter F. (2008): The Origin of Speech: Oxford: Oxford University Press (Studies in the Evolution of Language 10).

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Innateness, Creoles, Birdsong, and Blue Brains

Phew. I’ve got so much stuff to do, and things to read that I can hardly find any time to blog at the moment. But here are some interesting things you should check out:

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman has posted very interesting two-part discussion of “creole birdsong” and its implications for human language acquisition, especially regarding the question of innateness of language.

Creoles, i.e. stabilized and grammaticalized languages emerging from and incomplete linguistic input, crop up when a group of children is exposed only to impoverished pidgin input. The fact that children are able to construct a new, full-fledged language from poor data, is often attributed to a view of language acquisition as

“an interaction between environmental exposure and innate abilities.” (Senghas & Coppola 2001)

A particularly interesting example is Nicaraguan Sign Language,

“a signed language spontaneously developed by deaf children in a number of schools in western Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s.”
The children had no exposure to any other kind of language and beforehand only communicated in homesign.


"sequential cohorts of learners systematized the grammar of this new sign language.” (Senghas & Coppola 2001).
Interestingly, the learners which systematized the language were all under the age of 10, an age when the proposed linguistic biases are supposedly more pronounced than in adulthood.

Liberman reports that something similar happened in Ofer Tchernichovski’s lab colony of zebra finches. The initial founder of the colony grew up isolate from others and didn’t learn to sing properly, because there was no one to imitate. However,

“As each succeeding generation learns songs from the preceeding one, the effects of biases in the learning process accumulate, so that after a few generations, normal zebra finch songs have re-emerged.”

Liberman links this to the discussion of Derek Bickerton’s language bioprogram hypothesis, which proposes that children use their innate language capacities, some kind of a mental template for language, when learning and creating language, which has come under critique in the last two ecades.

Liberman argues that, when social learning is involved,

“perhaps it's normal for the phenotype to emerge over multiple generations, and to involve complex relationships among genetic and social structures.”

This also sits well with the proposals of Simon Kirby and his colleagues from the Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit, who propose that language acquisition can be seen as the interaction of a small set of genetic biases (a set of “Universal Biases” instead of a Universal Grammar, so to speak) where

cultural transmission can magnify weak biases into strong linguistic universals” (Kirby et al. 2007) and language is the “result of nontrivial interactions between three complex adaptive systems: learning, culture, and evolution“ (Kirby et al. 2007).


“a population whose speakers are linguistically biased — for whatever reason — may, over many generations, transform its language in ways that reflect the preponderance of individual biases among language acquirers“ (Ladd et al. 2007, see also this previous post on the work of Dan Dediu and Robert Ladd)

(As I just see, Robert Ladd has also drawn attention to this recent paper of his in the comment section of Language Log)

Kirby and his colleagues also have published a paper on the evolution of birdsongs, but do not refer to Tchernikovski's work, and the paper in general is way to advanced and technical for me to understand it.

In his second post, Mark Liberman, extends his thoughts on the possibility of a “multi-generational language bioprogram”, and gives some examples of simple learning algorithms which embody

“a bias towards certain outcomes” that lead to “coherent shared patterns,” like a shared vocabulary, or, more generally, a shared language

The comment sections of the two posts are also very interesting, as prominent figures such as Derek Bickerton himself, and Shimon Edelman, professor of psychology at Cornell university weigh in on the question.



There is a guest post on Language Log by Derek Bickerton, in which he adresses the issue of a multi-generational bioprogram and rejects it in favor of a single generation bioprogram, which as far as I cunderstand it, doesn't have anything to do with a specific Chomskyan "language organ," but with infant brains being pre-equipped for learning symbols/words andputting them together in fashion of neural sequential movement planning. And
"The way the brain does it causes the child automatically to put words together in certain ways."

Uhm. Er well. So the brain does it. Cool. problem solved.

