Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast,
where we discuss science
and science-based tools for everyday life.
I’m Andrew Huberman,
and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology
at Stanford School of Medicine.
Today, my guest is Dr. Eric Jarvis.
Dr. Jarvis is a professor
at the Rockefeller University in New York City,
and his laboratory studies the neurobiology
of vocal learning, language, speech disorders,
and remarkably, the relationship between language,
music, and movement, in particular, dance.
His work spans from genomics,
so the very genes that make up our genome,
and the genomes of other species
that speak and have language,
such as songbirds and parrots,
all the way up to neural circuits,
that is the connections in the brain and body
that govern our ability to learn
and generate specific sounds
and movements coordinated with those sounds,
including hand movements,
and all the way up to cognition,
that is our ability to think in specific ways
based on what we are saying
and the way that we comprehend
what other people are saying, singing, and doing.
As you’ll soon see, I was immediately transfixed
and absolutely enchanted
by Dr. Jarvis’s description of his work
and the ways that it impacts
all the various aspects of our lives.
For instance, I learned from Dr. Jarvis
that as we read,
we are generating very low levels
of motor activity in our throat,
that is, we are speaking the words that we are reading
at a level below the perception of sound
or our own perception of those words.
But if one were to put an amplifier
to measure the firing of those muscles in our vocal cords,
we’d find that as we’re reading information,
we are actually speaking that information.
And as I learned, and you’ll soon learn,
there’s a direct link
between those species in the world
that have song and movement,
which many of us would associate with dance,
and our ability to learn and generate complex language.
So for people with speech disorders like stutter,
or for people who are interested
in multiple language learning,
bilingual, trilingual, et cetera,
and frankly, for anyone who is interested
in how we communicate through words written or spoken,
I’m certain today’s episode is going to be
an especially interesting and important one for you.
Dr. Jarvis’s work is so pioneering
that he has been awarded truly countless awards.
I’m not going to take our time to list off
all the various important awards that he’s received,
but I should point out that in addition
to being a decorated professor
at the Rockefeller University,
he is also an investigator
with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute,
the so-called HHMI.
And for those of you that don’t know,
HHMI investigators are selected
on an extremely competitive basis
that they have to re-up,
that is they have to re-compete every five years.
They actually receive a grade every five years
that dictates whether or not
they are no longer a Howard Hughes investigator,
or whether or not they can advance
to another five years of funding
for their important research.
And indeed, Howard Hughes investigators are selected
not just for the rigor of their work,
but for their pioneering spirit
and their ability to take on high-risk, high-benefit work,
which is exactly the kind of work
that Dr. Jarvis has been providing for decades now.
Again, I think today’s episode
is one of the more unique and special episodes
that we’ve had on the Huberman Lab podcast.
I single it out because it really spans
from the basic to the applied,
and Dr. Jarvis’s story is an especially unique one
in terms of how he arrived at becoming a neurobiologist.
So for those of you that are interested
in personal journey and personal story,
Dr. Jarvis’s is truly a special and important one.
Before we begin, I’d like to emphasize
that this podcast is separate
from my teaching and research roles at Stanford.
It is, however, part of my desire and effort
to bring zero-cost and consumer information
about science and science-related tools
to the general public.
In keeping with that theme,
I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast.
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And now for my discussion with Dr. Eric Jarvis.
Eric, so great to have you here.
I’m very interested in learning from you
about speech and language.
And even as I asked the question,
I realized that a lot of people, including myself,
probably don’t fully appreciate the distinction
between speech and language.
Speech, I think of as the motor patterns,
the production of sound that has meaning, hopefully.
And language, of course, come in various languages
and varieties of ways of communicating.
But in terms of the study of speech and language
and thinking about how the brain
organizes speech and language,
what are the similarities?
What are the differences?
How should we think about speech and language?
Yeah, well, I’m glad you invited me here,
and I’m also glad to get that first question,
which I consider a provocative one.
The reason why, I’ve been struggling
what is the difference with speech and language
for many years, and realize why am I struggling
is because there are behavioral terms,
let’s call them psychologically,
psychology developed kind of terms,
that don’t actually align exactly with brain function.
And the question is, is there a distinction
between speech and language?
And when I look at the brain of work
that other people have done, work we have done,
also compared it with animal models,
like those who can imitate sounds,
like parrots and songbirds,
I start to see there really isn’t such a sharp distinction.
So to get at what I think is going on,
let me tell you how some people think of it now,
that there’s a separate language module in the brain
that has all the algorithms and computations
that influence the speech pathway on how to produce sound,
and the auditory pathway on how to perceive
and interpret it for speech,
or for sound that we call speech.
And it turns out, I don’t think there is any good evidence
for a separate language module.
Instead, there is a speech production pathway
that’s controlling our larynx,
controlling our jaw muscles,
that has built within it all the complex algorithms
for spoken language,
and there’s the auditory pathway
that has built within it all the complex algorithms
for understanding speech,
not separate from a language module.
And this speech production pathway
is specialized to humans and parrots and songbirds,
whereas this auditory perception pathway
is more ubiquitous amongst the animal kingdom.
And this is why dogs can understand sit,
siéntese, come here, boy, get the ball, and so forth.
Dogs can understand several hundred human speech words.
Great apes, you can teach them for several thousand,
but they can’t say a word.
Because you’ve raised a number of animal species early
on here, and because I have a,
basically an obsession with animals
since the time I was very small,
I have to ask, which animals have language?
Which animals have modes of communication
that are sort of like language?
You know, I’ve heard whale songs.
I don’t know what they’re saying.
They sound very beautiful,
but they could be insulting each other for all I know.
And then, well, very well, maybe dolphins, birds.
I mean, what do we understand about modes of communication
that are like language,
but might not be what would classically be called language?
Right, so modes of communication
that people would define as language,
more in a very narrow definition,
they would say production of sound, so speech.
But what about the hands, the gesturing with the hands?
What about a bird who is doing aerial displays in the air,
communicating information through body language, right?
Well, I’m gonna go back to the brain.
So what I think is going on is for spoken language,
we’re using the speech pathway
in all the complex algorithms there.
Next to the brain regions
that are controlling spoken language
are the brain regions for gesturing with the hands.
And that hand parallel pathway
has also complex algorithms that we can utilize.
And some species are more advanced in these circuits,
whether it’s sound or gesturing with hands,
and some are less advanced.
Now, we humans and a few others are the most advanced
for the speech sounds or the spoken language,
but a non-human primate can produce gesturing
in a more advanced form than they can produce sound.
I’m not sure I got that across clearly,
just to say that humans are the most advanced
at spoken language,
but not necessarily as big a difference
at gestural language compared to some other species.
Very clear and very interesting,
and immediately prompts the question,
have there been brain imaging or other sorts of studies
evaluating neural activity
in the context of cultures and languages,
at least that I associate with a lot of hand movement,
like Italian versus, I don’t know,
maybe you could give us some examples of cultures
where language is not associated
with as much overt hand movement.
Yes, so as you and I are talking here today
and people who are listening but can’t see us,
we’re actually gesturing with our hands as we talk
without knowing it or doing it unconsciously.
And if we were talking on a telephone,
I would have one hand here
and I’d be gesturing with the other hand
without even you seeing me, right?
And so why is that?
Some have argued, and I would agree,
but based upon what we’ve seen,
is that there is an evolutionary relationship
between the brain pathways
that control speech production and gesturing.
And the brain regions I mentioned
are directly adjacent to each other.
And why is that?
I think that the brain pathways that control speech
evolved out of the brain pathways
that control body movement, all right?
And that’s when you talk about Italian,
French, English, and so forth,
each one of those languages
come with a learned set of gestures
that you can communicate with.
Now, how is that related to other animals?
Well, Coco, a gorilla who was raised with humans
for 39 years or more,
learned how to do gesture communication,
learned how to sign language, so to speak, right?
But Coco couldn’t produce those sounds.
Coco could understand them as well
by seeing somebody sign
or hearing somebody produce speech,
but Coco couldn’t produce it with her voice.
And so what’s going on there
is that a number of species, not all of them,
a number of species have motor pathways in the brain
where you can do learn gesturing,
rudimentary language, if you wanted, say with your limbs,
even if it’s not as advanced as humans,
but they don’t have this extra brain pathway for the sound.
So they can’t gesture with their voice
in the way that they gesture with their hands.
One thing that I’ve wondered about for a very long time
is whether or not primitive emotions
and primitive sounds are the early substrate of language,
and whether or not there’s a bridge
that we can draw between those
in terms of just the basic respiration systems
associated with different extreme feelings.
Here’s the way I’m imagining this might work.
When I smell something delicious,
I typically inhale more,
and I might say, mm, or something like that.
Whereas if I smell something putrid,
I typically turn away, I wince, and I will exhale,
you know, or sort of kind of like turn away,
trying to not ingest those molecules
or inhale those molecules.
I could imagine that these are the basic
dark and light contrasts of the language system.
And as I say that,
I’m saying that from the orientation of a vision scientist
who thinks of all visual images built up
in a very basic way of a hierarchical model
of the ability to see dark and light.
So I could imagine this kind of primitive
to more sophisticated pyramid of sound to language.
Is this a crazy idea?
Do we have any evidence this is the way it works?
No, it’s not a crazy idea.
And in fact, you hit upon one of the key distinctions
in the field of research that I started out in,
which is vocal learning research.
So for vocal communication,
you have most vertebrate species vocalize,
but most of them are producing innate sounds
that they’re born with producing.
