Center for Interdisziplinary Research

The Phylo- and Ontogenesis of Understanding and Communication

Date: January 11 - 14, 2006
Organizers: Ipke Wachsmuth (Bielefeld), Günther Knoblich (Newark)

Workshop of the ZiF: Research Group 2005/2006 "Embodied Communication in Humans and Machines"

What are the precursors of language and other highly sophisticated forms of communication humans engage in? To which extent are animals able to communicate and how does human Communication develop during childhood? Does the body play a crucial role in the development of Communication? These were some of the questions discussed by an international group of scientists from fields like primate research, developmental psychology, linguistics, Computer science, and neurosciences, at the first thematic workshop of the research year on Embodied Communication organized by Ipke Wachsmuth (Bielefeld) and Günther Knoblich (Newark).

Communicating Ape

There is a mutual dependence of developmental dynamics for language and communication linguist Jens Allwood (Göteborg), fellow in residence of the research group, said when he addressed the question of how we can study the evolution of embodied Communication. He distinguished four types of dynamics that mutually enable and constrain each other: phylogenesis, ontogenesis, macrogenesis (i.e. social evolution, language, culture, and artefacts), and microgenesis (i.e. situated Communication). The last two, he proposed, are crucial for the development of human Communication: They mark the difference between Stone Age culture and modern culture.
Neuroscientist Leo Fogassi (Parma) reported new findings on the mirror neurons. This neurons were first detected in macaque monkeys and make up a substantial part of the monkey pre-motor cortex. Rather than simply mirroring movement they serve the understanding of goal directed actions. In humans the mirror Systems seems to be also involved in understanding more symbolic actions. Fogassi speculated that a variety of functions evolved from the mirror-system, including intentional understanding, Imitation, and the understanding of symbolic gestures. He also pointed out that there are anatomical similarities between the F5 region in monkeys and Broca's area in humans. Broca's area which has long been associated with language seems to also be involved in the control of hand movements, mouth movements, and facial muscles. Christian Keysers (Groningen), proposed that mirroring is a more general principle of brain functioning that does not only operate for instrumental action, but also for touch, emotions, and the sounds actions produce. He proposed that acknowledging this fact might also help to demystify the phylogenesis of communication.
The psychologist Kim Bard (Portsmouth) focused on a comparative perspective that compares the development of human and chimpanzee babies. Up to a certain age chimpanzee infants show almost the same performance in localizing a sound, mutual gaze, social games, emotional behaviour, and neonatal Imitation as human infants, she found. Different "chimpanzee cultures" moderate these behaviours: little mutual gaze goes together with much physical contact, and vice versa. This is a striking demonstration that chimpanzees have a rich multimodal communicative System that is responsive to socialisation. Primatologist Josep Call (Leipzig) provided further evidence for this flexibility in communication. Like humans, apes produce most gestures with their hands. They are able to learn new gestures, to use known ones in new situations, and to combine them flexibly. However, apes use combinations mainly in order to raise emphasis. Their gesturing is not combinatorial in the same sense as language is. Primatologist Julia Fischer (Göttingen) focused on vocal communication in monkeys. She found a highly graded vocal repertoire in babary macaques that consists of scream calls of that are used to establish, maintain, or avoid contact.
Turning from apes and monkeys to infant developmental psychologist Sabina Pauen (Heidelberg) explained that infants do not by chance understand and produce their first words at the end of their first year of life. Rather, infant's first words are typically nouns which refer to categories of objects. Thus the ability to categorize objects seems to be a crucial precondition for early language use. At the age of four months infants can distinguish non-living things (e.g. vehicles) from living things (animals). However, they are not able to categorize within each category, e.g. distinguish between cars and trucks or cats and dogs. This capability does not develop until the age of eleven months. She also presented research demonstrating that non-verbal social communication problems can cause language problems. Another important domain of infant and child development, the expression of emotions, was addressed by psychologist Manfred Holodynski (Bielefeld). He proposed that the qualitative change in ontogenesis from unfocussed expression to internalization of expression signs might be similar to the change that occurs in language development, from communicative speech to private speech.
Psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow (Chicago) presented very surprising results about children who are born deaf. These children spontaneously develop a gesture language, as hearing children develop spoken language. Gesture languages are as rich and flexible as spoken languages are. Nevertheless spoken language dominates gesturing in all cultures. But why then, Goldin-Meadow asked, has language become the province of speech and not gesture? She speculated that in order communicate effectively it might be best to combine mimetic and a combinatorial code with gestures accompanying speech.
Neurologist Georg Goldenberg (Munich) looked at disorders of gesture production and gesture understanding in apraxia. Patients with apraxia have problems producing meaningful gestures on demand, imitating gestures, and pantomiming the use of tools or objects. Deficits in pantomime, he found, are special because the ability to pantomime is related to semantic memory as compared to the Imitation of meaningless gestures. Interestingly, pantomime deficits often co-occur with language deficits. Thus, apraxia is not a disorder of motor control but a 'disorder of thinking'.
Gestures define the identity of a whole culture, linguist Roland Posner (Berlin) pointed out. He explained how gestures become conventional signs through a process of standardisation of action. This process occurs during interaction and during the joint use of artefacts. Meaningful body movements thus form the basis of culture as the body forms the basis of communication in general.

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