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Mar 6, 2023Liked by Frederick R Prete

But...so long, and thanks for all the fish....

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If you put a kid under the age of about 14 into an environment in which a language is spoken, he'll be pretty unhappy for about 6 weeks. And then suddenly he'll be fluent in it. No accent. After that time, it's too late to do anything but learn it in class. And usually poorly. The difference is that the young human brain is able to "imprint" language, which is qualitatively different from "learning," as it is classically meant.

The experiment to do is to have a 7 or 8 year old kid spend 8 hours a day with a dolphin. No human contact during that time, just the dolphin. He has to understand that that's what he's doing--seeing if he learns how to communicate with the dolphin. It would obviously be best if there were two or more dolphins--they'll communicate with one another even if they aren't talking to junior. Junior can eavesdrop. And try speaking at them as time goes on.

To the best of may meager knowledge, nothing like this has been tried. Yet.

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That is an interesting thought experiment. I'm sure that like Margaret, the kids would be able to mimic the dolphins perfectly. I'm not so sure what the dolphins would end up doing. I'm still pretty agnostic about what's going on in the heads of animals, even the ones.

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Mar 7, 2023·edited Mar 7, 2023

It is not true that a 14 y.o. will be fluent with no accent withing 6 weeks. Yes, a prepubescent child will probably be fluent without an accent but it's certainly not something that happens within 6 weeks and the age cut off is probably younger.

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Came from the MIT psych department.

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Mar 8, 2023·edited Jun 3, 2023

Interesting... I guess maybe if they are somehow put in an exclusively new language environment. (I have seen many immigrant kids under 14. None were accent-free and fluent within six weeks , it took much longer. Maybe it's because they still spoke the native language at home ). Anyway, it's not really very relevant to the topic, so I apologize for my original comment.

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No apology needed. Opinions among reasonable people can differ.

And yeah, it would have to be in an exclusive environment for at least some part of each day. Not at all sure how one might go about doing that, but if you have the dolphins, how hard could it be? Put microphones in water to hear them and speakers so they can hear the kid who's trying to talk with them. It would be the kind of thing the Navy uses for passive sonar.

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Mar 8, 2023·edited Mar 8, 2023Author

Don’t apologize. Everything you say is important to me. It’s a very interesting idea. I’m not sure I agree with the use of “imprinting“ in the case of language, although it may be appropriate. I’ve been thinking about this for decades and I’m still not sure about the degree to which our brains are really “Set” to learn specific things. Any input or ideas you have, I would be interested in.

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Consider the retina. At birth, it's far from obvious what a neonate sees. It certainly perceives light and dark, possibly some color (but it has no idea what that's all about), but shapes? Doubtful.

If you look at babies born soon after the Chernobyl disaster, you find that there were many kids with congenital cataracts. If they don't get removed and corrected within a short time--months, probably--they will never gain the ability see even straight lines, let alone identifiable shapes.

Why not? Because something "magical" happens to the retina in the first few months of life. Simplistically, it learns to see. More complicatedly, it learns how to encode data that gets sent to the optic nerves. Specifically, it learns how to encode pieces of images. It's those pieces, not a lot of dots, that gets sent from the eyeball to the brain. Teleologically, that makes the system very noise-resistant, and therefore robust.

The action seems to happen at t he ganglion cell layer. These are the cells whose bodies (nuclei) reside in the retina. The eyeball end sends out many dendrites, each of which interfaces with a bipolar cell, each of which receives an input from a light receptor--a rod or a cone cell. The ganglion cells get programmed. Whether it happens because each one has a bunch of early dendrites and the ones that don't get used wither, OR it grows dendrites to places where they're needed. I suspect it's the former, but I don't know that for sure. what I'm sure of is that one or other--or both--happen.

Think of the retina as being similar to the speech cortex in the brain--specifically Broca's area. If it doesn't get programmed early enough--certainly by very early teens--the ability to use language is lost forever.

You can figure out where things go from here.

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author

“I’ll stop” was a glitch in my dictation software.

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author

You or the experimental idea... or both?

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The experimental idea came from me. The age cutoff that I learned--over 50 years ago, so it's not exactly current--was from MIT. (I only minored in psych.)