On a related note, Talking Robots, a very cool podcast on Robotics and AI, features an interview with Henry Markram of the Blue Brain Project, which is

“the first comprehensive attempt to reverse-engineer the mammalian brain, in order to understand brain function and dysfunction through detailed simulations.”

Monday, May 5, 2008

Stupid Primates & Embodied Minds (or Stupid Minds and Embodied Primates?)

On a very cool episode of video blog’s “Science Saturday” called “Stupid Primates”, experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe and psychologist Laurie Santos discuss her work on the psychological shortcomings of humans and other primates. Her team’s idea is that we shouldn’t only look at the cognitive abilities we’re really proud of, like language, cooperation, and the ability to reason about other minds. Instead of trying to discover the evolutionary precursors of these abilities and looking at if and in which ways other species possess them, we should also look at the evolutionary foundations of the things we’re not so proud of, like our tendency to cheat and deceive, and especially our tendency to behave irrational and illogical.

Interestingly, monkeys also show some of the same irrational behavior as we do, such as cognitive dissonance and loss aversion. If you’re interested, you should really check out this episode.

If monkeys make some of the very same mistakes we do, this speaks for the interpretation that we make some of our mistakes because we are wired that way. For some arguments in a similar vein, you can also check out this discussion betwen science Journalist Carl Zimmer and psychologist Gary Marcus, author of Kluge. You can also check out Gary Marcus being interviewed by blogger and author Jonah Lehrer.

On a related note, there’s a really cool episode of the Brain Science Podcast, where cognitive psychologist Art Glenberg talks about embodied cognition. Glenberg’s main research focus are the bodily, “low-level” underpinnings of language comprehension. He’s done quite a lot of research on the ways language is grounded in action and embodiment, and how we use bodily states and our experience with the world to construct meaning. He is influenced by cognitive linguist George Lakoff’s work on metaphor and embodied language comprehension.

It should be noted that, the term “image schema”, i.e. a recurring stereotyped perceptual structure or pattern generated from experience with and exposure to the world and used to categorize and understand objects and events, which Glenberg attributes to Lakoff, was AFAIK coined by Lakoff’s collaborator Mark Johnson.

In 1980, Lakoff and Johnson wrote the very influential book “Metaphors We Live By”, looking at the intrinsic metaphorical structure of language as exemplified for example by the many WAR metaphors found when talking about conversation: I defended my position, He attacked my argument, etc. or in the ways we visualize Life as being a CONTAINER filled our emptied of essences: I’ve had a full life. Life is empty for him, Her life is crammed with activities, Get the most out of life, etc.

Lakoff & Johnson (1980) even go further and claim that this metaphorical structure also extends to the way our conceptual system is mapped out. Glenberg’s experiments give empircal support to this view. For example, he showed that people were better at understanding sentences like “he opened the drawer”, when they had to indicate whether the sentence makes sense by extending their arm in a manner similar to the movement described in the sentence then when they had to make a movement analogous to the movement of closing a drawer to indicate its correctness , and vice versa.

Glenberg also reports that he has submitted a paper together with Vittorio Gallese on the relation between the grammar of natural languages and the hierarchical structure of neural action systems. This sounds akin to the work of Phillip Lieberman, who claims that

The supposed unique aspect of syntax, its “reiterative” productivity, appears to derive from subcortical structures that play a part in neural circuits regulating motor control.“ (Lieberman 2005),
especially stressing the importance of the basal ganglia in the production and evolution of language.

Interestingly, Gallese has also published a paper with George Lakoff, called “The Brain’s Concepts”, which focuses on the embodied, sensory-motor nature of conceptual structures and the role of mirror neurons in concept formation and language comprehension.

Anyways, check out the episode, I think it’s really worth it.


Lieberman, Phillip (2005): The pied piper of Cambridge. The Linguistic Review 22: 289–302.

Gallese Vittorio, Lakoff George (2005) The Brain’s Concepts: The Role of the Sensory-Motor System in Reason and Language. Cognitive Neuropsychology, , 22:455-479

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson (1980) Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press