That is babies crying, for example, or dogs barking.
And only a few species have learned vocal communication,
the ability to imitate sounds.
And that is what makes spoken language special.
When people think of what’s special about language,
it’s the learned vocalizations.
That is what’s rare.
And so this distinction between innateness and learned
is more of a bigger dichotomy
when it comes to vocalizations than for other behaviors
in the animal kingdom.
And when you go in the brain, you see it there as well.
And so all the things you talked about,
the breathing, the grunting and so forth,
a lot of that is handled by the brainstem circuits,
you know, right around the level of your neck and below,
like a reflex kind of thing.
So, or even some emotional aspects of your behavior
in the hypothalamus and so forth.
But for a learned behavior, learning how to speak,
learning how to play the piano,
teaching a dog to learn how to do tricks
is using the forebrain circuits.
And what has happened is that there’s a lot
of forebrain circuits that are controlling,
learning how to move body parts in these species,
but not for the vocalizations.
But in humans and in parrots and some other species,
somehow we acquired circuits where the forebrain
has taken over the brainstem and now using that brainstem,
not only to produce the innate behaviors or vocal behaviors,
but the learned ones as well.
Do we have any sense of when modern
or sophisticated language evolved, you know,
thinking back to the species that we evolved from
and even within Homo sapiens,
has there been an evolution of language?
Has there been a devolution of language?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I would say, and to be able to answer that question,
it does come with the caveat that I think we humans
overrate ourselves when compared to other species.
And so it makes even scientists go astray
in trying to hypothesize when you,
especially you don’t find fossil evidence
of language that easily out there
in terms of what happened in the past.
We, amongst the primates, which we humans belong to,
we are the only ones that have this
advanced vocal learning ability.
Now, when it was assumed that it was only Homo sapiens,
then you can go back in time now based upon genomic data,
not only of us living humans,
but of the fossils that have been found for Homo sapiens,
of Neanderthals, of Denisovan individuals,
and discover that our ancestor,
our human ancestors supposedly hybridized
with these other hominid species.
And it was assumed that these other hominid species
don’t learn how to imitate sounds.
I don’t know of any species today that’s a vocal learner
that can have children with a non-vocal learning species.
I don’t see it.
Doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.
And when we look at the genetic data
from these ancestral hominids that,
where we can look at genes that are involved
in learned vocal communication,
they have the same sequence as we humans do
for genes that function in speech circuits.
So I think Neanderthals had spoken language.
I’m not gonna say it’s as advanced
as what it is in humans, I don’t know.
But I think it’s been there for at least
between 500,000 to a million years
that our ancestors had this ability
and that we’ve been coming more and more advanced
with it culturally and possibly genetically.
But I think it’s evolved sometime
in the last 500,000 to a million years.
Maybe we could talk a little bit more about the overlap
between brain circuits that control language
and speech in humans and other animals.
I was weaned in the neuroscience era
where bird song and the ability of birds
to learn their tutor’s song was,
and still is a prominent field,
subfield of neuroscience.
And then of course, neuroimaging of humans
speaking and learning, et cetera.
And this notion of a critical period,
a time in which languages learned more easily
than it is later in life.
And the names of the different brain areas
were quite different.
It, one opens the textbooks,
we hear Wernicke’s and Broca’s for the humans
and you look at the birds of it,
I remember, you know.
Yeah, robust arch striatum, area X.
That’s right, yeah.
But for most of our listeners,
those names won’t mean a whole lot.
But in terms of homologies between areas
in terms of function, what do we know?
And how similar or different are the brains,
brain areas controlling speech and language
in say a songbird and a young human child?
Yeah, so going back to the 1950s
or even a little earlier and Peter Mahler
and others who got involved in neuroethology,
the study of neurobiology of behavior
in a natural way, right?
You know, they started to find that behaviorally
there are these species of birds
like songbirds and parrots.
And now we also know hummingbirds,
just three of them out of the 40 something bird groups
out there on the planet orders,
that they can imitate sounds like we do.
And so that was a similarity.
In other words, they had this kind of behavior
that’s more similar to us than chimpanzees have with us
or than chickens have with them, right?
They’re close to relatives.
And then they discovered even more similarities,
these critical periods that if you remove a child,
you know, this unfortunately happens where a child is feral
and is not raised with human
and goes through their puberty phase of growth,
becomes hard for them to learn a language as an adult.
So there’s this critical period where you learn best.
And even later on, when you’re in regular society,
it’s hard to learn.
Well, the birds undergo these same thing.
And then it was discovered that if they become deaf,
we humans become deaf,
our speech starts to deteriorate
without any kind of therapy.
If a non-human primate or, you know,
or let’s say a chicken becomes deaf,
their vocalizations don’t deteriorate,
very little at least.
Well, this happens in the vocal learning birds.
So there were all these behavioral parallels
that came along with the package.
And then people looked into the brain,
Fernando Nadava, my former PhD advisor,
and began to discover the area X you talked about,
the robust nucleus of the archipelagium.
And these brain pathways were not found
in the species who couldn’t imitate.
So there was a parallel here.
And then jumping many years later,
you know, I started to dig down into these brain circuits
to discover that these brain circuits
have parallel functions with the brain circuits for humans,
even though they’re by a different name
like Broca’s and laryngeal motor cortex.
And most recently we discovered
not only the actual circuitry and the connectivity
are similar, but the underlying genes
that are expressed in these brain regions
in a specialized way,
different from the rest of the brain are also similar
between humans and songbirds and parrots.
So all the way down to the genes.
And now we’re finding the specific mutations
are also similar, not always identical, but similar,
which indicates remarkable convergence
for a so-called complex behavior
in species separated by 300 million years
from a common ancestor.
And not only that, we are discovering
that mutations in these genes
that cause speech deficits in humans,
like in FOXP2, if you put those same mutations
or similar type of deficits in these vocal learning birds,
you get similar deficits.
So convergence of the behavior
is associated with similar genetic disorders
of the behavior.
I have to ask, do hummingbirds sing or do they hum?
Hummingbirds hum with their wings
and sing with their syrinx.
In a coordinated way?
In a coordinated way.
There’s some species of hummingbirds
that actually will, Doug Ashworth showed this,
that will flap their wings
and create a slapping sound with their wings
that’s in unison with their song.
And you would not know it,
but it sounds like a particular syllable in their songs,
even though it’s their wings
and their voice at the same time.
Hummingbirds are clapping to their song.
Clapping, they’re snapping their wings together
in unison with a song to make it like,
if I’m going,
you know, and I banged on the table,
except they make it almost sound like their voice
with their wings.
And they got some of the smallest brains around.
I guess as a kid, you would say mind blown.
Incredible, I love hummingbirds
and I always feel like it’s such a special thing
to get a moment to see one
because they move around so fast
and they flit away so fast in these ballistic trajectories
that when you get to see one stationary for a moment
or even just hovering there,
you feel like you’re extracting so much
from their little microcosm of life.
But now I realize they’re playing music, essentially.
And what’s amazing about hummingbirds,
and we’re gonna say vocal learning species in general,
is that for whatever reason,
they seem to evolve multiple complex traits.
You know, this idea that evolving language,
spoken language in particular,
comes along with a set of specializations.
When I was coming up in neuroscience,
I learned that, I think it was the work of Peter Marler,
that young birds learn, songbirds,
learn their tutor’s song and learn it quite well,
but that they could learn the song of another tutor.
In other words, they could learn a different,
and for the listeners, I’m doing air quotes here,
a different language, a different bird song,
different than their own species song,
but never as well as they could learn
their own natural genetically linked song.
Yes. Genetically linked,
meaning that it would be like me being raised
in a different culture,
and that I would learn the other language,
but not as well as I would have learned English.
This is the idea.
Yes. Is that true?
That is true, yes.
And that’s what I learned growing up as well,
and talked to Peter Marler himself about before he passed.
Yeah, he used to call it
the innate predisposition to learn.
All right, so, which would be kind of the equivalent
in the linguistic community of universal grammar.
There is something genetically influencing
our vocal communication on top of what we learn culturally.
And so there’s this balance
between the genetic control of speech,
or a song in these birds,
and the learned cultural control.
And so, yes, if you were to take,
you know, I mean, in this case,
we actually tried this at Rockefeller later on,
take a zebra finch and raise it with a canary,
it would sing a song that was sort of like
a hybrid in between.
We call it a caninch, right?
And vice versa for the canary,
because there’s something different
about their vocal musculature,
or the circuitry in the brain.
And with a zebra finch,
even with a closely related species,
if you would take a zebra finch,
a young animal, and in one cage next to it,
place its own species, adult male, right?
And in the other cage,
place a Bengalis finch next to it,
it would preferably learn the song
from its own species neighbor.
But if you remove its neighbor,
it would learn that Bengalis finch very well.
So there’s, it has something to do with also
the social bonding with your own species.
That raises a question that I’ve,
based on something I also heard,
but I don’t have any scientific,
peer reviewed publication to point to,
which is this idea of pigeon,
not the bird, but this idea of
when multiple cultures and languages
converge in a given geographic area,
that the children of all the different native languages
will come up with their own language.
I think this was in island culture,
maybe in Hawaii, called pigeon,
which is sort of a hybrid of the various languages
that their parents speak at home.
And that they themselves speak,
and that somehow pigeon, again, not the bird,
but a language called pigeon for reasons I don’t know,
harbors certain basic elements of all language.
Is that true?
