Their ear structures were not that different from ours.
- Neanderthals are emerging as having been much more advanced than previously suspected.
- Analysis of ear structures indicated by fossilized remains suggests they had everything they needed for understanding the subtleties of speech.
- The study also concludes that Neanderthals could produce the consonants required for a rich spoken language.
Neanderthals' image has undergone quite an upgrade in recent years. Where we once we thought of them as knuckle-dragging just-slightly-more-evolved apes, we now know that they were not so very unlike us. Evolutionarily more primitive, yes, but not by that much. They buried their dead, painted cave art, developed wooden tools, and even made string. We also know that their genetic traces remain in many modern humans. A new study from researchers at the University of Binghamton in New York State and Universidad de Alcalá in Spain pretty conclusively demonstrates they had the physical apparatus required for speaking and for understanding speech.
"This is one of the most important studies I have been involved in during my career," says co-author Ralph Quam. "The results are solid and clearly show the Neanderthals had the capacity to perceive and produce human speech. This is one of the very few current, ongoing research lines relying on fossil evidence to study the evolution of language, a notoriously tricky subject in anthropology."
The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Neanderthal reconstruction (right), 2014
Credit: Cesar Manso/Getty Images
"For decades, one of the central questions in human evolutionary studies has been whether the human form of communication, spoken language, was also present in any other species of human ancestor, especially the Neanderthals," says co-author Juan Luis Arsuaga.
The key to answering these questions, say the researchers, has to do first with Neanderthals' physical ability to hear in the frequency ranges typically involved in speech. In addition, while it's known that these ancient people had the physiological capacity for producing vowel sounds, the new research adds consonants to the Neanderthal repertoire, greatly expanding the possibilities for conveying a wide variety of meaning through the production of more types of sounds.
The authors made high-resolution CT scans of fossilized Neanderthal skulls—and skulls from some of their ancestors—found at UNESCO's archaeological site in northern Spain's Atapuerca Mountains. These scans served as the basis for virtual 3D models of the fossils' ear structures. Similar models of modern human ear structures were also created for comparison purposes.
Auditory bioengineering software assessed the hearing capabilities of the models. The software is capable of identifying sensitivity to frequencies up to 5 kHz, the midrange and low-midrange frequencies at which homo sapien speech primarily occurs. (We can hear much higher and lower frequencies, but that's where speech lies.)
Of particular importance is the "occupied bandwidth," the frequency region of greatest sensitivity, and therefore the spectrum most capable of accommodating enough different audio signals to represent a multitude of meanings. The occupied bandwidth is considered a critical requirement for speech since being able to produce and hear many different sounds—and understand their many different meanings—is the cornerstone of efficient communication.
Compared to their ancestors, the Neanderthal models turned out to have better hearing in the 4-5 kHz range, making their hearing more comparable to our own. In addition, the Neanderthals were found to have a wider occupied bandwidth than their predecessors, again more closely resembling modern humans.
Lead author of the study Mercedes Conde-Valverde says, "This really is the key. The presence of similar hearing abilities, particularly the bandwidth, demonstrates that the Neanderthals possessed a communication system that was as complex and efficient as modern human speech."
Credit: sakura/Adobe Stock/Big Think
The study also suggests that Neanderthal vocalization were more advanced than previously thought. Says Quam: "Most previous studies of Neanderthal speech capacities focused on their ability to produce the main vowels in English spoken language."
However, he says, "One of the other interesting results from the study was the suggestion that Neanderthal speech likely included an increased use of consonants."
This is important, since "the use of consonants is a way to include more information in the vocal signal and it also separates human speech and language from the communication patterns in nearly all other primates. The fact that our study picked up on this is a really interesting aspect of the research and is a novel suggestion regarding the linguistic capacities in our fossil ancestors."
The study concludes that Neanderthals had the physiological hardware to produce a complex range of vocalizations, and the ability to understand them through ear structures not very unlike our own. This fits neatly with other recent insights as to the sophistication of the Neanderthals, a people who now seem to have been developing an expansive set of advanced capabilities simultaneously.
The authors of the study have been investigating the Neanderthals for almost 20 years, and others have been at it even longer. The work continues, and the study's publication marks a significant milestone in the much longer journey.
