About Me

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Did Socrates say "Know Thyself", or was he misunderstood, as all are. Show Thyself is all we can do. The knowing is unknowable.  

I am filled with joy.  It can't be helped.  

Became a Farmer, Builder, Musician, Tank Commander, Librarian, Lawyer and Minister. I have failed at many things. And now retired.  Filled, just filled, with Joy. 

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Origins of Language - and the Brain

How much of human language is actually "innate"? People seem to be able to speak "automatically", replaying tapes, much akin to the pigeon coo, the cat caterwaul, the wolf howl, and the monkey chatter. Elephants, bats, cetacea, and three orders of birds (parrots, hummingbirds and songbirds) have the ability to remember and reproduce sounds.

Yet humans, at least when young, are able to do more than "imitation", and can create different meanings from new sounds, a skill set no other creature has. The response of horses and dogs to specific vocal commands, the "sign language" learned by some Bonobos, and the mimicry of mynahs, all come short of the mastery which is the unique cultural artifact of humans, our Language.

Still, chemistry seems to lie at the heart of Language. Are there other brains we can study which would reveal the chemistry involved in producing Speech?

Enter the Zebra Finch. A native of Australia, with a brain smaller than most seeds, it has much to teach us about "vocal learning". The bird brain is in many ways more similar to a mammalian brain than first thought.

Erich Jarvis, 41 year old neurobiologist out of Duke University, is studying the chemistry of the Finch's songs. He asks: "What's the most complex thing a brain can do? Language." He says: "I am starting from the naive position that if you can decipher the most complex thing about how the brain works, everything else will fall into place."