Tag Archives: communication

Roots of communication

Judith Copithorne image

20 or so years ago I took an interest in non-verbal communication and how it interacted with speech. A number of ideas became very clear in my thoughts: we communicate with our whole bodies whether we want to or even realize what we are doing; the gestures, facial expressions, sounds and postures that we use are evolutionarily very old; and, if we try to consciously plan our non-verbal communication, we are likely to send confusing and ambiguous signals. Communication in language only, stripped of its non-verbal patterns, has to change from the rules of verbal language to the rules of written language or it can be unintelligible. We rely on the non-verbal clues to know in what frame to interpret the words and rely on the cadence of speech to organize the connection of words and thoughts.

A recent post by M. Graziano in Aeon (here) is very interesting and worth a read. Here I am just pointing to the central idea of Graziano’s revelation. There is much more of interest in the original post.

Most vertebrates have a personal space which they monitor and protect. If they suspect an invasion of their space, they automatically react. Graziano gives a description of this reaction in primates, which protects vulnerable areas such as eyes, face, neck, and abdomen: “… he squints. His upper lip pulls up, bunching the cheeks towards the eyes. The head pulls down, the shoulders lift, the torso curves, the arms pull across the abdomen or face. A swipe near the eyes or a bonk on the nose might even produce tears, another component of a classical defensive reaction. His grunts begin to be tinged with distress calls.” This is not really communication on the part of the primate whose space has been invaded but a defense of himself that is innate and automatic. However, an observing primate can interpret the reaction as meaning that the defending primate actually, honestly feels threatened. Slowly, through evolution, this reaction, and parts of it, can become signals and symbols useful in communication.

In Graziano’s theory, smiles are a mild version of the facial defense of the eyes. It simply communicates friendliness and a lack of aggression by mimicking defense as opposed to offense. An exchange of smiles establishes a mutual non-aggression state. Even though we might think that showing teeth is aggressive, it is part of protecting the eyes. That can be seen more clearly in genuine smiles rather than polite or faked smiles, the ones which start with squinting around the eyes rather than the lifting of the lip.

Play is the situation giving rise to laughter in Graziano’s thinking. Play is governed in mammals by signals that keep the action from getting dangerous even if it looks it, like the safe words in S&M. These signals are universal enough that the young from different species can rough and tumble together without mishap. Laughter mimics the defense of personal space with a facial expression similar to a smile along with a stereotypical noise somewhat like an alarm cry. When it is intense there is a protection of the abdomen by bending forward and putting the arms across the stomach. A laugh seems to indicate that the defenses of the personal space have been breached. Someone has reached in and tickled protected parts of the body, or something, a joke perhaps, has surprised you. You are allowing the game to invade your space because you are enjoying it and the laugh communicates that.

Then there is crying. Now the communication is “enough” because I am hurt. If it is intense there is a sobbing cry and lots of tears, the hands protect the eyes and a defensive posture forms a little ball. (Laughter can even end up as crying if it is strong enough.) Tears are asking for relief and comfort – and they usually get it, as all children seem to know.

It is somewhat amazing that so much communication might be made out of one innate reaction through the process of evolution. Being able to effectively communicate is a powerful selective force. “And why should so many of our social signals have emerged from something as seemingly unpromising as defensive movements? This is an easy one. Those movements leak information about your inner state. They are highly visible to others and you can rarely suppress them safely. In short, they tattletale about you. Evolution favours animals that can read and react to those signs, and it favours animals that can manipulate those signs to influence whoever is watching. We have stumbled on the defining ambiguity of human emotional life: we are always caught between authenticity and fakery, always floating in the grey area between involuntary outburst and expedient pretence.

Talking to babies

When babies learn language, they learn more than language. According to a recent paper they also learn cognition. This news reminded me of something I had read months ago and I went back and found it. Here is the abstract of the paper, followed by the story illustrating the absence of good language learning.

Abstract of paper (Vouloumanos, Waxman; Listen up! Speech is for thinking during infancy; Trends in Cognitive Sciences Vol 18, issue 12 Dec 2020): “Infants’ exposure to human speech within the first year promotes more than speech processing and language acquisition: new developmental evidence suggests that listening to speech shapes infants’ fundamental cognitive and social capacities. Speech streamlines infants’ learning, promotes the formation of object categories, signals communicative partners, highlights information in social interactions, and offers insight into the minds of others. These results, which challenge the claim that for infants, speech offers no special cognitive advantages, suggest a new synthesis. Far earlier than researchers had imagined, an intimate and powerful connection between human speech and cognition guides infant development, advancing infants’ acquisition of fundamental psychological processes.

From Catherine Porter’s Column Aug 2014, Why Senegalese women have been afraid to talk to their babies - Fears of evil spirits have kept parents from talking to their babies, but that is changing thanks to a program that teaches about brain development. (here) : “10-year-old children in Senegal, deemed incomprehensibly dull by an international early literacy test six years ago. … The results were a blow to the Senegalese government, which pours a quarter of its national budget into education. … Tostan, a well-known non-governmental organization in Senegal, began asking the same questions. Staff members launched focus groups, to research local ideas about schools and child development. After four months, they concluded the root of the problem stretched beyond schools into village homes. Parents, although loving, were not speaking directly to their babies. Many avoided looking deeply into their babies’ eyes. … a baby in rural Senegal would hear about 200 words an hour, Tostan founder and chief executive officer Molly Melching says. Most of those were orders. No wonder they weren’t learning how to read, Melching posited. The language part of their brains was vastly underdeveloped. … The concept of djinns comes from both ancient African religions and the Koran. They are spirits, which can be helpful or hurtful. The hurtful ones, locals believe, can possess them. … Djinns are attracted to babies by jealousy, many locals believe. So, looking a baby in the eye is taboo, as is speaking directly to her. … “In our culture, if you talk with your child, you risk losing him,” says Tostan’s Penda Mbaye. She recalls how she was talking to her first baby when her grandmother warned her about djinns. “After that, I didn’t dare to do it.” … It is one thing to change the national course curriculum, or teacher training, or even severe malnutrition that stunts children’s brains. It’s another to change people’s cultural beliefs and corresponding behaviour. … Tostan facilitators developed a year-long class curriculum for parents. It includes lessons on everything from infant nutrition and children’s rights to sleep schedules and baby massage. The most important part though, is the new understanding of children’s growing brains. “We delve into brain development in a non-judgmental way,” Melching says.

This program seems to be working and mothers are enthusiastic, enjoying being able to interact with and talk to their babies. In a few years the data will be in and it will be seen what difference communication with babies brings. It is expected to not just improve language skills but IQ and general cognition.

Communicating in sync

How do people coordinate their actions; how does communication work; how does it affect people; how do minds get in sync? When people communicate they do get in sync but there is no magical about this. We perceive the outside world including signals as well as scenery, we model this input and think about it, we then can act on the basis of that cognition. The pathways are there for the action-perception cycle whether we are alone or engaged socially. The coupling of the brains of two people in communication has not been studied very often because it is difficult. Figuratively, there is usually only one fMRI scanner and it only holds one person at a time. A paper by Hasson (see citation below) highlights this problem. Here is the abstract and the conclusion.

Cognition materializes in an interpersonal space. The emergence of complex behaviors requires the coordination of actions among individuals according to a shared set of rules. Despite the central role of other individuals in shaping one’s mind, most cognitive studies focus on processes that occur within a single individual. We call for a shift from a single-brain to a multi-brain frame of reference. We argue that in many cases the neural processes in one brain are coupled to the neural processes in another brain via the transmission of a signal through the environment. Brain-to-brain coupling constrains and shapes the actions of each individual in a social network, leading to complex joint behaviors that could not have emerged in isolation.

