Scientist studying imagination in children develops new theory on language learning

by Freya Lucas

August 08

Dr Vyshedskiy, a neuroscientist from Boston University has revealed his theory, dubbed  Romulus and Remus, which might be able to solve the long-standing mystery of how language has evolved in the human race.

 

Dr Vyshedskiy’s ideas have been published in the open-science journal Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO) and will be of interest to those in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector who are wanting to know more about how children use language to explore imagination and humour. 

 

Much of the scientific community agrees that the roots of spoken language lie in the evolution of mankind from chimpanzees over 600,000 years ago, speculating that “it is likely that the modern-like remodelling of the vocal apparatus extended our ancestors’ range of vocalisations by orders of magnitude”.

 

In other words, by 600,000 years ago, the number of distinct verbalisations used for communication must have been on par with the number of words in modern languages.

 

In contrast, artefacts and evidence showing modern imagination, such as sewing implements, art, and construction of dwellings arose not earlier than 70,000 years ago. The half million-year-gap between the acquisition of the modern spoken language and modern imagination has baffled scientists for decades. The answer, Dr Vyshedskiy says, lies with young children. 

 

While studying the ways in which young children acquire and demonstrate imagination, Dr Vyshedskiy and his colleagues discovered a “temporal limit” for the development of a particular component of imagination. 

Children who had not been exposed to full language in early childhood did not have the capacity to hold two ‘mental objects’ in mind, and move them around. In scientific terms, this is known as Prefrontal Synthesis (PFS).

PFS is important, Dr Vyshedskiy explained, because it allows children to develop humour and imagination. 

 

“To understand the importance of PFS, consider these two sentences: ‘A dog bit my friend’ and ‘My friend bit a dog’,” he said. 

 

“It is impossible to distinguish the difference in meaning using words or grammar alone, since both words and grammatical structure are identical in these two sentences. Understanding the difference in meaning and appreciating the misfortune of the first sentence and the humour of the second sentence depends on the listener’s ability to juxtapose the two mental objects: the friend and the dog.”

 

Children are only able to find the humour or misfortune if they are able to imagine a dog biting a friend, or a friend biting a dog. 

 

Similarly, nested explanations, such as ‘a snake on the boulder to the left of the tall tree that is behind the hill,’ force listeners to use PFS to combine objects (a snake, the boulder, the tree, and the hill) into a novel scene. 

Unlike vocabulary and grammar acquisition, which can be learned throughout one’s lifetime, there is a strong critical period for the development of PFS and individuals not exposed to conversations with nested information and playing with language can never acquire PFS as adults, Dr Vyshedskiy noted. 

In modern children, he added, the critical period for PFS acquisition closes around the age of five. 

 

In a similar manner, pre-modern humans would not have been able to learn subtle language as adults and, therefore, would not be able to teach their own children, who, as a result, would not acquire PFS. 

 

An evolutionary mathematical model, developed by Dr Vyshedskiy, predicts that humans had to jump evolutionary barriers within several generations, and that a delay in the development of the pre frontal  cortex resulted in a genetic mutation which triggered simultaneous acquisition of PFS language.

 

To read more about Dr Vyshedskiy’s theory, please see here

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