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Well, it’s a cool idea!

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Thank you. I thought so as well.

I built the idea on an observation I made a long time ago: I taught myself organic chemistry when I was ~ 12-13. I was fascinated by looking through the book, which was admittedly fairly primitive. Didn't understand what was go ing on, but that didn't dampen the interest. And then, one day, out of the blue I understood the whole thing. It was as if a chemistry module had been installed in my brain overnight. Literally.

Maybe 15-20 years ago, I was sorta reviewing the idea in my own mind and it dawned on me that what I learned had a lot of aspects of a language. And I had allowed it become imprinted in my mind. Then about 10 years ago, I noticed that someone else had not only had the same thought, but wrote a book about it. I think his first edition came out almost 30 years ago. I became aware of the books about 10 years ago.

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=organic+chemistry+second+language&sprefix=organic+chemistry+second%2Caps%2C117&ref=nb_sb_ss_ts-doa-p_1_24

Anyway, I think it would be an interesting experiment to do. The language may have some things in common with one of the "click" languages, e.g., https://youtu.be/vhgb60Qsjrs

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Mar 6, 2023Liked by Frederick R Prete

I'd like to applaud how elegantly you handled the subject of their... dalliances. It's like watching Pareto's Principle being properly applied to SEO. Also, it's always fascinated me how frequently brilliance and eccentricity go together. Unfortunately, I'm not the only person to have noticed and so, nowadays we've got an awful lot of folks broadcasting eccentricity, hoping to be called genius. Goodhart's Law is a sonofabitch.

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Goodhart's Law, indeed!

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Mar 6, 2023Liked by Frederick R Prete

Thank you for another brilliant piece. I can't wait for the day when gender pseudoscience goes the way of "teaching" English to non-humans and communicating with extraterrestrials, if for no other reason than the dolphins and the little green men could never hope to grasp mind-bending notion of preferred third-person pronouns.

Keep up the amazing work.

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LOL, and thanks. What would a dolphin's preferred pronouns be?

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“cold fusion was a mistake”

I had to search on that database, lost in old grey cells.

Coming from the engineering/software world, coldfusion is alive and well…

Adobe ColdFusion is a commercial rapid web-application development computing platform created by J. J. Allaire in 1995. It is also known as CFML and was originally designed to make it easier to connect simple HTML pages to a database.

I never know where you’re going to take my brain. I wonder what Freud would say.

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I think that he would think that I'm a little bit wacky, too. Life's too short to take yourself too seriously!

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Mar 5, 2023Liked by Frederick R Prete

Thanks for another wonderful article. I love your sense of humor! I knew it was a bad idea to google dolphin furry after reading your article, but I couldn't help myself. Of course there IS a wiki article on the matter. Take heart, my friends, dolphin furries are mercifully rare "Dolphins of any species are among the more uncommon animals chosen for characters in the furry community"

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Oh my goodness, that's funny.

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Mar 5, 2023Liked by Frederick R Prete

Lilly's attempt to "de-dolphinize" Peter and turn him into a human made me queasy and sad. Lilly tortured Peter in order to prove spurious assumptions that he had concocted in his prolific imagination. It's a hopeful sign that he ultimately realized he should be protecting marine mammals rather than imprisoning and abusing them in the name of science.

Regarding Irene Pepperberg, she's a remarkable person whose affinity for birds was ignited during a desperately lonely childhood. Alex became a life partner, in a way, and his sudden death was a devastating blow. To achieve the reputation she ultimately attained, Pepperberg had to persist against her colleagues who told her she was nuts. Ultimately,she did demonstrate that parrots can understand basic concepts like quantities, colors, and shapes and then reflect them back in verbal form.

Pepperberg's advisory involvement with METI is a sideline, not her main focus. It would be unfair to characterize her as having fallen down the Woo Well. It's more likely that curiosity and openness, rather than having lost her marbles, enabled her to say "yes" to her advisory role at METI. She still works with parrots and does research at Harvard, and is one of the world's leading authorities on animal communication. She also works in conservation.