The structure of the shared external environment shapes neural responses and behavior. Some aspects of the environment are determined by the physical environment. Other aspects, however, are determined by a community of individuals, who together establish a shared set of rules (behaviors) that shape and constrain the perception and actions of each member of the group. For example, human

infants undergo a period of perceptual narrowing whereby younger infants can discriminate between social signals from multiple species and cultures, but older infants fine tune their perception following experience with their native social signals. Coupled brains can create new phenomena, including verbal and nonverbal communication systems and interpersonal social institutions, that could not have emerged in species that lack brain-to-brain coupling. Thus, just as the Copernican revolution simplified rather than complicated understanding of the physical world, embracing brain-to-brain coupling as a reference system may simplify understanding of behavior by revealing new forces that operate among individuals and shape one’s social world.

I found several parts of the paper very interesting. First, he makes the point that language seems to be geared to a 3-8 Hz rhythm. That is about 3 to 8 syllables in a second, and can be found in auditory processing of language, in the sound delivery of speakers and the movements of their mouths. As that rhythm, the theta band in the brain, is a constant beat in all of us when we are awake, it does not have to be created but just aligned between the speaker and listener. The listener will mimic the rhythm of the speaker (and when they speak, they will also imitate the sounds, grammar, words and meaning of their partner in conversation).

Second, communication must be learned because it requires shared rules, usage, language, customs and culture. For babies and song birds, their learning is only really successful in a social context of face to face communication. The learner must understand that this is an actually communication with its teacher or the learner does not learn. “The babbling of a 7-12 month-old infant exhibits a pitch, rhythm and even a syllable structure that is similar to the ambient language.” The adult care-giver has to respond to the babbling of the infant and the infant must react to the caregivers responses – it requires actual social interaction.

Third, in fMRI scans of speakers and listeners, there are activities that would not be noticed if only one of the individuals was scanned. There are areas that are in sync between the two scanners. There are areas in the listener that follow the speaker – like an imitating action. And, surprise, there are areas in the listener that lead the speaker – like a prediction. In other words, the process of listening uses the mechanisms of action without the action.

As indicated in the last two postings – it is not clear that an entirely new brain structure was needed for language or for communication. Tweaks to existing systems in the brain can give us linguistic communication. The idea usually credited to Chomsky of a single (or small number of simultaneous) mutation only 50 to 140 thousand years ago giving a nearly full-blown language facility almost instantaneously has always seemed like a bit of an unlikely miracle. But it also appears to be less and less necessary as language and communication become more understood.


Hasson, U., Ghazanfar, A., Galantucci, B., Garrod, S., & Keysers, C. (2012). Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16 (2), 114-121 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2011.12.007

The importance of communication

A recent paper (see citation below) has helped to clarify the relationship between linguistic and musical communication. The researchers used a standard type of communication between jazz players, called “trading fours”. The musicians alternate playing four bar phrases, each relating to the previous one, so that the players in effect answer one another. This back and forth is a musical conversation.

The authors used a number of controls that were not musical conversations as contrasts to the “trading fours”: scales, a practiced melody, improvisation without relating to another player. The resulting music was analyzed for “note density, pitch class distribution, pitch class transitions, duration distribution, duration transitions, interval distribution, interval transitions, melodic complexity, and self- organizing maps of key”. This was used to give a numeric value to the melodic complexity and to identify the nature of the conversation in the “trading fours” sessions. The improvisation in the “trading fours” music was more melodically complex and was related in a conversational way.

One of the players was scanned with fMRI during the sessions. The improvised conversation involved intense activation of two of the language centers (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas ) and also their right hemisphere counterparts. The left side areas “are known to be critical for language production and comprehension as well as processing of musical syntax.” The right side match to Broca’s area is “associated with the detection of task relevant cues such as those involved in the identification of salient harmonic and rhythmic elements.” These two areas appear to perform syntactic processing for both music and speech. The Wernicke’s area is involved in harmonic processing and it’s right homologue is “implicated in auditory short-term memory, consistent with the maintenance of the preceding musical phrases.” These results are similar to a study of linguistic conversation and are consistent with the ‘shared syntactic integration resource hypotheses’. In other words they are consistent with music and language “sharing a common neural network for syntactic operations”.

However music and language are not semantically similar. In the ‘trading fours’ situation there is a marked deactivation of the angular gyrus which is related to “semantic processing of auditory and visual linguistic stimuli and the production of written language and written music.” It appears that during communication, language and music resemble one another in form (syntax) but not in meaning (semantics).

