February 23, 2010

Prof. Investigates The Mysteries Behind Language and The Brain

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Whether it be the proper diction of Shakespeare or the colloquialisms of the Jersey Shore cast, language and the ability to communicate is one of the defining characteristics of the human species. Without it, humans would not have been able to develop as a civilized race. However, much of the biology and evolution that enabled the human race to communicate with each other on such a complex and unique level remains unknown, and mysteries behind both the neuroscience and the underlying genetics remain.

Prof. Morten Christiansen, psychology, posed the question to his seminar audience on Feb 19, “Did language shape the human brain or did our brain shape human language?” Ultimately, Christiansen and his team at the Cornell Cognitive Neuroscience Lab have been studying whether the complexities and mental challenges that arose with the development of language drove the evolution of the brain or whether physiological differences stemming from cerebral evolution caused the foundation of language.

When approaching the question from the language shaped the brain perspective, Christiansen and his team employed the Baldwin effect, an evolutionary theory first proposed by James Mark Baldwin. According to the Baldwin Effect, acquired traits are able to be incorporated into the genome through selection for individuals with a higher learning capacity. Therefore, the sooner the individual learns the trait, the higher their evolutionary fitness.

However, the theory that language altered the development of the brain, was quickly dismissed based on the fact that language is not stagnant. Syntax, grammar and communication style has changed drastically from when language first arose to medieval times and modern times, yet the structure of the brain does not drastically change over so few generations.

Christiansen and his team has concluded through extensive research in learning habits that language evolved because of pre-existing neural mechanisms. However, language was constrained by socio-pragmatic considerations, the nature of the thought processes, sensori-motor factors, and cognitive limitations on learning, memory and processing. Genetics also posed a large constraint on the progression of communication.

“It should be uncontroversial that there are strong genetic constraints on language and even how we use language,” Christiansen elaborated. “Likewise, in order to explain the cross linguistic similarities that exist between languages, we need genetic constraints. Finally, there must be something different about our genetic make up that makes us have language whereas other animals do not.”

As a species, all humans’ genomes are about 99.9 percent the same. Christiansen hope to use the difference within the human genome to determine whether the language was culturally induced or naturally induced through genetics.

Much remains to be learned about the links between language, neuroscience and genes. As Elizabeth Bates said of the foundation of language, “it is not a question of nature vs. nurture, it is a question of the nature of nature.”

Original Author: Jade Tabony