Title: Prof. Christopher I. Petkov, Newcastle University
Start date: Oct 13 2017
Start time: 11:15 am
End time: 12:15 pm
Location: Max Planck House Lecture Hall

Many animals are not thought to be able to combine their vocalizations into structured sequences, as do humans, songbirds and a few other species. Nonetheless, it remains possible that a number of animals can recognize ordering relationships in sequences generated by different types of 'artificial grammars'.

In this talk, I aim to explore how understanding the extent of these hidden sequence learning abilities in nonhuman primates could clarify the evolutionary origins of language and provide answers to the longstanding question: what makes us human? The insights attained will also highlight which aspects of human language and cognition can be realistically modelled in nonhuman animals.

First, I aim to briefly overview some of our behavioral results with structured sequence learning in three species of primates: marmosets, macaques and humans. I then overview functional MRI results in macaques and humans, which identify evolutionarily conserved frontal regions involved in processing adjacent ordering relationships between sounds in a learned sequence. Finally, I show results from a study involving comparative intracranial recordings in humans and macaques. The neurophysiological results reveal intriguing neural predictive signals to the learned sequencing relationships and the oscillatory dynamics in auditory temporal cortex are found to be strikingly similar across the species.

Overall, the findings indicate that humans and macaques share an evolutionarily conserved fronto-temporal network involved in processing structured sensory input. Alongside the commonalities, there are also indications of cross-species divergences that provide hints on how the human brain differentiated for language.

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