This points in a particular direction. There may be no language specific system in the brain but rather a communication specific system. Interesting.

Here is the abstract:

Interactive generative musical performance provides a suitable model for communication because, like natural linguistic discourse, it involves an exchange of ideas that is unpredictable, collaborative, and emergent. Here we show that interactive improvisation between two musicians is characterized by activation of perisylvian language areas linked to processing of syntactic elements in music, including inferior frontal gyrus and posterior superior temporal gyrus, and deactivation of angular gyrus and supramarginal gyrus, brain structures directly implicated in semantic processing of language. These

findings support the hypothesis that musical discourse engages language areas of the brain specialized for processing of syntax but in a manner that is not contingent upon semantic processing. Therefore, we argue that neural regions for syntactic processing are not domain-specific for language but instead may be domain-general for communication.


Donnay, G., Rankin, S., Lopez-Gonzalez, M., Jiradejvong, P., & Limb, C. (2014). Neural Substrates of Interactive Musical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of ‘Trading Fours’ in Jazz PLoS ONE, 9 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088665

What can be learned from social animals

orpheusMany would have us believe that it is a disadvantage is be social, generous, trusting, cooperative, unselfish or whatever it is called. But it is not a disadvantage, it is an advantage. Cooperation comes with costs like having to control cheaters but it is a very old and successful strategy. In this third post in the animal series, I look at social animals.



Comparative Neuro-biology 3: What can be learned from social animals?



Before we look at social animals, let’s look at very ancient cooperation. The difference between eucaryote cells and prokaryote ones is enormous. Prokaryotes such as bacteria are essentially just a lipid bag of water, salts, proteins, nucleic acid and carbohydrates. They have very limited internal structure and therefore very limited control over their metabolism. Eukaryote cells are also essentially a lipid bag but inside the bag there are many other bags. The DNA is inside a bag (the nucleus) and so access to it is controlled. The engines that burn sugar for energy are each in their own bags (the mitochondria) and the membranes are essential to the process of reaping energy. And so it goes for photosynthesis, protein manufacture, export from the cell and so on. How did eukaryote cells evolve? It seems to be that simple cells cooperated and eventually became so dependent on each other that they merged into a single more complex entity – one with extremely sophisticated control mechanism.


Eukaryotic cells differ from prokaryotic cells by their more complex intracellular organisation. Distinct cellular processes are compartmentalised. This improves efficiency but a problem emerges. Different compartments need to exchange specific molecules and certain molecules need to be exported to the cell exterior. Since most molecules are too large to directly pass through membranes, a mechanism is required to deliver the cargo. The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded to Dr. James E. Rothman, Dr. Randy W. Schekman and Dr. Thomas C. Südhof for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells. This represents a paradigm shift in our understanding of how the eukaryotic cell, with its complex internal compartmentalisation, organises the routing of molecules packaged in vesicles to various intracellular destinations, as well as to the outside of the cell.” (Nobel press release)



So… cooperation in biology is very ancient and is the foundation of multicellular organisms: plants, animals and fungi. But the idea of multicellular organisms itself requires cooperation. The individual cells have to give up any selfish sovereignty to the organism. The cells, tissues and organs have to cooperate or the organism dies. By staying and working together they can live outside the ocean on dry land, eat many more varied foods and all the other things that plants and animals can do that bacteria cannot. Every once in a while some cell goes maverick and attempts to escape the multicellular restriction and we have a cancer. Most cells do not make it to the stage of a cancer because the organism has methods of finding and killing cells that cheat. Cellular slime molds are right on the edge of the divide between multicellular and single celled organisms. How do they deal with cheaters?