Is that not true?
I haven’t studied enough myself
in terms of pigeon specifically,
but in terms of cultural evolution of language
and hybridization between different cultures and so forth,
even amongst birds with different dialects,
and you bring them together,
what is going on here is cultural evolution
remarkably tracks genetic evolution.
So if you bring people from two separate populations
together that have been in their separate populations,
evolutionarily at least, for hundreds of generations,
so someone speaking Chinese, someone speaking English,
and that child then is learning from both of them,
yes, that child’s gonna be able to pick up
and merge phonemes and words together
in a way that an adult wouldn’t,
because why they’re experiencing both languages
at the same time during their critical period years
in a way that adults would not be able to experience.
And so you get a hybrid.
And the lowest common denominator
is gonna be what they share.
And so the phonemes that they’ve retained
in each of their languages is what’s gonna be,
I imagine, used the most.
So we’ve got brain circuits in songbirds and in humans
that in many ways are similar,
perhaps not in their exact wiring,
but in their basic contour of wiring,
and genes that are expressed in both sets of neural circuits
in very distinct species that are responsible
for these phenomenon we’re calling speech and language.
What sorts of things are those genes controlling?
I could imagine they were controlling
the wiring of connections between brain areas,
essentially a map of a circuit,
basically like an engineer would design a circuit
for speech and language,
nature designed this for speech and language,
but presumably other things too,
like the ability to connect motor patterns
within the throat, of muscles within the throat,
when they control the tongue.
I mean, what are these genes doing?
You’re pretty good.
Yeah, you’ve made some very good guesses there
that make sense.
So yes, one of the things that differ
in the speech pathways of us
and these song pathways of birds
is some of the connections are fundamentally different
than the surrounding circuits,
like a direct cortical connection
from the areas that control vocalizations in the cortex
to the motor neurons that control the larynx in humans
or the syrinx in birds.
And so we actually made a prediction
that since some of these connections differ,
we’re gonna find genes that control neural connectivity
and that specialize in that function that differ.
And that’s exactly what we found.
Genes that control what we call axon guidance
and form interstitial connections.
And what was interesting,
it was sort of in the opposite direction than we expected.
That is some of these genes,
actually a number of them that control neural connectivity
were turned off in the speech circuit.
All right, and it didn’t make sense to us at first.
And so we started to realize the function of these genes
are to repel connections from forming.
So repulsive molecules.
And so when you turn them off,
they allow certain connections to form
that normally would have not formed.
So by turning it off,
you got to gain a function for speech, right?
Other genes that surprised us
were genes involved in calcium buffering,
like a parvalbumin or a heat shock protein.
So when your brain gets hot, these proteins turn on.
And we couldn’t figure out for a long time,
why is that the case?
And then the idea popped to me one day,
I said, ah, when I heard the larynx
is the fastest firing muscles in the body.
All right, in order to vibrate sound
and modulate sound in the way we do,
you have to control, you have to move those muscles,
three to four to five times faster
than just regular walking or running.
And so when you stick electrodes in the brain areas
that control learn vocalizations in these birds,
and I think in humans as well,
those neurons are firing at a higher rate
to control these muscles.
And so what is that going to do?
You’re going to have lots of toxicity in those neurons,
unless you upregulate molecules that take out
the extra load that is needed to control the larynx.
And then finally, a third set of genes
that are specialized in these speech circuit
are involved in neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity meaning allowing the brain circuits
to be more flexible so you can learn better.
And why is that?
I think learning how to produce speech
is a more complex learning ability
than say learning how to walk
or learning how to do tricks and jumps and so forth
that dogs do.
Yeah, it’s interesting as you say that,
because I realized that many aspects of speech
are sort of reflexive.
I’m not thinking about each word I’m going to say,
they just sort of roll out of my mouth.
Hopefully with some forethought,
we both know people that seem to speak, think less,
fewer synapses between their brain and their mouth
than others, right?
A lot of examples out there.
And some people are very deliberate in their speech,
but nonetheless, that much of speech has to be precise
and some of it less precise.
In terms of plasticity of speech
and the ability to learn multiple languages,
but even just one language,
what’s going on in the critical period,
the so-called critical period?
Why is it that, so my niece speaks Spanish,
and she’s Guatemalan, speaks Spanish and English
She’s 14 years old.
I’ve struggled with Spanish my whole life.
My father’s bilingual, my mother is not.
I’ve tried to learn Spanish as an adult.
It’s really challenging.
I’m told that had I learned it when I was eight,
I would be better off.
Or it would be installed within me.
So the first question is,
is it easier to learn multiple languages
without an accent early in life?
And if so, why?
And then the second question is,
if one can already speak more than one language
as a consequence of childhood learning,
is it easier to acquire new languages later on?
So the answer to both of those questions is yes,
in that, but to explain this,
I need to let you know,
actually the entire brain
is undergoing a critical period development,
not just the speech pathways.
And so it’s easier to learn how to play a piano.
It’s easier to learn how to ride a bike for the first time
and so forth as a young child than it is later in life.
What I mean easier in terms of when you start from,
you start from first principles of learning something.
So the very first time,
if you’re gonna learn Chinese as a child
versus the very first time you learned Chinese as an adult,
or learning to play piano as a child versus an adult.
But the speech pathways or let’s say speech behavior,
I think has a stronger critical period
change to it than other circuits.
And what’s going on there in general?
Why do you need a critical period to make you more stable,
to make you more stubborn, so to speak?
The reason I believe is that the brain is not for,
brain can only hold so much information.
And if you are undergoing rapid learning
to acquire new knowledge,
you also have to dump stuff,
put memory or information in the trash, like in a computer.
You only have so many gigabases of memory.
And so therefore, plus also for survival,
you don’t wanna keep forgetting things.
And so the brain is designed, I believe,
to undergo this critical period and solidify the circuits
with what you learned as a child
and you use that for the rest of your life.
And we humans stay even more plastic in our brain functions
controlled by a gene called SRGAP2.
We have an extra copy of it
that leaves our speech circuit and other brain regions
in a more immature state throughout life
compared to other animals.
So we’re more immature.
We’re still juvenile-like compared to other animals.
I knew it.
But we still go through the critical periods
like they all do.
And now the question you asked about
if you learn more languages as a child,
is it easier to learn as an adult?
And that’s a common finding out there in the literature.
There are some that argue against it.
But for those that support it,
the idea there is you are born with a set of innate sounds
you can produce, the phonemes,
and you narrow that down
because not all languages use all of them.
And so you narrow down the ones you use
to string the phonemes together in the words that you learn
and you maintain those phonemes as an adult.
And here comes along another language
that’s using those phonemes
or in different combinations you’re not used to.
And therefore, it’s like starting from first principles.
But if you already have them in multiple languages
that you’re using,
then it makes it easier to use them
in another third or fourth language.
So it’s not like your brain
has maintained greater plasticity.
Your brain has maintained greater ability
to produce different sounds
that then allows you to learn another language faster.
Are the hand gestures associated with sounds
or with meanings of words?
I think the hand gestures are associated
with both the sounds and the meaning.
When I say sound, like if you are really angry, right,
and you are making a loud screaming noise, right,
you may make hand gestures
that look like you’re gonna beat the wall, right,
because you’re making loud sounds and loud gestures, right?
But if you wanna explain something like, come over here,
what I just do now to you for those who can’t see me,
I swung my hand towards you and swung it here to me.
That has a meaning to it, to come here.
So just like with the voice,
the hand gestures are producing both qualities of sounds.
And for people that speak multiple languages,
especially those that learn those multiple languages
early in development,
do they switch their patterns of motor movements
according to, let’s say, going from Italian to Arabic
or from Arabic to French
in a way that matches the precision of language
that they’re speaking?
You know what?
You just asked me a question I don’t know the answer to.
I would imagine that would make sense
because of switching in terms of,
sometimes people might call this code switching,
even different dialects of the same language.
Could you do that with your gestures?
I imagine so, but I really don’t know if that’s true or not.
Yeah, well, I certainly don’t know from my own experience
because I only speak one language.
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To go a little bit into the abstract, but not too far,
what about modes of speech and language
that seem to have a depth of emotionality and meaning,
but for which it departs from structured language?
Here’s what I mean.
I think of musicians, like there are some Bob Dylan songs
that to me, I understand the individual words.
I like to think there’s an emotion associated with it.
At least I experienced some sort of emotion,
and I have a guess about what he was experiencing.
But if I were to just read it linearly without the music
and without him singing it or somebody singing it like him,
it wouldn’t hold any meaning.
So in other words, words that seem to have meaning,
but not associated with language,
but somehow tap into an emotionality.
So we call this difference semantic communication,
communication with meaning, and effective communication,
communication that has more of an emotional feeling
content to it, but not with the semantics.
And the two can be mixed up.
Like with singing words that have meaning,
but also have this effective emotional,
you just love the sound of the singer that you’re hearing.
And initially, psychologists, scientists in general
thought that these were going to be controlled
by different brain circuits.
And it is the case, there are emotional brain centers
in the hypothalamus, in the cingulate cortex, and so forth,
that do give tone to the sounds.
But I believe, based upon imaging work
and work we see in birds,
when birds are communicating semantic information
in their sounds, which is not too often, but it happens,
versus effective communication,
sing because I’m trying to attract the mate,
my courtship song, or defend my territory,
it’s the same brain circuits.
It’s the same speech-like or song circuits
are being used in different ways.