"These results are particularly gratifying," says co-author Ignacio Martinez. "We believe, after more than a century of research into this question, that we have provided a conclusive answer to the question of Neanderthal speech capacities."
The debate over whether or not there is a place for political correctness in modern society is not always black and white.
- Political correctness is often seen as a debate between two extremes, but there are nuances in the middle of the spectrum. Is there such a thing as being too PC, and if so, where is that line?
- While philosopher Slavoj Žižek, comedian Lewis Black, and actor Jeff Garlin acknowledge that some topics can be hurtful or even oppressive and should thus be approached with "good taste and self-restraint," they also argue that PC culture has tipped the scales far beyond being balanced. "If we continue to move in that direction," says Black, "then we're going to be living between uptight and stupid and there'll be no in between."
- Simultaneously, others—including Paul F. Tompkins, Jim Gaffigan, and Martin Amis—argue that political correctness aims to change things for the better, especially for groups who have been marginalized and discriminated against, and that not being sexist and racist, for example, is not actually a heavy lift. "The fact of the matter is these people are the people of today and you might be a person of yesterday if you can't adjust and you can't be in tune with what people think is funny anymore," says Tompkins.
A new study found that words are more accurately heard when accompanied by hand gestures.
- A team of researchers from the Netherlands found that hands gestures, when used strategically, influence how certain words are heard.
- Participants were 20% more likely to hear and interpret the words being spoken when accompanied by a matching hand gesture, and 40% as likely to hear the wrong word when the gestures did not match.
- Previous research has suggested that certain hand gestures can signal extraversion and dominance, and that speaking with gestures in general tends to lead to being evaluated as warm, agreeable, and energetic.
It's true that politicians, orators, business executives, and other types of leaders tend to be fond of speaking with their hands, but does the habit actually have influence over how others interpret those words? A team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Radboud University, and TiCC Tilburg University—all located in the Netherlands—sought to find out.
In a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the group detailed a series of experiments on volunteers who viewed videos of people speaking with and without hand motions. They found that hand gestures, when done right, do influence how certain words are heard.
After showing the participants the videos of people speaking under different conditions, the researchers asked them questions about what they had heard. Those conditions involved the speaker emphasizing different parts of words in a sentence (e.g. OBject versus obJECT). Other conditions involved the speaker making various types of hand gestures. For example, chopping, pointing, or sweeping motions made with the hands and arms. Sometimes those hand motions coincided with sections of words being stressed, but sometimes they were random.
The team recorded the volunteers as they viewed the video recordings, questioning the participants afterward about what they had seen and heard. They found that the participants were more impacted by syllables spoken in conjunction with hand gestures: In 20 percent of the cases the viewer was more likely to have heard and interpreted the word being spoken when accompanied by a hand gesture. Interestingly, however, participants were 40 percent more likely to hear the wrong sound when a mismatch between the word spoken and the hand gesture occurred.
Perception of character
In addition to making your words more clear, past research has found that speaking with your hands really can alter the perception of your character. Markus Koppensteiner at the University of Vienna has analyzed the way that people talk with their hands and how the speaker is perceived. His research has suggested that certain hand gestures can signal extraversion and dominance.
For example, extraversion appeared to be associated with more hand movements overall. Vertical movements, meanwhile, seemed to be linked to the perception of authority. For example, hands sweeping up from torso to shoulder height. People making these expansive gestures with their arms tend to be rated lower in agreeableness, but higher in domination. This was, according to Koppensteiner, a consistent result in his papers.
According to body language expert Carol Goman, Ph.D., "Studies have found that people who communicate through active gesturing tend to be evaluated as warm, agreeable, and energetic, while those who remain still (or whose gestures seem mechanical or "wooden") are seen as logical, cold, and analytic." In fact, a 2015 study that analyzed TED Talks found that the most popular, viral speakers used nearly twice as many as the least popular speakers used.
The Dutch research team of this recent study suggests that their findings imply that hand gestures are an important part of in-person communications that have a direct impact on what the listener actually hears. Furthermore, they suggest that our responses to hand gestures used by someone speaking to us may be something that we learn as we grow up. Or, as they also note, it's equally plausible that there is an evolutionary reason for our enhanced responses to hand-talking rather than a learned behavior.
