Friday, 12 January 2018

Joint Speech

I think this might be profound; I'm not sure because I haven't read the book [200 pages! . . . but free] yet. It's by Fred Cummins a Cognitive Scientist [and more] from UCD [Uther College Dublin]. Although he, like me, is a graduate of TCD where he read "Computer Science, Linguistics & German". On the face of it, that's a rather cross-disciplinary mouthful of a degree . . . a bit like geography.  But it sounds interesting; you could go a long way in a variety of different directions with that under your belt: voice recognition, automated translation, relationships among language groups, lie-detection, unconscious prejudice . . .

In the classic way of science, Cummins paid attention to something that is so common, so universal as to be invisible. He identified something intriguing - that humans are really good at calling cadence.  They are really good at marching too; unless they're a good way along The Spectrum, people naturally fall into step together. It's something to do with psychological resonance but can be real bad for mechanical resonance as when crossing bridges. As a scientist, having had his insight, he checked the literature to see a) if this was common knowledge and/or b) what the giants on whose shoulders we stand had to say. And he found that nobody had been there before; which was neat because it meant he could invent all the technical terms.

The key unifying theme of a number of quite different activities, he calls joint speech, "where two-or-more people say the same thing at the same time", With 'say' interpreted broadly: The examples he gives include
You might think that contemplative prayer and angry protest were as different as different could be but they have this in common: the voices of participants tune with each other, often through repetition. If they don't equalise the cadence on the first round, people slow down or speed up and modulate the stresses so that they get it right on the rebound. Typically, you do a decade of the rosary often at a furious gabble: blessedisthefruitofthywombJESUS. I have written about the Joy experienced On Singing Together. What was amazing about being song-schooled by Sian Croose was that a) none of us had any formal training in voice-work b) few of us could read sheet music (of which there was none) but c) with minimal but charismatic teaching we could raise our collective hearts and voices to very heaven. You know you've had a wonderful experience at a pop concert if everyone in the auditorium has sung the chorus together.
As a deeply inhibited person, I refused to participate in "Give me a T; give me a U; give me an I - what's that spell? UNION" because it seems dorky and, well, wrong. If I parked my Self, I/we might develop a better sense of Solidarność, which as we saw in 1989, can topple a regime.

Over Christmas, I was playing face-games with just-2 y.o. Gdau.II. It was fascinating how the child, not yet able to utter a grammatical sentence, was able to accurately imitate whatever scowl, pout, grin, or grimace I 'uttered'. Perhaps as interesting was the fact that a) inhibited me was happily participating and b) imitating her gurning. Now, those responses are simply extraordinary: imagine the neuronal activity required to fire up a particular peculiar combination of motor nerves without having to think about it let alone analyse what's going on. Since a serendipitous discovery at U Parma in the late 1980s, we know about mirror neurons which drive feelings of empathy with what's happening to our neighbours. Last Winter I experienced an almost barf-inducing example of mirror neuronal activity. Because I teach human physiology, I was able to articulate my visceral feelings as conflict between the sympathetic and parasympathetic wings of my autonomic nervous system. Young Gdau.II don't need any of that wordy nonsense to participate . . . and neither did the macaques Macaca mulatta at U.Parma. Because her larynx and its nervous connexions aren't properly developed yet, Gdau.II's parents have taught her (or she has taught them?) a large vocabulary of sign-language. We all suspect that this child is going to have less of a 'terrible twos" time because her levels of inarticulate frustration will be drained by the faucet of signing.

My experience is that [X=large]% of dialogue is entraining the emotions and sense of empathy with whomever we're chatting. Have you noticed how many conversational cues repeat the last phrase of what the other chap said and then build on it? Before they had speech, our ancestors were achieving the same effect but picking nits and skin-flakes out of each other's fur. The actual content of most talk is comparatively small: Did you see the match?  It's cold out there. How was your Christmas? How d'ye do? Nobody really cares what the response is. My generic greeting in the corridors of The Institute is a sort of 'ay-up which many, not having done time in Geordieland, interpret as Hiya [itself a debased how-are-you] and respond Grand, thanks. Frankly Scarlett . . .I'd rather be nibbling some scurf.

15 minute TedX executive summary. I suspect that Fred Cummins might have identified a key element of what it means to be human = primate.
Source: I came across this story on MeFi the other day "Can I get an Amen"

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