A friend of mine who’s also a therapist said to me,
it’s possible to say I love you with intense hatred
and to say I hate you with intense love.
And reminded me that it’s possible to hear
both of those statements in either way.
So I guess it’s not just limited to song or poetry.
It also, there’s something about the intention
and the emotional context in which something’s spoken
that it can heavily shape the way
that we interpret what we hear.
And I consider all of that actually meaning,
even though I defined it as people commonly do
semantic and effective communication,
effective communication to say I hate you,
but meant love, right, does have emotional meaning to it.
And so one’s more like an object kind of meaning
or an abstract kind of meaning.
There’s several other points here I think it’s important
for those listening out there to hear,
is that when I say also this effective
and semantic communication being used
by similar brain circuits,
it also matters the side of the brain.
In birds and in humans, there’s left right dominance
for learned communication, learned sound communication.
So the left in us humans is more dominant for speech,
but the right has a more balance for singing
or processing musical sounds
as opposed to processing speech.
Both get used for both reasons.
And so when people say your right brain
is your artistic brain
and your left brain is your thinking brain,
this is what they’re referring to.
And so that’s another distinction.
The second thing that’s useful to know
is that all vocal learning species
use their learned sounds for this emotional,
effective kind of communication,
but only a few of them like humans
and some parrots and dolphins
use it for the semantic kind of communication
we’re calling speech.
And that has led a number of people to hypothesize
that the evolution of spoken language of speech
evolved first for singing,
for this more like emotional kind of made attraction,
like the Jennifer Lopez,
the Ricky Martin kind of songs and so forth.
And then later on,
it became used for abstract communication
like we’re doing now.
Well, that’s a perfect segue for me
to be able to ask you about your background
and motor control,
not only of the hands, but of the body.
So you have a number of important distinctions to your name,
but one of them is that you were a member
of the Alvin Ailey dance school,
school of dance.
So you’re an accomplished and quite able dancer, right?
Tell us a little bit about your background
in the world of dance
and how it informs your interest in neuroscience,
and perhaps even how it relates specifically
to your work on speech and language.
Well, it’s interesting.
And then this kind of history even goes before my time.
So in my family, my mother and father’s side,
they both went to the high school of music and art
here in New York city.
And particularly my mother’s family,
going back multiple generations,
they were singers.
And I even did my family genealogy
and found out not only, you know,
we have some relationships to some well-known singers,
distant relationships like Thelonious Monk,
but going back to the plantations in North Carolina
and so forth,
my ancestors were singers in the church for the, you know,
the towns and so forth.
And this somehow got passed on multiple generations
to my family.
And I thought I was going to grow up
and be a famous singer, right?
And me and my brothers and sister formed a band
when we were kids and so forth.
And, but it turned out that I didn’t inherit
the singing talents of some of my other family members,
even though, you know, it was, you know, okay, you know,
but not like my brother or not like my mother or my aunts
and my cousin Pudufay,
who’s now a talented Native American singer.
And so, so what,
that then influenced me to do other things.
And I started, you know, competing in dance contests,
you know, actually this is around the time
of the Saturday Night Fever.
And I was, as a teenager and I started winning
dance contests and I thought, oh, I can dance.
And I auditioned for the High School of Performing Arts
and I got in here in New York City
and got into a ballet dance and got in, right?
And thought if I learn ballet, I can learn everything else.
It was that idea.
If you learn something classical,
it can teach you for everything else.
And I was, yeah, at Alvin Ailey Dance School,
Joffrey Ballet Dance School.
And at the end of my senior concert,
I had this opportunity to audition
for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company
and I had an opportunity to go to college.
And I also fell in love with another passion
that my father had, which was science.
And so I liked science in high school
and I found an overlap also between the arts and sciences,
you know, both required creativity, hard work,
discipline, you know, new discovery,
both weren’t boring to me.
And the one decision I made at that senior dance concert
was, you know, when talking to the Alvin Ailey recruiter
and thinking about it, I have to make a decision.
And I thought something my mother taught me
because she was grown up in the 1960s cultural revolution,
do something that has a positive impact on society.
And I thought that I can do that better
as a dancer than a scientist.
So now jump, I get into college, undergraduate school,
I major in molecular biology and mathematics.
I decided I wanna be a biologist,
got into graduate school,
wanted to study the brain at the Rockefeller University.
So I went from Hunter College to Rockefeller University.
And so now I got to the brain
and why did I choose the brain
is because it controls dancing.
But I didn’t, there wasn’t anybody studying dancing.
And I wanted to study the brain,
something that it does,
that’s really interesting and complex.
And I thought, ah, language is what it does.
You couldn’t study that in mice,
you couldn’t study non-human primates,
but these birds do this wonderful thing
that Fernando Nadaban was studying at Rockefeller.
And so that’s what got me into the birds.
And then jumping now 15 years later,
you know, yeah, that’s right.
Even after I’m into now having my own lab
studying vocal learning in these birds
as a model for language in humans,
it turns out that, you know,
Ani Patel and, you know, others have discovered
that only vocal learning species can learn how to dance.
Is that right?
So I’ve seen these,
I’m just scrolling through the files here in my mind.
I think about every once in a while,
someone will, I loved parrots.
Every once in a while,
someone will send me one of these little Instagram
or Twitter videos of a parrot
doing what looks to me like dance.
Typically it’s a cockatoo.
With even foot stomping to the sound.
The famous one called Snowball out there,
but there are many Snowballs out there, yes.
All the dancing birds are named Snowball.
That’s interesting tactic.
So only animals with language dance.
Yeah, vocal learning in particular,
the ability to imitate sounds.
And this now is bringing my life full circle.
And so when that was discovered in 2009,
at that same time in my lab at Duke,
we discovered that vocal learning brain pathways
in songbirds as well as in humans and in parrots,
like Snowball, are embedded within circuits
that control learning how to move.
And that led us to a theory called the brain pathway
or motor theory of vocal learning origin,
where the brain pathways for vocal learning and speech
evolved by a whole duplication
of the surrounding motor circuits
involving learning how to move.
Now, how does that explain dance, right?
Well, when Snowball, the cockatoos, are dancing,
they’re using the brain regions
around their speech-like circuits
to do this dancing behavior.
And so what’s going on there?
What we hypothesize and now like to test
is that when speech evolved in humans
and the equivalent behavior in parrots and songbirds,
it required a very tight integration
in the brain regions that can hear sound
with the brain regions that control your muscles
from moving your larynx and tongue and so forth
for producing sound.
And that tight auditory motor integration,
we argued, then contaminated the surrounding brain regions.
And that contamination of the surrounding brain regions
now allows us humans in particular in parrots
to coordinate our muscle movements
of the rest of the body with sound
in the same way we do for speech sounds.
Well, so we’re speaking with our bodies when we dance.
And I have to say that as poor as I am
at speaking multiple languages,
I’m even worse at dancing, so.
But I guarantee you’re better than a monkey.
But not Snowball the cockatoo.
Maybe not Snowball.
On YouTube, we have a video
where there’s some scientists dancing with Snowball
and you’ll see Snowball’s doing better
than some of the scientists.
Okay, well, as long as I’m not the worst
of all scientists at dancing.
There’s always neuroplasticity.
May it save me someday.
You said something incredible that I completely believe,
even though I have minimum to,
let’s just say minimum dancing ability.
I can get by at a party or wedding
without complete embarrassment,
but I don’t have any structured training.
So the body clearly can communicate with movement.
As a trained dancer and knowing other trained dancers,
I always think of dance and bodily movement
and communication through bodily movement
as a form of a wordlessness, like a state of wordlessness.
In fact, the few times when I think
that maybe I’m actually dancing modestly well
for the context that I’m in,
where I see other people dancing
and they seem to just be very much in the movement,
it’s almost like a state of non-language,
And yet what you’re telling me is that there’s a direct
bridge at some level between the movement of the body
So is there a language of the body
that is distinct from the language of speech?
And if so, or if not, how do those map onto one another?
What does that Venn diagram look like?
So let me define first dance in this context
of vocal learning species.
This is the kind of dancing that we are specialized in doing
and the vocal learning species are specialized in doing
is synchronizing body movements of muscles
to the rhythmic beat of music.
And for some reason, we like doing that.
We like synchronizing to sound
and doing it together as a group of people.
And that kind of communication amongst ourselves
is more like the effective kind of communication
I mentioned earlier, unlike the semantic kind.
So we humans are using our voices
more for the semantic abstract communication,
but we’re using learned dance
for the effective emotional bonding kind of communication.
It doesn’t mean we can’t communicate
semantic information in dance, and we do it,
but it’s not as popular.
You know, like a ballet that, you know, in the Nutcracker,
it is popular, you know, where they are communicating,
you know, the Arabian guy comes out,
which I was the Arabian guy in the ballet Nutcracker,
that’s how I remember it.
Yeah, for the Westchester Ballet Company
when I was a teenager.
You know, we’re trying to communicate meaning
in our ballet dance, and it can go on
with a whole story and so forth.
But people don’t interpret that as clearly as speech.
You know, they’re seeing the ballet
with semantic communication with a lot of emotional content.
Whereas you go out to a club, you know,
yeah, you’re not communicating,
okay, how are you feeling today?
Tell me about your day and so forth.
You’re trying to synchronize with other people
in an effective way.
And I think that’s because the dance brain circuit
inherited the more ancient part of the speech circuit,
which was for singing.
I always had the feeling that with certain forms of music,
in particular opera, but any kind of music
where there are some long notes sung,
that at some level there was a literal resonance
created between the singer and the listener.
