Nicolas Claidière
Laboratoire de psychologie cognitive
Aix-Marseille University, CNRS
13331 Marseille, France

Can you tell the language of the mother from her baby’s cry?

A recently published article by Birgit Mampe, Angela D. Friederici, Anne Christophe and Kathleen Wermke entitled “Newborns’ Cry Melody Is Shaped by Their Native Language” shows evidence that newborns’ cry melody is influenced by the native language of their mother. The authors analysed the melody contours of 1254 cries (selected from 2500 recordings) from 30 French and 30 German monolingual families. They normalized each cry duration and measured the time at which the maximum pitch was reached and the time at which the maximum intensity was reached. Babies from both German and French group produced various cries with very different melodies, but in mean there was a significant difference between the melody of German baby cries and of French baby cries. We can therefore conclude that, on average, the baby cries’ melodies are closer to the melody of their mother’s tongue than to that other tongues (but see Mark Liberman Language Log post for some methodological issues).

This study provides the first evidence of the fact that newborns sound production is influenced by the language of their parents.

Alloparental care and wandering baby monkeys

Pierre Jacob recently discussed Sarah Hrdy’s book Mothers and Others in which she argues that humans, like New World monkeys but unlike other apes, are cooperative breeders. As Pierre summarizes, cooperative breeding implies that newborns and youngsters have evolved the capacity to engage adults in caring for them and that adults have evolved the capacity to share the care of their offspring. Adults are therefore naturally attracted toward newborns, who eventually solicit their attention, and inexperienced mothers compete for newborns with other adults, including the mother, to gain more experience in parental care. The following video, just filmed by Mark Bowler at the Living Links Center in Edinburgh (where I am now pursuing my research) nicely illustrates Hrdy’s description of alloparental care.

New born capuchin monkeys interacting with alloparents.

The Chameleon effect in Capuchin Monkeys

Imitation, as you probably know, has received considerable attention during the past 20 years or so because it was first argued that it was a uniquely human psychological mechanism that could partly explain the development of human material culture (see Whiten et al. 2004 for a review with historical perspective). In this long debate, imitation has come to acquire a technical definition: that of learning by observation a novel mean to reach a particular goal. While the discussion of whether non-human animals are able to imitate in this sense is still going on, a recent study by Annika Paukner, Stephen J. Suomi, Elisabetta Visalberghi and Pier F. Ferrari has challenged the human uniqueness of yet another form of imitation: the chameleon effect.

As its name indicate, the chameleon effect (dubbed after the Woody Allen movie Zelig, see movie below) refers to the “nonconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, facial expressions, and other behaviors of one’s interaction partners, such that one’s behavior passively and unintentionally changes to match that of others in one’s current social environment.”(Chartrand & Bargh 1999) The chameleon effect is known to influence the social relationship between people: to smoothen relations, increase likeliness between individuals and increase empathic dispositions. But is the chameleon effect the consequence of a species typical disposition linked to our unique communicative abilities for instance, or is it shared with our close relatives and therefore linked to more general aspect of social behaviours?

Beginning of Woody Allen’s Zelig movie.

Murder in Saint Andrews

Last week I was enjoying a very pleasant evening in St Andrews. The sky was clear, the last rays of sun were warming the beach, the sound of the sea was pleasanty resting my exhausted mind. On my way back from the beach I crossed a small car park and while I was peacefully enjoying this last moment of tranquility before returning to the center of the city, my visual detection module got activated by an unusual object. Automatically, and whithout my conscious awareness and consent, my attention got focused on an unexpected thing. Rapidly a close look at it revealed that I was examining the remains of a dead body. As this thought occured to me, my sherlock holmes module spring into action… who was he/she? why did he/she died here? what was the cause of the death?

Read more on the cognition and culture institute !

A role for dislexia in language evolution?

In a new paper Gabrieli highlight the recent results of cognitive neuroscience research on dyslexia and its potential consequences for the treatment of dyslexic children through educative measures.

What Gabrieli show is that dyslexia, an impairement in reading abilities linked to difficulties in phonological processing, can be detected very early on by brain imaging techniques and treated in some cases with specific training in reading during the beginning of learning. If left undetected and untreated, dyslexia can cause prolonged difficulties in reading abilities and decrease motivation to read.

Dyslexia and its orthographic consequences could be of great interest for cognition-and-culture oriented scientists because orthographic errors generated by dyslexia or other processes produce linguistic variation at the origin of language evolution.

Read more on cognition and culture institute !

Is language a replicator?

In a recent review Mark Pagel argues that language is a culturally transmitted replicator (Pagel, 2009).

Pagel starts by offering a useful update on phylogenetic methods and then uses a comparison between genetics and language phylogenetic trees to reveal similarities between cultural and biological evolution. He argues that borrowing and corruption, which could in principle be very important in the case of languages and make phylogenetic reconstruction difficult if not impossible, are, in fact, very limited. Pagel notes: “If languages are not the ‘closed shop’ to outside influences that we have come to expect of eukaryotic organisms with sequestered germ lines, the strength of descent with modification in language trees shows that the cultural processes of language teaching and learning that transmit language from one generation to the next can have a surprisingly high fidelity and can show resistance to outside effects.” To put it briefly, phylogenetic trees show, or so it is claimed, that languages are faithfully reproduced from one generation to the next.

Read more on the cognition and culture institute !

Experimental evidence for the Broken Window Theory

In the late 80′s, New York experienced a high rate of violence and crack was everywhere. In 1985 when George L. Kelling, coauthor of the article “Broken Windows“, was hired as a consultant to the New York City Transit Authority, the subway was awfull. Kelling implemented new measures. He made every graffiti disappear and cleaned every station. Day after day after day, new graffitti would be made in the night and removed during the day, until oneday the new policy started to be successful and graffiti progressively disappeared. Mayor and police department of New York also employed the same method, they implemented a zero tolerance policing with easier arrestee procedure. Police started enforcing the law very strictly, against subway fare evasion, public drinkers, urinators, and the like. The rates of both petty and serious crime fell suddenly and significantly.

Read more on the cognition and culture institute !

Into the dynamic of hot topics

“Have you heard about the subprime crisis?” A few days before I was first asked that question I did not even know what a subprime was, but just in a week or so subprimes had become a major topic for news, conversation, rumors and even jokes. ‘Subprime crisis’ is an example of the successful spread, by word of mouth, media and other sources, of an information throughout a population. Most topics of conversation do not become hot, obviously, even important ones, so what makes the difference between a topic and a hot topic? Between information that spreads only locally and information that becomes known by each and everyone?

Crane and Sornette make a great step toward a better understanding of ‘hot topics dynamic’ with a simple model.

Read more on the cognition and culture institute !