Call combinations in birds and the evolution of compositional syntax

PLOS Biology (new articles) - 19 hours 2 min ago

by Toshitaka N. Suzuki, David Wheatcroft, Michael Griesser

Syntax is the set of rules for combining words into phrases, providing the basis for the generative power of linguistic expressions. In human language, the principle of compositionality governs how words are combined into a larger unit, the meaning of which depends on both the meanings of the words and the way in which they are combined. This linguistic capability, i.e., compositional syntax, has long been considered a trait unique to human language. Here, we review recent studies on call combinations in a passerine bird, the Japanese tit (Parus minor), that provide the first firm evidence for compositional syntax in a nonhuman animal. While it has been suggested that the findings of these studies fail to provide evidence for compositionality in Japanese tits, this criticism is based on misunderstanding of experimental design, misrepresentation of the importance of word order in human syntax, and necessitating linguistic capabilities beyond those given by the standard definition of compositionality. We argue that research on avian call combinations has provided the first steps in elucidating how compositional expressions could have emerged in animal communication systems.
Categories: Biology, Journals

Compositionality in animals and humans

PLOS Biology (new articles) - 19 hours 2 min ago

by Simon W. Townsend, Sabrina Engesser, Sabine Stoll, Klaus Zuberbühler, Balthasar Bickel

A key step in understanding the evolution of human language involves unravelling the origins of language’s syntactic structure. One approach seeks to reduce the core of syntax in humans to a single principle of recursive combination, merge, for which there is no evidence in other species. We argue for an alternative approach. We review evidence that beneath the staggering complexity of human syntax, there is an extensive layer of nonproductive, nonhierarchical syntax that can be fruitfully compared to animal call combinations. This is the essential groundwork that must be explored and integrated before we can elucidate, with sufficient precision, what exactly made it possible for human language to explode its syntactic capacity, transitioning from simple nonproductive combinations to the unrivalled complexity that we now have.
Categories: Biology, Journals

Serial representation of items during working memory maintenance at letter-selective cortical sites

PLOS Biology (new articles) - 19 hours 2 min ago

by Ali Bahramisharif, Ole Jensen, Joshua Jacobs, John Lisman

A key component of working memory is the ability to remember multiple items simultaneously. To understand how the human brain maintains multiple items in memory, we examined direct brain recordings of neural oscillations from neurosurgical patients as they performed a working memory task. We analyzed the data to identify the neural representations of individual memory items by identifying recording sites with broadband gamma activity that varied according to the identity of the letter a subject viewed. Next, we tested a previously proposed model of working memory, which had hypothesized that the neural representations of individual memory items sequentially occurred at different phases of the theta/alpha cycle. Consistent with this model, the phase of the theta/alpha oscillation when stimulus-related gamma activity occurred during maintenance reflected the order of list presentation. These results suggest that working memory is organized by a cortical phase code coordinated by coupled theta/alpha and gamma oscillations and, more broadly, provide support for the serial representation of items in working memory.
Categories: Biology, Journals

No contraceptive is perfect, but can you trust apps to stop pregnancy?

Genetics - Wed, 2018-08-15 20:00
Birth control app Natural Cycles has come under fire for unwanted pregnancies, but this just reveals how little we understand contraception
Categories: Biology

Extreme tales from a record-breaking dive in the Antarctic

Genetics - Wed, 2018-08-15 19:30
Jon Copley dived deep for Blue Planet II. He reveals the risks of falling rocks, leaks and fires inside the sub, and highlights the extraordinary "death star"
Categories: Biology

Some clouds are formed when a virus makes algae shed their shells

Genetics - Wed, 2018-08-15 18:00
When algae in the ocean get a virus, they shed their exoskeleton and those chalky bits can get flung into the air and trigger the formation of clouds
Categories: Biology

Doctors will grow human tissue on the International Space Station

Genetics - Wed, 2018-08-15 16:54
Liver tissue and muscle fibre are going to be grown on the ISS, to see if we can one day grow human organs in space
Categories: Biology

This one particle could solve five mega-mysteries of physics

Genetics - Wed, 2018-08-15 14:00
Forget the Higgs: theorists have uncovered a missing link that explains dark matter, what happened in the big bang and more. Now they’re racing to find it
Categories: Biology

Weird circles in the sky may be signs of a universe before ours

Genetics - Wed, 2018-08-15 10:00
A theory suggesting that the universe is constantly reborn could be proved right by ‘Hawking points’ – signs of evaporated black holes from a time before the big bang
Categories: Biology

Why taking ayahuasca is like having a near-death experience

Genetics - Wed, 2018-08-15 06:00
A psychedelic drug produces effects similar to near-death experiences. The finding suggests changes to brain activity may explain such paranormal phenomena
Categories: Biology

Sterile fish could help wild salmon dodge the ‘gene pollution’ effect

Genetics - Wed, 2018-08-15 02:01
Farmed Atlantic salmon make the local wild salmon population weaker. Making them sterile could work – but there’s a catch
Categories: Biology

Sticking brain cells together with glue could boost and protect memory

Genetics - Tue, 2018-08-14 19:43
Can a chemical that reinforces the connections in our brains prevent the destruction of memories in ageing and Alzheimer’s? It seems to work in mice
Categories: Biology

We have finally figured out how to snap spaghetti into two pieces

Genetics - Tue, 2018-08-14 18:42
Snap a piece of dry spaghetti and you will always end up with three or more pieces - but now mathematicians have figured out how to get a single clean break
Categories: Biology

Why forecasting how hot it will be in 2022 is mostly a gimmick

Genetics - Tue, 2018-08-14 18:00
It will never be possible to forecast weather years ahead, but we can predict the average global temperature four years from now. Trouble is, that’s not that useful
Categories: Biology

US police testing AI that learns to spot crimes in CCTV footage

Genetics - Tue, 2018-08-14 17:30
Police in Orlando have been testing a system that automatically scans CCTV looking for potentially illicit activity – with some success
Categories: Biology

There is no evidence that the weedkiller glyphosate causes cancer

Genetics - Tue, 2018-08-14 17:30
Agrichemical firm Monsanto has been ordered to pay $289 million to a man who says its products caused his cancer – but scientific evidence for links to cancer is lacking
Categories: Biology

Google tracks your location even if you switch off location tracking

Genetics - Tue, 2018-08-14 16:23
Google records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to, an investigation by the Associated Press has found
Categories: Biology

New Scientist Live: the sophisticated home life of Neanderthals

Genetics - Tue, 2018-08-14 16:10
We once thought Neanderthals were less advanced than humans, but Matt Pope will argue at New Scientist Live that Neanderthal families lived rich domestic lives
Categories: Biology

DeepMind’s AI can spot eye disease just as well as top doctors

Genetics - Tue, 2018-08-14 15:33
DeepMind's system trains on eye scan data taken from thousands of NHS patients and determines which should be seen sooner
Categories: Biology

Why allergies aren’t nuts at all

Genetics - Tue, 2018-08-14 11:00
Faced with airline peanut bans, it’s easy to dismiss allergies as imaginary modern maladies. They’re not – and we need to understand why they’re on the up
Categories: Biology