That, or I think of like the deep voice of a Johnny Cash,
or where at some level,
you can almost feel the voice in your own body.
And in theory, that could be the vibration
of the firing of the phrenic nerve
controlling the diaphragm for all I know.
Is there any evidence that there’s a coordination
between performer and audience
at the level of mind and body?
I’m going to say possibly yes.
And the reason why is because I just came back
from a conference on the neurobiology of dance.
Clearly I’m going to the wrong meetings.
Vision science can be so boring.
Well, one of my colleagues,
Tecumseh Fitch and Jonathan Fritz,
they organized a particular section
on this conference in Virginia.
And this is the first time I was in the room
with so many neuroscientists
studying the neurobiology of dance.
It’s a new field now in the last five years.
And there was one lab
where they were putting EEG electrodes on the dancers,
on two different dancers partnering with each other,
as well as the audience seeing the dance.
And some argued, okay,
if you’re listening to the music as well,
how are you responding?
Because you’re asking a question about music.
And I’m giving you an answer about dance.
And what they found is that, you know,
the dancers, when they resonated with each other
during the dance,
or the audience listening to the dancers and the music,
there’s some resonance going on there
that they score as higher resonance.
Their brain activity with these wireless EEG signals
are showing something different.
And so that’s why I say possibly yes.
It needs more rigorous study.
And, you know, this is some stuff they publish,
but it’s not prime time yet,
but they’re trying to figure this out.
I love it.
So at least if I can’t dance well,
maybe I can hear and feel what it is
to dance in a certain way.
And this will be,
some people will think that they,
even songs that they hear,
and they can almost sing to themselves in their own head,
and they know what they want it to sound like.
And you know when it really sounds good,
what it sounds like,
but they can’t get their voice to do it.
For those listening, I’m raising my hand.
No musical ability.
Others in my household have tremendous musical ability
with instruments and with voice, but not me.
Yeah, well, and so this is one of my selfish goals
of trying to find the genetics
of why can some people sing really well and some not?
Is there some genetic predisposition to that?
And then can I modify my own muscles
or brain circuits to sing better?
You’re still after the sing.
I guess this is what happens when siblings
are very in proficiency,
is that that competitiveness
amongst brothers and sisters never goes away.
I’ve been trying to be as good as my brother,
Mark and Victor, for the hope my entire life.
Watch out, Mark and Victor.
He’s coming for you with neuroscience to back him.
Earlier, you said that you discovered that you could dance.
That caught my ear.
It sounds like you didn’t actually have to,
I’m not suggesting you didn’t work hard at it,
but that at the moment where you discovered it,
it just sort of was a skill that you had
that up until that point,
you didn’t target a life in the world of dance.
But the fact that you, quote unquote,
discovered that you could dance really well
and then went to this incredible school of dance
and did well, tells me that perhaps there is an ability
that was built up in childhood,
and or that perhaps we do all have different genetic leanings
for different motor functions.
Well, for me, both explanations could be possible.
For the first, yeah, I grew up in a family
listening to Motown songs,
dancing at parties and so forth, family parties,
an African-American family, basically.
And so I grew up dancing from a young child,
but this discovery, maybe dancing even more so
in terms of a talent, it could, the genetic component,
if it really exists, I don’t know.
With my 23andMe results, it says I have
the genetic substitutions that are associated
with high-intensity athletes and fast-twist muscles.
And who knows, maybe that could have something to do
with me being able to synchronize my body
to rhythmic sounds, maybe, maybe better than some others.
It turns out that my genetics also show
that I have a genetic substitute that does it,
that makes it hard for me to sing on pitch.
And so that does correlate with my,
even though I can sing on this pitch,
especially if I hear a piano or kind of playing it,
but maybe that’s why my siblings,
who didn’t have that genetic predisposition
in his 23andMe results, could go along
with the genetic component as well.
I’m imagining family gatherings with 23andMe data
and intense arguments about it, innate and learned ability.
Fun, love to be an attendant.
I’m not inviting myself to your Thanksgiving dinner,
by the way, but I suppose I am.
You’re welcome to.
I’ll bring my 23andMe data.
I’d love to chat a moment about facial expression,
because that’s a form of motor pattern that,
I think for most people out there,
just think about smiling and frowning,
but there are, of course, thousands,
if not millions of micro expressions
and things of that sort, many of which are subconscious.
And we are all familiar with the fact
that when what somebody says doesn’t match
some specific feature of their facial expression,
that it can call, that mismatch can cue our attention,
especially among people that know each other very well.
Like somebody will say, well, you said that,
but your right eye twitched a little bit in a way
that tells me that you didn’t really mean that,
these kinds of things.
Or when, in the opposite example,
when the emotionality and the content of our speech
is matched to a facial expression,
there’s something that’s just so wonderful about that,
because it seems like everything’s aligned.
So how does the motor circuitry
that controls facial expression
map onto the brain circuits that control language, speech,
and even bodily and hand movements?
You ask a great question,
because we both know some colleagues
like Winrick Freibold at Rockefeller University
who study facial expression and the neurobiology behind it.
And now we both share some students that we’re co-mentoring
and talk about this same question that you brought up.
And what I’m learning a lot is that non-human primates
have a lot of diversity in their facial expression
like we humans do.
And what we know about the neurobiology
of brain regions controlling those muscles of the face
is that these non-human primates and some other species
that don’t learn how to imitate vocalizations,
they have strong connections from the cortical regions
to the motor neurons that control facial expressions,
but absent connections or weak connections
to the motor neurons that control the voice.
So I think our diverse facial expression,
even though it’s more diverse than these non-human primates,
there was already a pre-existing diversity of communication,
whether it’s intentional or unconscious
through facial expression in our ancestors.
And on top of that, we humans now add the voice
along with those facial expressions.
In terms of language learning, when we’re kids,
I mean, children fortunately are not told
to fake their expressions or to smile
when they say, I’m happy.
So at some point, everybody learns for better or for worse
how to untangle these different components
of hand movement, body posture,
speech and facial expression.
But in their best form, I would say,
assuming that the best form is always,
I guess there are instances where, for safety reasons,
one might need to feign some of these aspects of language.
But in most cases, when those are aligned,
it seems like that could reflect
that all the different circuitries are operating in parallel
but that the ability to misalign these
is also a powerful aspect to our maturation.
I even think of theater, for instance,
where deliberate disentangling of these areas is important,
but also we know when an actor, when it feels real
and when it looks like, when bad acting is oftentimes
when the facial expression or body posture
just doesn’t quite match what we’re hearing.
So are these skills that people that learn
and acquire according to adaptability and profession
or do you think that all children and all adults
eventually learn how to couple
and uncouple these circuits a little bit?
Yeah, I think it’s this similar argument
I mentioned earlier about the innate
and the learned for the vocalizations.
And by the way, when I say we humans have facial expressions
associated with our vocalizations
in a different way than primates, non-human primates,
it’s the learned vocalizations I’m talking about.
So there is a common view out there
that facial expressions in non-human species
like non-human primates,
or you can have them in birds too, are innate, all right?
And so they’re reflexive controlled.
I don’t believe that.
I think there’s some learned component to it.
And I think we have more learning component to it as well,
but we also have an innate component.
And so if you try to put your hands behind your back
and hold your fist, or even just not,
and try to speak and try to communicate,
it’s actually harder to do.
You have to force yourself or put it by your side.
This comes naturally.
Facial expressions comes naturally
because there is an innate component.
And yes, you have to learn how to dissociate the two,
communicate something angry with your hands
or with your face, but politely with your voice.
It’s very hard to separate out those two
because there is that innate component
that brings them together.
So it’s like an email too.
You’re emailing and someone says something by email.
Someone can interpret that angrily or gently,
and it becomes ambiguous.
The facial expressions get rid of that ambiguity.
I’m so glad you brought that out
because my next question was and is about written language.
The first question I’ll ask is when you write,
either type or write things out by hand,
do you hear the content of what you want to write
in your head, just you personally?
Yes, I do.
And I know that I do
because I was trying to figure out a debate
about this issue and trying to resolve the debate
with my own self-experimentation on me.
I asked that because a quite well-known colleague of ours,
Karl Deisseroth at Stanford, who’s been on this podcast
and is of optogenetics fame and psychiatry fame, et cetera.
I know him.
He sends his regards.
He told me that his practice for writing
and for thinking involves a quite painful process
of forcing himself to sit completely still
and think in complete sentences,
to force thinking in complete sentences.
And when he told me that, I decided to try this exercise
and it’s quite difficult.
First of all, it’s difficult for the reason
that you mentioned, which is that with many thoughts,
I want to look around
and I start to gesticulate with my hands.
So there it is again, the connection between language
and hand movement, even if one isn’t speaking.
And the other part that’s challenging is,
I realized that while we write in complete sentences,
most of the time, we’ll talk about how that’s changing now
and texting, et cetera,
that we don’t often think in complete sentences
and specifically in simple declarative sentences,
that a lot of our thoughts would be,
if they were written out onto a page,
would look pretty much like passive language
that a good copy editor or a good editor would say,
oh, like we need to cross this out,
make this simple and declarative.
So what I’m getting at here is,
what is the process of going from a thought to language
to written word?
And I also wanted to touch on handwritten versus typed,
but thought to language to written word,
what’s going on there?
What do we know about the neural circuitry?
And I was going to ask, why is it so hard?
But now I want to ask, why is this even possible?
It seems like a very challenging
neural computational problem.
And coming from the linguistic world,
and even just the regular neurobiology world,
going back to something I said before,
about a separate language module in the brain,
there was this thought or hypothesis
that this language module
has all these complex algorithms to them,
and they’re signaling to the speech circuit
how to produce the sounds,
the hand circuit how to write them or gesture,
the visual pathway on how to interpret them from reading,
and the auditory pathway for listening.
I don’t think that’s the case, all right?
And that this thinking
where there’s this internal speech going on.
What I think is going on is,
to explain what you’re asking,
is about that I’m going to take it
from the perspective of reading something.
You read something on a paper,
the signal from the paper goes through your eyes,
it goes to the back of your brain
to your visual cortical regions, eventually,
and then you now got to interpret that signal
in your visual pathway of what you’re reading.
How are you going to do that in terms of speech?
That visual signal then goes to your speech pathway
in the motor cortex in front here in Broca’s area,
and you silently speak what you read in your brain
without moving your muscles.
And sometimes, actually, if you put electrodes,
EEG, EMG electrodes on your laryngeal muscles,
even on birds, you can do this,
you’ll see activity there while reading
or trying to speak silently,
even though no sound’s coming out.
And so your speech pathway
is now speaking what you’re reading.
Now, to finish it off,
that signal is sent to your auditory pathway
so you can hear what you’re speaking in your own head.
And this is why it’s complicated,
because you’re using like three different pathways,
the visual, the speaking motor one,
and the auditory to read.
Oh, and then you got to write, right?
Okay, here comes the fourth one.
Now, the hand areas next to your speech pathway
has got to take that auditory signal
or even the adjacent motor signals for speaking
and translate it into a visual signal on paper.
So you’re using at least four brain circuits,
which includes the speech production
and the speech perception pathways to write.
And finally explains to me why,
so I was weaned teaching undergraduates,
graduate students and medical students,
and I’ve observed that when I’m teaching,
I have to stop speaking
if I’m going to write something on the board.
I just have to stop all speaking completely.
Turns out this is an advantage to catch
because it allows me to catch my voice.
It allows me to slow down a bit,
breathe and inhale some oxygen and so on,
because I tend to speak quickly
if I’m not writing something out.
So there’s a break in the circuitry for me,
or at least they are distinct enough
that I have to stop and then write something.
Yes, that does imply competing brain circuits
for your conscious attention.
We have colleagues up at Columbia Med
who are known, at least in our circles,
for voice dictating their papers, not writing them out,
but just speaking into a voice recorder.
I’ve written papers that way.
It doesn’t feel quite as natural for me
as writing things out,
but not because I can go quickly
from thought to language to typing.
I type reasonably fast.
I can touch type now.
I don’t think I ever taught my,
I think I taught myself.
I never took a touch type course,
but it just sort of happened now.
My motor system seems to know where the keys are
with enough accuracy that it works.
This is remarkable to me that any of us can do this,
but when it comes to writing,
what I’ve found is that if my rate of thought
and my rate of writing are aligned nicely, things go well.
However, if I’m thinking much faster than I can write,
that’s a problem.
And certainly if I’m thinking more slowly
than I want to write, that’s also a problem.
And the solution for me has been to write with a pen.
I’m in love with these,
and I have no relationship to the company,
at least not now, although if they want to come,
you know, if they want to work with us,
I love these Pilot V5, V7s,
because not necessarily because of the ink or the feel,
although I like that as well,
but because of the rate that it allows me to write.
They write very well slowly,
and they write very well quickly.
And so I have this theory supported only by my own ANIC data,
no peer-reviewed study,
that writing by hand is fundamentally different
than typing out information.
Is there any evidence that this motor pathway for writing
is better or somehow different
than the motor pathway for typing?
Yeah, that’s interesting.
And I don’t know of any studies,
I have my own personal experience as well,
but trying to put this into the context,
if I had to, you know, design an experiment
to test the hypothesis here, you know,
to explain your experience and mine,
is that writing by hand, I would argue,
requires a different set of less skills
with the fingers than typing.
So you have to coordinate your fingers
more in opposite directions and so forth with typing,
but also writing by hand requires more arm movement.
And so therefore, I would argue that
the difficulty there could be in the types of muscles
and the fine motor control you need of those muscles,
along with speaking in your brain at the same time.
So basically I’m coarse, I’m a brute,
and so it makes sense that a more primitive
writing device would work.
That’s right, yes.
But let me add to this in terms of the,
in my own personal experience, right,
what I find is I can write something faster by hand
for a short period of time compared to typing.
And that is because I think I run out of the energy
in my arm movements faster than I run out of muscle energy
in my finger movements.
And I think it takes a longer time
for us to write words without fingers
because in terms of the speech.
So I think your writing, whether it’s by hand or typing,
and your speech, they only will align very well
if you can type as fast as you can speak
or write as fast as you can speak in your head.
I love it.
So what you’ve done, if I understand correctly,
is created a bridge between thought and writing,
and that bridge is speech.
That bridge is speech, that’s right.
When you’re writing something out,
you’re speaking it to yourself.
And if you’re speaking faster than you can type,
you got a problem.
I do a number of podcast episodes
that are not with guests, but solo episodes.
And as listeners know, these are very long episodes,
often two or more hours.
And we joke around the podcast studio
that I will get locked into a mode of speech
where some of it is more elaborative and anecdotal,
and then I’ll punch out simple declarative sentences.
I find it very hard to switch from one module to the next.
The thing that I have done
in order to make that transition more fluid
and prep for those podcast episodes
is actually to read the lyrics of songs
and to sing them in my head
as a way of warming up my vocal cords.
But luckily for those around me,
when I do that, I’m not actually singing out loud.
And so what you’re telling me supports this idea
that even when we are imagining singing
or writing in our mind, we are exercising our vocal cords.
You’re actually getting little low potentials
of electrical currents reaching your muscles there,
which also means you’re exercising
your speech brain circuits too,
without actually going with the flow of activity
in the muscles.
Yeah, and this idea of singing helps you as well.
Even with Parkinson’s patients and so forth,
when they wanna say something,
singing or listening to music helps them move better.
And the idea there is that the brain circuits for singing,
or let’s say the function of the brain circuits for speech
being used for singing first is the more ancestral trait.
And that’s why it’s easier to do things with singing
sometimes than it is with speaking.
I love it.
Stutter is a particularly interesting case
and one that every once in a while,
I’ll get questions about this from our audience.
Stutter is complicated in a number of ways,
but culturally, in my understanding from these emails
that I receive is that stutter can often cause people
to hide and speak less because it can be embarrassing.
And we are often not patient with stutter.
We also have the assumption that if somebody’s stuttering,
that their thinking is slow,
but it turns out there are many examples historically
of people who could not speak well,
but who were brilliant thinkers.
I don’t know how well they could write,
but they found other modes of communication.
I realize that you’re not a speech pathologist
but what is the current neurobiological understanding
of stutter and what’s being developed
in terms of treatments for stutter?
Yeah, so we actually accidentally came across stuttering
in songbirds and we’ve published several papers on this
to try to figure out the neurobiological basis.
The first study we had was a brain area
called the basal ganglia,
what’s the striatum part of the basal ganglia,
involved in coordinating movements,
learning how to make movements.
When it was damaged in the speech-like pathway
in these birds,
what we found is that they started to stutter
as the brain region recovered.
And unlike humans,
they actually recovered after three or four months.
And why is that the case?
Because bird brains undergoes new neurogenesis
in a way that human or mammal brains don’t.
And it was the new neurons that were coming in
into the circuit,
but not quite with the right proper activity
was resulting in this stuttering in these birds.
And after it was repaired,
not exactly the old song came back after the repair,
but still it recovered a lot better.
And it’s now known,
they call this neurogenics stuttering in humans,
with damage to the basal ganglia
or some type of disruption to the basal ganglia
at a young age also causes stuttering in humans.
And even those who are born with stuttering,
it’s often the basal ganglia that’s disrupted
than some other brain circuit.
And we think the speech part of the basal ganglia.
Can adults who maintain a stutter from childhood
repair that stutter?
They can repair it with therapy,
with learning how to speak slower,
learning how to tap out a rhythm during…
And yeah, I’m not a speech pathologist,
but I started reading this literature
and talking to others that,
colleagues who actually study stuttering.
So yes, there are ways to overcome the stuttering
through behavioral therapy.
And I think all of the tools out there
have something to do with sensory motor integration.
Controlling what you hear with what you output
in a thoughtful, controlled way helps reduce the stuttering.
There are a couple of examples from real life
that I want to touch on.
And one is somewhat facetious,
but now I realize is a serious neurobiological issue.
Serious meaning, I think, interesting,
which is that every once in a while,
I will have a conversation with somebody
who says the last word of the sentence along with me.
And it seems annoying in some instances,
but I’m guessing this is just a breakthrough
of the motor pattern,
that they’re hearing what I’m saying very well.
So I’m going to interpret this kindly
and think they’re hearing what I’m saying.
They’re literally hearing it in their mind
and they’re getting that low level electrical activity
to their throat.
And they’re just joining me in the enunciation
of what I’m saying, probably without realizing it.
Can we assume that that might be the case?
Well, I wouldn’t be surprised.
So the motor theory of speech perception,
where this idea originally came,
what you hear is going through your speech circuit
and then also activating those muscles slightly.
So yes, so one might argue,
okay, is that speech circuit now interpreting
what that person is speaking now you listening to me
and is going to finish it off
because it’s already going through their brain
and they can predict it.
That would be one theory.
I don’t think the verdict out there is known,
but that’s one.
The other is synchronizing turn-taking
in the conversation,
where you’re acknowledging that we understand each other
by finishing off what I say.
And it’s almost like a social bonding kind of thing.
The other could be, I want the person to shut out
so I can speak as well and take that turn.
And each pair of people have a rhythm to their conversation.
And if you have somebody who’s over-talkative
versus under-talkative or vice versa,
that rhythm can be lost in them finishing ideas
and going back and forth.
But I think having something to do with turn-taking
as well makes a lot of sense.
I have a colleague at Stanford who says
that interruption is a sign of interest.
I’m not sure that everyone agrees.
I think it’s highly contextual.
But there is this form of a verbal nod
of saying, mm-hmm, or things of that sort.
And there are many of these.
And I’m often told by my audience
that I interrupt my guests and things of that sort.
Oftentimes I’ll just get caught
in the natural flow of the conversation.
I think we’ve had pretty good turn-taking here, I hope.
So far, so good.
I feel that way.
I’m glad you feel that way,
because especially in the context
of a discussion about language, this seems important.
Texting is a very, very interesting evolution of language
because what you’ve told us is that we have a thought.
It’s translated into language.
It might not be complete sentences, but texting,
I have to imagine this is the first time in human evolution
where we’ve written with our thumbs.
So it seems more primitive to me
than typing with fingers or writing with hands.
But hey, who am I to judge the evolution of our species
in one direction or the other?
But the shorthand, often grammatically deficient,
incomplete sentence form of texting
is an incredible thing to see.
Early in relationships, romantic relationships,
people will often evaluate the other’s text
and their ability to use proper grammar
and spelling, et cetera.
This often quickly degrades.
And there’s an acceptance
that we’re just trying to communicate through shorthand,
almost military-like shorthand,
but internally consistent between people,
but there’s no general consensus of what things mean,
but WTFs and OMGs and all sorts of things.
I wonder sometimes whether or not
we are getting less proficient at speech
because we are not required to write
and think in complete sentences.
I’m not being judgmental here.
I see this in my colleagues.
I see this in myself.
This is not a judgment of the younger generation.
I also know that slang has existed for decades,
if not hundreds of years,
but I also know that I don’t speak the same way
that I did when I was a teenager
because I’ve suppressed a lot of that slang,
not because it’s inappropriate or offensive,
although some of it was, frankly,
but because it’s out of context.
So what do you think is happening to language?
Are we getting better at speaking, worse at speaking?
And what do you think the role of things like texting
and tweeting and shorthand communication, hashtagging,
what’s that doing to the way that our brains work?
Yeah, I think that, well, one,
in terms of measuring your level
of sophistication intelligence and you say OMG, right?
I think that also could be a cultural thing
that, ah, you belong to the next generation,
or you’re being cool if you’re an older person
using OMG and other things
that the younger generation would use.
But if I really think about it clearly,
texting actually has allowed
for more rapid communication amongst people.
I think without the invention of the phone before then,
or texting back and forth,
you had to wait days for a letter to show up.
You couldn’t call somebody on the phone and talk as well,
and so this rapid communication,
but in terms of the rapid communication of writing
in this case.
So I think actually it’s more like a use it or lose it
kind of a thing with the brain.
The more you use a particular brain region or circuit,
the more enhanced, it’s like a muscle.
The more you exercise it, the more healthier it is,
the bigger it becomes and the more space it takes
and the more you lose something else.
So I think texting is not decreasing
the speech prowess or the intellectual prowess of speech.
It’s converting it and using it a lot in a different way.
In a way that may not be as rich in regular writing
because you can only communicate so much nuance
in short term writing.
But whatever is being done,
you got people texting hours and hours and hours
on the phone.
So whatever your thumb circuit
is going to get pretty big actually.
I do wonder whether,
many people have lost their jobs based on tweets.
The short latency between thought and action
and distribution of one’s thoughts is incredible.
And I’m not just talking about people
who apparently would have poor prefrontal top-down control.
This is geek speak, by the way,
for people that lack impulse control.
But high-level academics,
I’m not going to point fingers at anyone,
but examples of where you see these tweets,
what were they thinking?
So presumably there’s an optimal strategy
between the thought-speech motor pathway,
especially when the motor pathway engages communication
with hundreds of thousands of people.
And retweets in particular,
and the cut-and-paste function and the screenshot function
are often the reason why speech propagates.
So to me, it’s a little eerie
just that the neural circuitry can do this
and that we are catching up
a little bit more slowly to the technology
and you’ve got these casualties of that mismatch.
I think that’s a good adjective to use,
the casualties of what’s going on.
Because yes, it is the case with texting,
what you’re really losing there
is less so the ability to write,
but more the ability to interpret what is being written.
And you can over- or under-interpret something
that somebody means.
On the flip side of that,
if somebody’s writing something very quick,
they could be writing instinctually,
more instinctually, their true meaning.
And they don’t have time to modify and color-code
what they’re trying to say.
And that’s what they really feel,
as opposed to saying it in a more nuanced way.
So I think both sides of that casualty are present.
And that’s a downturn,
an unintended negative consequence of short-term,
I mean, short-word communication.
Yeah, I agree that this whole phenomenon
could be netting people that normally
would only say these things out loud
once inside the door of their own home, or not at all.
It’s an interesting time that we’re in,
vis-a-vis speech and language and motor patterns.
So part of the human evolution for language.
I think this is all part of our evolution.
So for those of you thinking terrible thoughts,
please put them in the world and be a casualty.
And for those of you that are not,
please be very careful with how proficient
your thought-to-language-to-motor action goes.
Maybe the technology companies should install some buffers,
some AI-based buffers.
Right, that’s taking some EEG signals from your brain
while you’re texting to say,
okay, this is not a great thought, slow down.
Right, or this doesn’t reflect your best state.
That brings me to what was going to be
the next question anyway,
which is we are quickly moving toward a time
where there will be an even faster transition
from thought to speech to motor output,
and maybe won’t require motor output.
What I’m referring to here is some of the incredible work
of our colleagues, Eddie Chang at UCSF
and others who are taking paralyzed human beings
and learning to translate the electrical signals
of neurons in various areas,
including speech and language areas,
to computer screens that type out
what these people are thinking.
In other words, paralyzed people can put their thoughts
That’s a pretty extreme and wonderful example
of recovery of function that is sure to continue to evolve.
But I think we are headed toward a time
not too long from now where my thoughts can be translated
into words on a page if I allow that to happen.
Yeah, so, and Eddie Chang’s work,
which I admire quite a bit and cite in my papers,
I think he’s really one of those at the leading edge
of trying to understand within humans
the neurobiology of speech.
And he may not say it directly,
but I talked to him about this,
it supports this idea that the speech circuit
in the separate language module,
I don’t really think that there’s a separation there.
So with that knowledge, yes,
and putting electrodes in the human brain
and then translating those electrical signals
to speech currents, yeah,
we can start to tell what is that person thinking.
What do you often think in terms of speech?
And without saying words.
And that’s a scary thought.
And now imagine if you can now translate those
into a signal that transmits something wirelessly
and someone from some distant part of the planet
is hearing your speech from a wireless signal
without you speaking.
So probably that won’t be done in an ethical way,
But I mean, the ethics of doing that
probably might not happen,
but who knows, we have these songbirds,
we apply the same technique to them,
we can start to hear what they’re singing in their dreams
or whatever, even though they don’t produce sound.
So we can find out by testing on them.
It’s coming, one way or another, it’s coming.
For those listening who are interested
in getting better at speaking and understanding languages,
are there any tools that you recommend?
And here again, I realize you’re not a speech therapist,
but here I’m not thinking about ameliorating
any kind of speech deficiency.
I’m thinking, for instance,
do you recommend that people read different types of writing?
Would you recommend that people learn how to dance
in order to become better at expressing themselves verbally?
You know, and feel free to have some degrees of freedom
in this answer.
These are obviously not peer-reviewed studies
that we’re referring to, although there may be,
but I’m struck by the number of things
that you do exceedingly well.
And I can’t help but ask, well, the singing,
which I realize it may,
your brother didn’t pay me to say this,
may not be quite as good as your brother’s yet,
but is getting, you’ll surpass him, I’m guessing,
at some point.
Exactly, there you go.
You know, should kids learn how to dance
and read hard books and simple books?
What do you recommend?
Should adults learn how to do that?
Everyone wants to know how to keep their brain
working better, so to speak,
but also I think people want to be able to speak well
and people want to be able to understand well.
Yeah, so what I’ve discovered personally, right,
is that, so when I switched from pursuing a career
in science from a career in dance,
I thought one day I would stop dancing.
But I haven’t, because I find it fulfilling for me,
just as a life experience.
So ever since I started college,
my late teens and early 20s,
I kept dancing even till this day.
And there’ve been periods of time,
like during the pandemic,
where I slowed down on dancing and so forth.
And when you do that, you realize, okay,
there are parts of your body where your muscle tone
decreases a little bit and somewhat,
or you could start to gain weight,
or I somehow don’t gain weight that easily.
And I think it’s related to my dance,
if that’s meaningful to your audience.
But what I found is, in science,
we like to think of a separation between movement
and action and cognition.
And there is a separation for you
between perception and production,
cognition being perception,
production being movement, right?
But if the speech pathways
is next to the movement pathways,
what I discover is, by dancing,
it is helping me think.
It is helping keeping my brain fresh.
It’s not just moving my muscles.
I’m moving, or using the circuitry in my brain
to control a whole big body.
You need a lot of brain tissue to do that.
And so I argue, if you want to stay
cognitively intact into your old age,
you better be moving.
And you better be doing it consistently,
whether it’s dancing, walking, running,
and also practicing speech,
oratory speech and so forth, or singing,
is controlling the brain circuits
that are moving your facial musculature.
And it’s going to keep your cognitive circuits also in tune.
And I’m convinced of that from my own personal experience.
For me, long, slow runs are a wonderful way
to kind of loosen the joints for long podcasts,
especially the solo podcasts,
which can take many hours to record.
And without those long, slow runs,
at least the day before, or even the morning of,
I don’t think I could do it, at least not as well.
All right, well, you’re experiencing something similar.
So that’s an N of two.
Yeah, N of two.
I’m tempted to learn how to dance,
because there are a lot of reasons to learn how to dance.
People can use their imagination.
I definitely want to get the opportunity
to talk about some of the newer work
that you’re into right now about genomes of animals.
As you perhaps can tell
from my quite authentic facial expressions,
I adore the animal kingdom.
I just find it amazing.
And it’s the reason I went into neurobiology, in part.
So many animals, so many different patterns of movement,
so many body plans, so many specializations.
What is the value of learning the genomes
of all these animals?
You know, I can think of conservation-based schemes
of trying to preserve these precious critters.
But what are you doing with the genomes of these animals?
What do you want to understand about their brain circuits?
And how does this relate to some of the discussion
we’ve been having up until now?
Yeah, I’ve gotten very heavily involved in genomes,
not just to get at an individual gene involved
in the trait of interest, like spoken language,
but I realized that, you know,
nature has done natural experiments for us.
With all these species out there with these various traits,
and the one that I’m studying, like focal learning,
has evolved multiple times among the animal kingdom.
Even if it’s rare, it’s multiple times.
And the similar genetic changes occurred in those species.
But to find out what those genetic changes
that are associated with the trait of interest,
not some other trait like flying and birds,
as opposed to singing,
you have to do what’s called comparative genomics,
even in the context of studying the brain.
And you need their genomes to compare the genomes
and do like a GWAS, a genome-wide association study,
not just within a species like humans, but across species.
And so you need good genomes to do that.
Plus, I’ve discovered I’m also interested
in evolution and origins.
How did these species come about a similar trait
in the last, you know, 300 million years
or 60 million years, depending who you’re talking about.
And you need a good phylogenetic tree to do that.
And to get a good phylogenetic tree,
you also need their genomes.
And so because of this,
I got involved in large-scale consortiums
to produce genomes of many different species,
including my vocal learners
and their closest relatives that I’m fans of.
But I couldn’t convince the funding agencies
to give me the money to do that just for my own project.
But when you get a whole bunch of people together
who want to study various traits, you know, heart disease
or loss and gain of flight and so forth,
suddenly we all need lots of genomes to do this.
And so now that got me into a project
to lead something called the Vertebrate Genomes Project
to eventually sequence all 70,000 species on the planet.
And Earth Biogenome Project,
all eukaryotic species, all 2 million of them.
And to no longer be in a situation
where I wish I had this genome.
Now we have the genetic code of all life on the planet,
create a database of all their traits
and find the genetic association with everything out there
that makes a difference from one species to another.
One more piece of the equation to add to this story
is what I didn’t realize as a neuroscientist
were that these genomes are not only incomplete,
but there have lots of errors in them.
False gene duplications where mother and father chromosomes
were so different from each other
that the genome algorithm, assembly algorithms
treated them as two different genes
in this part of the chromosome.
So there are a lot of these false duplicated genes
that people thought were real, but were not.
Or missing parts of the genome
because the enzymes used to sequence the DNA
couldn’t get through this regulatory region
that folded up on itself and made it hard to sequence.
And so I ended up in these consortiums
pulling in the genome sequencing companies
developing the technology to work with us
to improve it further.
And the computer science guys
who then take that data and that technology
and try to make the complete genomes
and make the algorithms better to produce
what we now just did recently
and led by an effort by Ed and Philippe
is the first human telomere-to-telomere genome
with no errors, all complete, no missing sequence.
And now we’re trying to do the same thing
with vertebrates and other species.
Actually, we improved that before we got to
what we call telomere-to-telomere
from one end of the chromosome to another.
And what we’re discovering
is in this dark matter of the genome
that was missing before
turns out to be some regulatory regions
that are specialized in vocal learning species
and we think are involved in developing speech circuits.
Well, so much to learn
and that we’re going to learn from this information.
Early on in these genome projects and connectome projects,
I confess I was a little bit cynical.
This would be about 10, 15 years ago.
I thought, okay, necessary, but not sufficient for anything.
We need it, but it’s not clear what’s going to happen.
But you just gave a very clear example
of what we stand to learn from this kind of information.
And I know from the conservation side,
there’s a huge interest in this
because even though we would prefer
to keep all these species alive rather than clone them,
these sorts of projects do offer the possibility
of potentially recreating species that were lost
due to our own ignorance or missteps or what have you.
Yes, and along those lines,
because we got involved in genomics,
some of the first species that we start working on
are critically endangered species.
And I’m doing that not only for perspectives
to understand their brains
and the genes involved in their brain function,
but I feel like it’s a moral duty.
So the fact that now I’ve become more involved
in genome biology and have helped develop these tools
for more complete genomes,
let’s capture their genetic code now before they’re gone.
And could we use that information
to resurrect the species at some future time,
if not in my lifetime,
in some time in the future and generations ahead of us.
And so in anticipation of that,
we create a database we call the Genome Arc,
and no pun intended, like Noah’s Ark,
meant to store the genetic code
as complete genome assemblies as possible
for all species on the planet
to be used for basic science,
but also some point in the future.
And because of that,
funding agencies or private foundations
that are interested in conservation
have been reaching out to me now, a neuroscientist,
to help them out in producing high-quality genome data
of endangered species that they can use,
like Revive and Restore,
who want to resurrect the passenger pigeon,
or Colossal, who wants to resurrect the woolly mammoth.
And so we’re producing high-quality genomes
for these groups for their conservation projects.
What a terrific and important initiative.
And I think for those listening today,
they now certainly understand the value
of deeply understanding the brain structures
and genomes of different species,
because I confess,
even though I knew a bit of the songbird literature,
and I certainly understand
that humans have speech and language,
I had no idea that there was so much convergence
of function, structure, and genomes.
And to me, I feel a lot more like an ape
than I do a songbird.
And yet here we are with the understanding
that there’s a lot more similarity
between songbirds and humans
than I certainly ever thought before.
Yeah, something very close to home for us humans,
I can give you an example of,
is evolution of skin color.
In skin color, we use it, unfortunately,
for racism and so forth.
We use it also for good things,
to let in more light or let out less light,
depending on the part of the planet, you know,
our population evolved in.
And most people think dark-skinned people all evolved
from the same dark-skinned person,
and light-skinned people all evolved
from the same light-skinned person,
but that’s not the case.
Dark skin and light skin amongst humans
has evolved independently multiple times,
like in, you know, the Pacific Islands versus Africa.
And it’s just depending on the angle of light
hitting the earth,
as to whether you need more protection from the sun
or less protection,
that’s also associated with vitamin D synthesis in the skin.
And so, and each time,
where a darker or lighter skin evolved independently,
it hit the same gene, you know,
Melanin receptors, that’s right, yes, yeah.
Genes that are involved in melanin formation.
And so, those genes evolve some of the same mutations,
even in different species.
It’s not just humans.
In equatorial regions,
there are darker-skinned animals
than going away from the equator.
All right, I think of Arctic foxes and things.
That’s right, right.
Polar bears, you know.
And so, some of the same genes are used
in an evolutionary perspective
to evolve in a similar way within and across species.
And that’s the same thing happening in the brain too.
Language is no exception.
Well, I have to say,
as somebody who is a, you know, career neuroscientist,
but as I mentioned several times now,
who also adores the animal kingdom,
but is also obsessed with speech and language,
and at a distance,
not as a practitioner of music and dance,
this has been an incredible conversation
and opportunity for me to learn.
I know I speak for a tremendous number of people,
and I just really want to say thank you
for joining us today.
You are incredibly busy.
It’s clear from your description of your science
and your knowledge base
that you are involved in a huge number of things.
So thank you for taking the time to speak to all of us.
Thank you for the work that you’re doing,
both on speech and language,
but also this important work on genomes
and conservation of endangered species and far more.
And I have to say,
if you would agree to come back
and speak to us again sometime,
I’m certain that if we were to sit down
even six months or a year from now,
there’s going to be a lot more to come.
Yeah, we have some things cooking.
And thank you for inviting me here
to get the word out to the community
of what’s going on in the science world.
Well, we’re honored and very grateful to you, Eric.
Thank you for joining me today
for my discussion with Dr. Eric Jarvis.
If you’d like to learn more about his laboratory’s work,
you can go to JarvisLab, spelled J-A-R-V-I-S,
lab, all one word, JarvisLab.net.
And there you can learn about all the various studies
taking place in his laboratory,
as well as some of the larger overarching themes
that are driving those studies,
including studies on human genomics and animal genomics
that surely are going to lead to the next stage discoveries
of how we learn and think about and indeed use language.
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