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SOMACCA — Result In Brief

Project ID: 230604
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Austria

A comparison of human and animal patterns of communication

Human language, in comparison to animal communications, is characterised by its unparalleled complexity, flexibility and specificity. Yet, both share similarities between them, ranging from simple aspects to complex cognitive abilities. An EU-funded project sought to find which language mechanisms are shared with other animals and which are not.
A comparison of human and animal patterns of communication
The SOMACCA (The syntax of the mind: a comparative computational approach) project performed a rigorous comparison of humans and animals on a broad range of cognitive tasks. For the purpose of the project, new and innovative techniques were developed to probe language in animals, and also humans without using language.

Researchers focused on complex pattern perception areas, where humans differ most from animals, but also simpler auditory and vocal capabilities. They used formal language theory to construct a rigorous theoretical framework and artificial grammar learning as a key empirical approach. Besides humans, the project studied visual and auditory patterns of chimpanzees, monkeys, parrots, pigeons and ravens, contributing to the comparative dimension of the study.

The project also compared cognition within the human species, in the different domains of language, music and visual patterns, usually viewed as fundamentally different. Project fellows found a fundamental similarity involving a cross-domain mechanism for learning and applying abstract hierarchical rules, applicable to music, language and art in similar ways.

They tested the hypothesis by comparing human learning of auditory and visual patterns, and successfully demonstrated that humans possess an abstract capacity to recognise and generate grammatical and recursive structures in the visual domain.

Project outcomes support the hypothesis that humans have an unusual cross-modal ability to process abstract patterns in hierarchical terms (like tree structures), regardless of domain or sensory modality. Researchers also tested the hypothesis that humans enjoy a general capacity and proclivity for hierarchical cognition, spanning different sensory and cultural domains. Results indicate a general tendency for particular types of order and complexity in humans.

Furthermore, the project's animal research shows that even the simple relational or hierarchical tasks are challenging for animals, even for large-brained species. However, simpler sequential patterns are used by multiple bird species and non-human primates.

The outcomes of the project comprise the development of various new and innovative paradigms for cognitive testing. Moreover, SOMACCA developed an open source physical and software infrastructure for the design and test of cognitive experiments with humans and animals. Project results were presented at two international scientific meetings.

Related information


Human, animal, patterns of communication, language, SOMACCA
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