Much of what we know about the evolution of altruism comes from animals. Here, we show that studying a microbe has yielded unique insights, particularly in understanding how social cheaters are controlled. The social stage of Dictylostelium discoideum occurs when the amoebae run out of their bacterial prey and aggregate into a multicellular, motile slug. This slug forms a fruiting body in which about a fifth of cells die to form a stalk that supports the remaining cells as they form hardy dispersal-ready spores. Because this social stage forms from aggregation, it is analogous to a social group, or a chimeric multicellular organism, and is vulnerable to internal conflict. Advances in cell labeling, microscopy, single-gene knockouts, and genomics, as well as the results of decades of study of D. discoideum as a model for development, allow us to explore the genetic basis of social contests and control of cheaters in unprecedented detail. Cheaters are limited from exploiting other clones by high relatedness, kin discrimination, pleiotropy (multiple effects of a gene), noble resistance, and lottery-like role assignment. The active nature of these limits is reflected in the elevated rates of change in social genes compared with nonsocial genes. Despite control of cheaters, some conflict is still expressed in chimeras, with slower movement of slugs, slightly decreased investment in stalk compared with spore cells, and differential contributions to stalk and spores. D. discoideum is rapidly becoming a model system of choice for molecular studies of social evolution.” (Strassmann 2011)



Then there is symbiosis. Organisms that are separate but live in intimate contact - corals and lichens for example. Lichens are an association of an algae and a fungus – they are successful on rocks that support nothing else. Corals are an association of the invertebrate coral polyp and an algae – its reef colonies are the foundation of a very successful ecosystem (at least until recent ocean changes). There are a lot of different types and degrees of symbiosis. It is a successful way of life.



Social insects (ants, termites, bees, wasps) are amazingly successful. Their cooperation is very evident and the obvious reason for their success. The social vertebrates are also successful. Throughout biology, where ever we look we find cooperation. From the tiny cells and their physiology, to organisms, to cooperating organisms, even to ecosystems, we find cooperation succeeds. So when someone says that cooperation is a strategy that fails – they are wrong. The proof that cooperation works is all around us. What are the game theorists missing?


With new insights into the classical game theory match-up known as the “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” University of Pennsylvania biologists offer a mathematically based explanation for why cooperation and generosity have evolved in nature. …The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a way of studying how individuals choose whether or not to cooperate. In the game, if both players cooperate, they both receive a payoff. If one cooperates and the other does not, the cooperating player receives the smallest possible payoff, and the defecting player the largest. If both players do not cooperate, they receive a payoff, but it is less than what they would gain if both had cooperated. In other words, it pays to cooperate, but it can pay even more to be selfish…After simulating how some generous strategies would fare in an evolving population, Steward and Plotkin crafted a mathematical proof showing that, not only can generous strategies succeed in the evolutionary version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in fact these are the only approaches that resist defectors over the long term. “Our paper shows that no selfish strategies will succeed in evolution,” Plotkin said. “The only strategies that are evolutionarily robust are generous ones.”…. “When people act generously they feel it is almost instinctual, and indeed a large literature in evolutionary psychology shows that people derive happiness from being generous,” Plotkin said. “It’s not just in humans. Of course social insects behave this way, but even bacteria and viruses share gene products and behave in ways that can’t be described as anything but generous.” “We find that in evolution, a population that encourages cooperation does well,” Stewart said. “To maintain cooperation over the long term, it is best to be generous.”(Steward 2013)



(Aside: I have to say that the Prisoner’s Dilemma is not life. When there is a supposed simulation of the real world, the question to ask is exactly when and where this is a valid simulation rather than a useless mathematical/logical formula. That cooperation works and is wide-spread is an established fact, why this might be is the question that the game/simulation research is about.)



The problem with the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a model is that there is no communication and communication is key to cooperation. All the examples of cooperation have some level of communication. It can be physical contact, chemical exchanges, smells, visual signs, sounds; but there must be communication, an awareness of what the partner/s are doing. Communication is necessary for a level of ‘trust’, including the identification of a partner as legitimate at its simplest. No communication; no trust; no cooperation. Communication is not some little add-on but something important that living things do, internally and externally.



