Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Researchers Discover Monkeys Have a Speech-Ready Vocal Tract

A new study finds that non-human primates have the vocal tract required for human-type speech.

They think we can’t talk. (JINTERWAS)

No one has ever heard a non-human primate speak, at least not a human language. No one has been able to teach one to do so, either. Back in 1969, a team of researchers from Yale, using technology available to them at the time, concluded that most primates, rhesus monkeys specifically, “lack the output mechanism necessary for the production of human speech." A study just released in Science Advances comes to a very different conclusion: ““A monkey's vocal tract would be perfectly adequate to produce hundreds, thousands of words," says cognitive scientist W. Tecumseh Fitch, one of the study's co-authors, speaking with the New York Times in their article on the study. Or as the new study's title succinctly puts it, “Monkey Vocal Tracts Are Speech-Ready."

Research techniques have come a long way from the late 60s, when the Yale team created a plaster mold of a dead monkey's vocal tract and applied various acoustic formulas to try and discern the sounds it was capable of making. The new study utilized x-ray videos to observe the mechanics Emiliano, a rhesus macaque monkey, used to produce vocal sounds. (Those are rhesus macaque monkeys sharing secrets above.) After giving him a barium-based contrast agent, they were able to image the coos and grunts he made when offered fruit. They also captured Emiliano swallowing his yummies to measure the maximum width his throat could attain. 99 stills were extracted from the videos, and the researchers plotted the shape of the vocal tract in each picture to generate a three-dimensional computer model. By pushing virtual air through the model, they were able to discern the sounds each shape could produce.

Mapping and modeling the vocal tract (FITCH/DE BOER/MATHUR/GHAZANFAR)

And there were a lot of possible sounds, including the five key vowel sounds contained in the words “bit," “bet," “bat," “but," and “bought," according to Fitch. People for whom these sounds were played were mostly able to recognize them, and audio software even allowed the researchers to assemble the Emiliano's utterances into a marriage proposal.

Human vs. Monkey voice prints (FITCH/DE BOER/MATHUR/GHAZANFAR)

Still, Philip H. Lieberman, one of the Yale study's authors, pointed out to the Times that one of he most important human vowel sounds— the long “e" — is notably absent from the test subjects' repertoire. But speech scientist Anna Barney told the Times she's impressed, and that the sounds the monkeys produced are a good starting point for speech, with one big caveat: the study doesn't demonstrate a capacity for consonants. “What they've shown is that monkeys are vowel-ready, not speech-ready."

So, why don't non-human primates talk to us? We know they're smart. Chimpanzees may be better than we are at game theory, and capuchin monkeys understand human money, something that can't even be said of most human teenagers.

Though the new study didn't examine the reason monkeys don't talk, another one of its authors, neuroscientist Asif A. Ghazanfar suspects, “If they had the brain, they could produce intelligible speech." Speech is, after all, a complicated process involving perfectly synchronized muscle movements and airflow. Human brains may have unique wiring that allows us to learn words when we're young, and we have a special set of nerves that give us highly developed motor control of our vocal tracts.

Tantalizingly, not everyone agrees other primates can't learn to speak. Adriano Lameira, recently taught an orangutan named Rocky to imitate human speech.

Rocky (MARK KASER/UNIVERSITY OF DURHAM/PA)

Lamiera tells New Scientist, ““There's a growing body of evidence from all great ape species that there are few neural limitations. Our closest relatives can vocally learn new vowel-like and consonant-like calls, both in the wild and in captivity."

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
Keep reading Show less

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?

Videos
  • From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
  • "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
  • Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.

COVID-19 brain study to explore long-term effects of the virus

A growing body of research suggests COVID-19 can cause serious neurological problems.

Brain images of a patient with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis.

Coronavirus
  • The new study seeks to track the health of 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
  • The study aims to explore whether the disease causes cognitive impairment and other conditions.
  • Recent research suggests that COVID-19 can, directly or indirectly, cause brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage and other neurological problems.
Keep reading Show less
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation

Better reskilling can future-proof jobs in the age of automation. Enter SkillUp's new coalition.

Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast