Unspoken Word

25 Nov 2009

Humans haven’t always communicated through the spoken word.

According to a world-renowned neuroscientist speaking at the Queensland Brain Institute at The University of Queensland later this week, hand movements and gestures were used to communicate before verbal language evolved.

Professor Michael Arbib from the University of Southern California said, over time, communication had developed from single gestures to more complex utterances, exploiting the ability to perform and recognise single actions but also more complex behaviors. The resulting capacity allows us to generate and understand sentences and phrases. This rests on expanding ‘mirror neurons’ in Broca’s area of the left brain.

“In our modern brains the important thing is not recognising a single gesture. It’s the fact we can put sentences together to do many things,” Professor Arbib said.

His talk analyses how language lets us share information about our environment.

“We explore the world around us to build up a map of a visual scene and to talk about what we see," Professor Arbib said.

His visit forms part of the animal navigation summer school being held at QBI this week.

A rapidly developing area of research, animal navigation investigates the many challenges, physiological adaptations and computational principles used in nature to carry out navigation tasks. Researchers can use the information to improve functions that can be carried out mechanically, such as flower pollination and aircraft landing.

Advanced undergraduates and some postgraduate students are attending the summer school, which is being held until Friday. Professor Arbib’s lecture will be held at the Queensland Brain Institute's Auditorium situated in Building 79 of The University of Queensland's St Lucia campus on November 27 from 11am.


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Notes to the Editor
The Queensland Brain Institute was formed in 2003 as part of the Queensland Government’s Smart State Initiative, building on a long history of neuroscience at The University of Queensland. QBI is dedicated to understanding the molecular basis of brain function and applying this knowledge to the development of new therapeutics to treat brain and mental health disorders.