Although these experiments were conducted with only Dutch speakers, the team believes that it's likely they would have found the same results with other languages.
A new study looks at why mysterious voices are sometimes taken as spirits and other times as symptoms of mental health issues.
- Both spiritualist mediums and schizophrenics hear voices.
- For the former, this constitutes a gift; for the latter, mental illness.
- A study explores what the two phenomena have in common.
Even different definitions of the word "clairaudience" reflect the way different people respond to the experience.
Merriam-Webster defines it as "hearing something not present to the ear but regarded as having objective reality," suggesting a hallucinatory experience. The Free Dictionary refers to it as the ability to hear things "outside the range of normal perception," suggesting a sort of superpower to hear what's there, but that others can't hear.
Often, what's heard are voices. In some cases, the hearer finds the experience distressing, and a mental health diagnosis, perhaps of schizophrenia, may result. For other people—such as seance mediums—the phenomenon has spiritual significance, and such voices are interpreted as messages from the dead.
Are these two different phenomena, or are they the same thing, understood differently depending on the context in which they occur? A new study in the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture suggests the latter, and seeks to work out why hearing voices for some is a symptom of mental illness but for others it's a religious/spiritual experience (RSE). The study assumes sincerity on the part of those reporting hearing voices.
Credit: Camila Quintero Franco/Unsplash
The researchers, led by Adam Powell of Durham University's Hearing the Voice project and Department of Theology and Religion, conducted online surveys of 65 clairaudient mediums they found through contact with spiritualist communities. The survey also included 143 people from the general population who responded negatively to the question "Have you ever had an experience you would describe as 'clairaudient?'" posed through an online study recruitment tool.
All participants spoke English and were aged 18-75. Most (84.4 percent) were from the U.K., with the rest mostly from the North Americas, Europe, or Australasia.
Of the spiritualists surveyed, 79 percent said hearing voices was a normal part of their lives at church and at home, while 44.6 percent said that they heard voices every day. Most respondents reported the voices as being inside their heads, though 31.7 percent said they came from outside their bodies.
Not surprisingly, more spiritualists reported believing in the paranormal than did the general population participants. They also cared less about what others thought of them.
Both groups were prone to visual hallucinations as well.
Youth and absorption
Credit: Tanner Boriack/Unsplash
Spiritualist clairaudients reported their first experiences with other voices early in life. Of these participants, 18 percent said they had heard voices for as long as they remembered. The average age, however, for first hearing voices was 21.7 years. Schizophrenia typically presents when a person is somewhat older than this, in the late 20s.
Significantly, 71 percent said their experience with voices pre-dated their awareness of spiritualism. Rather than religion prompting the hearing of voices, it seems that it's more the other way around — voices led them to religion.
Says Powell, "Our findings say a lot about 'learning and yearning.' For our participants, the tenets of spiritualism seem to make sense of both extraordinary childhood experiences as well as the frequent auditory phenomena they experience as practicing mediums."
Still, the voices came first he says, so "all of those experiences may result more from having certain tendencies or early abilities than from simply believing in the possibility of contacting the dead if one tries hard enough."
The more likely factor is spiritualist clairaudients' relationship with absorption. Responses to questions based on the 34-point Tellegen Absorption Scale revealed that these people tended toward absorptive personality characteristics. These are described by the study's authors as "being readily captured by entrancing stimuli, reporting vivid mental imagery, becoming immersed in one's own thoughts."
Some, though not all, voice-hearing individuals from the general population were found to exhibit high levels of absorption — those that did were more likely to believe in the paranormal than others.
The study's finding regarding the relative young ages at which spiritualist clairaudients begin hearing voices suggests that these individuals' more welcoming attitude toward the phenomenon may have to do with malleability of youth — a belief in the fantastical is part of being young.
"Spiritualists tend to report unusual auditory experiences which are positive, start early in life and which they are often then able to control," says co-author Peter Moseley of Northumbria University. "Understanding how these develop is important because it could help us understand more about distressing or non-controllable experiences of hearing voices too."
The authors of the study do note, however, that their findings leave two big unanswered questions: Does a tendency toward absorption reveal "a predisposition to having RSEs or a belief in the plausibility of having RSEs?"
The other obvious big question? It's beyond the scope of this survey, but are those really the voices of the dead?
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