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I’m still thinking about your comment. It is very thought-provoking. Margaret also had a very close relationship with Peter. And, apparently, it was very difficult for her when Peter died. This raises some interesting questions about attachments to animals and how those attachments affect our perceptions of what the animal is actually doing. I’m not making any value judgments but it is an interesting psychological phenomenon. It’s also true that there are differences in people’s interpretations of what exactly a bird like Alex “knows“ and what are simply chains of behaviors. Even insects can be taught to respond in terms of abstract cognitive concepts like “same – different“ and the recognition of various shapes. They can even “teach” other insects how to do arbitrarily tasks like rolling a ball into a target area. And, of course, birds learn to use tools. Do they know what they’re doin? I’m not sure. It’s an interesting discussion. I need to think more about what you said. It’s very interesting. Thanks again

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Irene Pepperberg is alive and well. I bet she would love to talk to an erudite biologist such as yourself. You could contact her and have that conversation. I am 1000% certain (okay, 999% certain) that she has considered the topic of unconscious bias and has controlled for that in her research, because skeptical eyeballs have been on her work for decades.

Maybe I'm being too idealistic, but I find it hard to imagine that she would have acquired the reputation she ultimately did if she had neglected to control for that issue.

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And there is Jane Goodall, who learned chimp communication rather than ask them to learn ours.

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Good point. Thanks!

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And if you do have that conversation one day, would you be willing to share the results? I'm a great admirer of her work, obviously, and I'd love to know how it goes.

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Sure! I can tell you are an admirer. Me too. I just have a less enthusiastic view of what's actually going on in the brains of animals who do fantastic things, like Alex, honey bees, and so many other animals.

Over the years I have come to wonder how much of what we study — and how we interpret what we study — is shaped by our personal points of view. I'm not sure we can totally escape that.

In any event, I think the Alex research is very cool… And so is the research revealing the cognitive capacities of honeybees. I'm just not sure exactly what the research tells us about the "intellectual" worlds of the animals.

Thanks again!

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Mar 5, 2023Liked by Frederick R Prete

Unfortunately, you're right. We can never totally escape our personal points of view. Trying to relegate subjectivity to the back seat just means we're going to be dealing with a back-seat driver.

We can't assume that there's human-like awareness going on in the brains of parrots or other animals separate from our influence. But Pepperberg's findings do demonstrate that parrots have some visual and auditory capabilities that match ours, and that they can learn to associate one with the other. The fact that parrots can imitate a wide range of sounds, including car horns and ringtones, and "speak" so clearly, is impressive in itself. It would be interesting to understand how these evolutionary traits contribute to survival in the wild.

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Thanks for the thoughtful perspective. I appreciate it very much!

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Great article and great reminders about the human process of science. Our ape brains are exceedingly creative and curious! We sure like to make shit up. When I am extremely tired or otherwise outside my mental norm, I sometimes hear music in white noise. A river, air conditioner, whatever. It's an auditory hallucination, but it really sounds to my ears like there is music playing for extended periods of time. It's rarely like the folky music I write myself, most often free jazz or classical, but recently after trying some Kava to help me sleep (ineffective) I heard a German-sounding waltz. It's very specific, and I can listen to it for some time without it going away, it's not a momentary thing. I have no way to reproduce it beyond studying a melody (if there is one), because it's always quite complex. Horn sections, fiddles, percussion, the whole works. I wonder if that kind of experience has been studied? My assumption is that my brain finds the frequencies in the white noise, picks out patterns and hears them as music. But how weird!

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Mar 5, 2023·edited Mar 5, 2023Author

‘Weird’ but normal. There is some research on people who are very sensitive to sound patterns. I had a link to it in the essay but I removed it. I’ll look for it.

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You know, I can't find that link. The only one that keeps turning up is a link about people who hear voices regularly… They are particularly sensitive to hidden or masked language sounds. However, you're talking about music which I think is different... But, then, after listening to how beautiful your music is, I can understand how sensitive you are to those sounds. I wish I was at least a little bit musical… But, alas.

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Mar 5, 2023Liked by Frederick R Prete

Thank!

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deletedMar 5, 2023Liked by Frederick R Prete
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Thanks!

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very funny

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Mar 5, 2023Liked by Frederick R Prete

Glad I’m not the only one whose brain went straight to Douglas Adams here!

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