There are very impressive examples of cooperation in mammals, especially the hunting strategies of various dogs, cats and dolphins. We find that social mammals have ways of communicating that are similar to our non-verbal communication – no real difference of kind. Probably the oldest non-verbal channel is posture. When I used to give talks on non-verbal communication, I would point out that the different between taking an upright, head up stance and taking a low, head down stance is extremely old and very obvious in reptiles as well as birds and mammals. The tall pose is aggressive and the crouching pose is submissive. Postural communication is very clear in dogs, horses, primates – and that includes humans. The dog’s play-bow is a good example. It says, “What I do now is not meant to be taken seriously, it is just play. Come play with me.” Posture even can work between species. Apparently it works for huskies and polar bears, as has been shown on YouTube. “Here comes a wild polar bear cut off from his normal seal diet by the water-not-yet-ice … he comes upon a husky tethered in the snow … it looks like lunch time for the bear. … It is not hostility being exchanged between these two… note the the polar bear’s eyes are soft, the husky’s ears are back, his hair is flat and his mouth is open without showing fangs – just a few moments before, as the bear came into view, the husky was in a crouched (play) bow and a wagging tail… something beside attack is on their minds… two carnivores facing each other and, instead of a bear’s predatory attack to feed his hunger, something magical happens” … (see pictures at nifplay below)



I could give a long list of animal communications including everything from bacteria to apes but I will not. I think anyone would agree that communication is common among animals. The point I am making is that without communication we cannot have cooperation and without cooperation we cannot have social groups. Without social groups, we do not have culture. Culture is the big prize. Culture is what humans have in abundance and other social animals have only small amounts of. Culture is what allows us to visit the moon. We have an explosion of culture and that is because we have a great advance in communication, our languages.



Why do other animals such as the apes have communication and cooperation and even a little culture, but they do not have language and with it no explosion of culture? We could just throw up our hands and say, “that’s evolution”. But actually it is a very serious question. When we have chimps and bonobos in captivity and familiar with humans, it is possible to teach them rudimentary language using hand signs or computer tools. So it seems it should have been possible for them to have developed protolanguage and then like humans to have found it so useful that both biological and cultural evolution would have favoured it. But this did not happen. There are a number of other animals that ‘might’ have developed language but didn’t, although they have extension communication and cooperation – elephants and dolphins come to mind.



Blair Bolles in his blog Babel’s Dawn examined the origin of language for about 7 years. He came very close to the heart of the problem in the ideas: that language is dangerous as well as advantageous; and, that group evolution is possible. It is not always in an individual’s best interests to share secrets, let alone broadcast them. Animal communication seems to be limited to very stereotyped messages. Given non-group evolution it may be impossible for language to be selected for because it is often not to the individuals advantage. It is very difficult to show group selection in biological traits but cultural evolution is very obviously a result of group selection (it being groups and not individuals that have culture). We are talking about a little jump from the realm of predominately biological evolution to predominately social evolution. The bonobo is on the one side of that gap and we are on the other.


We know that captive chimpanzees can learn to use words and phrases but in the wild they never tell one another anything. They communicate to control. This kind of discretion is easy to explain in terms of individual selection. A chimpanzee who knows where there will be some ripe fruit has an advantage over its fellows. A chimpanzee who blabs his news has given up an advantage. The fitness score of the chimpanzee who keeps secrets is almost certainly higher than the blabbermouth’s score. Thus, even though groups might benefit from language, it is not going to evolve among chimpanzees. This kind of reasoning makes it easy to explain why language never evolved with other species, and hard to explain why humans have such a hard time keeping secrets. (see Bolles’ post below)



We have come full circle: communication facilitates cooperation, which facilitates culture, which facilitates communication and cooperation.



Image: Orpheus charming the animals by Jacob Savery




Eukaryote controls - Press releases about Nobel Awards


Strassmann JE, Queller DC; Evolution of cooperation and control of cheating in a social microbe; Proc Natl Acad Sci U.S.A 2011, 108 Suppl 2:10855.62. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1102451108




University of Pennsylvania material (2013), Biologists show that generosity leads to evolutionary success http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130902162716.htm


Play signals - http://nifplay.org/polar-husky.html


Origins of language - http://www.babelsdawn.com/babels_dawn/2012/07/language-serves-the-group.html