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Hello -

I'm a scientist who studies conscious brains in humans and animals, and I substantially agree with what you say - although I might want to be a little more explicit. But it's good to err on the side of caution, since there is so much we do not know.

The distinctive. human language capacity has been studied for centuries, going far back into the recorded past. It is full of good ideas, and today I would still be challenged to know exactly where to draw the line between animal cognition and the human language-aided kind.

Young children have an amazing capacity to learn words and their referents in the world, and to play pragmatic language games with caregivers and other kids. The linguist Derek Bickerton has pioneered the study of child language on islands where none of the parents speak a common language - in Tahiti it might be Japanese and English, both mutually difficult languages to communicate with. Phoneme learning is amazingly good in early childhood, and then essentially disappears with puberty, so that adolescents and adults are often stuck in their childhood phonology. Another mystery, but very real.

If Bickerton is right (whch he is) then much language change must be driven by children before adolescence, something we can often see with the new lingo of the web, for example. Siblings also can develop their own "idiolects," essentially private languages that parents do not speak or understand. These are true languages, in the sense that they have syntax and (secret) words.

The language of children is also full of "non-linguistic"" whoops and hollers, as anyone can tell by really listening to four-year olds. A great deal of early language variation is experimental, in a sense, and may not survive in later years. But the sheer existence of non-speech sounds, a huge variety of them, suggests that musicality developed before and perhaps separately from spoken speech. This is consistent with the very different evolutonary origins of vocal communication (about 200 MYA) and the alleged origin of speech (only 200 KYA!).

It is also interesting that other young mammals often seem to be attracted by human baby-croons, not the words, but the melody. This is relevant to the domestication of dogs, for example, because hunting peoples usually keep track of canid hunting packs, as well as raptors in the sky, which give reliable signals when they sense an edible carcass or an animal trying to esccape pursuit. If puppies wander into the human campgrounds, they might be welcomed by kids and moms - until they grow up and start to hunt.

The notion of endogenous visual imagery is very plausible, but I do not know of direct research on it - which should be easy using brain imaging. Vision is our most accurate spatial sense, and our brains alllow for interaction between the conscious senses, so that once we've seen a valley from a high vantage point, we can plausibly link prey odors or snake scents to the visual map we have acquired from afar. Cross-sensory integration happens in the parietal cortex, and it must have many uses.

Olfaction and taste also have to have a big spatial component, because the very ancient olfactory bulbs are not just able to detect scents --- they also have to try to locate the sources of specific scents. Knowing there is a predator leaving urine marks on a bush is not helpful, if you don't know where the predator might be hiding right now. So sophisticated source localization and time-marking is absolutely necessary for the chemical senses in nature.

Olfaction and taste evolve even before the mammals, and yet they are clearly conscious sense modalities. They terminate in cortex.

As for memory, olfaction is probably our most powerful memory cue, for the simple reason that natural animals die from toxic chemicals if they cannot do one-trial learning. As wolves have been shown to do. One trial, 24-hour associative learning that lasts forever.

These basic bio capacities also have impact on the emotions and even on personality disorders, especially in the biology of disgust, for example, which may be linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder and hoarding behavior. Disgust and sexuality also interact in surprising ways.

So these very deep pre-human adaptations are still haunting our lives. And they lend that extra spice to cooking and perfumes, of course.

Bernard Baars


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