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Poster A60, Thursday, August 16, 10:15 am – 12:00 pm, Room 2000AB

What can neuroscience teach us about the origin of language?

Oren Poliva1;1Bangor University

In the brain of primates, the auditory cortex connects with the frontal lobe via the temporal pole (auditory ventral stream; AVS) and via the inferior parietal lobe (auditory dorsal stream; ADS). The AVS is responsible for sound recognition, and the ADS for sound-localization, voice detection and integration of calls with faces. I propose that the primary role of the ADS in non-human primates is the detection and response to contact calls. These calls are exchanged between tribe members (e.g., mother-offspring) and are used for monitoring location. Detection of contact calls occurs by the ADS identifying a voice, localizing it, and verifying that the corresponding face is out of sight. Once a contact call is detected, the primate produces a contact call in return via descending connections from the frontal lobe to a network of limbic and brainstem regions. Because the ADS of present day humans also performs speech production, I further propose an evolutionary course for the transition from contact call exchange to an early form of speech. In accordance with this model, structural changes to the ADS endowed early members of the genus Homo with partial vocal control. This development was beneficial as it enabled offspring to modify their contact calls with intonations for signaling high or low levels of distress to their mother. Eventually, individuals were capable of participating in yes-no question-answer conversations. In these conversations the offspring emitted a low-level distress call for inquiring about the safety of objects (e.g., food), and his/her mother responded with a high- or low-level distress call to signal approval or disapproval of the interaction. Gradually, the ADS and its connections with brainstem motor regions became more robust and vocal control became more volitional. Speech emerged once vocal control was sufficient for inventing novel calls.

Topic Area: Language Development