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Roots of Communication

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - RoCS (Roots of Communication)

Reporting period: 2022-03-01 to 2024-02-29

The ability of the human species to share information with others is unique due to the fascinating expressivity of human communicative actions. The primary aim of the project was to investigate the biological origins of this ability, that is to examine the evolutionary foundations and neural background of human communication. Humans’ versatile ability to understand the meaning of communicative signal sequences plays a major role in the success of individuals and the adaptability of the human species, therefore, it is crucial to understand the skillset underlying this cognitive capacity even better. I, therefore, aimed to examine these issues based on my previous findings to reveal the mechanism that makes the human species unique in the animal kingdom. Since human society depends on vertical and horizontal knowledge transfer, that is, communicative information sharing, understanding the basics of human communication is highly relevant on the societal level. The answer to the question of how humans are able to communicate will have an effect on other disciplines, including the humanities (e.g. pedagogy), applied sciences (e.g. applied computer science), and basic research in other fields (e.g. neuroscience).
Our recent findings demonstrated that infants can recognize communicative information transfer even in its abstract and unfamiliar forms. However, the biological basis of this ability remained unclear, including two major questions: the proximate and ultimate causes of humans’ communicative ability. The general aim of the proposed project was to reveal what makes humans able to use their species unique capacity to communicate, understand and share information with others that allow social learning and cooperation.
In my project, I relied on the insights of Shannon’s mathematical theory of information transmission and investigated whether the unpredictability of signals that are exchanged in a turn-taking interaction would lead to specific responses that indicate the recognition of communicative information transfer. The first main objective was to investigate whether the ability to recognize communicative information transfer based on the unpredictability of signals has an evolutionary ancient origin (WP1), thus, I planned to study a non-human animal species, the domestic chicken. The second objective was to understand the neural basis of recognition of communicative information transfer in infants. I aimed to investigate this question by applying EEG (WP2-WP5). In the first part with domestic chicks, I planned to apply a well-established behavioral methodology to investigate whether the sensitivity to the structural properties of signal sequences has an ancient evolutionary origin. The two further studies I planned involved the use of cutting-edge, EEG technology with human infants to investigate the ontogenetic and neural basis of the second main research question.
The project included three studies, in two species. The experiments in my project, which included human infants and aimed to answer the question regarding humans' ability to understand communicative information transmission in their preverbal period of their life, involved two EEG studies. During my work as a Marie Curie fellow, we started to work on both projects. The first study was investigating infants' expectations regarding communicative informative transmission in situations when an interlocutor needs a specific information in order to achieve a certain goal to resolve a certain task. We designed this study in a way to measure theta oscillations, which can be a neural signature of information expectation. If infants expect others to communicate when one of them needs information, they should show theta band oscillations. The study is still ongoing. We also started to design the second planned EEG study about infants' expectations about the presence of communicative agents following the exchange of communicative signal sequences. The study will measure ERP responses in infants elicited by the appearance of communicative agents followed by communicative information exchange. During my MSCA project, I also developed a further study for infants in which we will measure 10-month-olds' preferential looking to investigate the sensitivity to the level of entropy in preverbal humans.
The project investigates timely, unanswered questions regarding the evolution and biological background of humans’ communicative abilities that go beyond the state of the art, both from theoretical and methodological perspectives. The main question of the project is theoretically novel because it implies that human communication relies on particular species-unique sensitivities and is not solely related to human language. The proposal that the recognition and interpretation of communication is crucial – especially in preverbal infants – suggests that humans are an actively communicating species. This ability and need for communication may not rooted in linguistic skills, and it also excludes a further common interpretation of many scientists – that communication is a byproduct of high-level cognitive capacities.
This claim is already supported by some of my previous findings, however, the present project goes beyond those earlier works as it will provide empirical evidence about the neural background and signatures of this capacity. Due to the measured neurophysiological components, the project also goes beyond the state of the art from a methodological perspective. The project implements oscillatory and ERP signals as dependent variables, which are novel in the domain of communicative development as it directly connects communicative behavior to their neural backgrounds.
Due to the above reasons, my project may have a potential for broader societal effects. On the one hand, understanding that it is communication that makes humans special and allows our species to build complex societies and tools can be a directly relevant discovery as it can motivate applied sciences (ranging from the humanities to engineering) to find new ways to foster communication within and across specialized groups (e.g. work groups with a particular aims) and societies. On the other hand, the future results of the project may also have an effect on how we think about the preverbal period of humans’ life. If young infants will be perceived as communicatively competent humans – rather than children, who still lack some major competence, – can change parenting behavior and may also elicit changes in governmental policies regarding the first year of life. The first year of humans is highly relevant even if we do not have specific memories about it. Being involved in communicatively rich contexts might be highly relevant in the development of infants, therefore, it is important to provide this opportunity to the parents on the societal level, which might be one the main message of the current project.
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