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Gestures or Words? To the Brain, It's the Same
Date:2/22/2010

Research offers insights into how people process communication

MONDAY, Feb. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Humans speak; therefore, they're special.

At least that's what evolutionary language theorists would have people believe. Spoken language, they contend, is unique to the human brain, and that sets people apart from other primates.

But new research, co-authored by Patrick J. Gannon, a physical anthropologist and chairman of basic science education at Hofstra University School of Medicine, suggests that the brain doesn't really care how it receives information. A waving hand up in the air to summon a waiter for "check please" works just fine. The language areas of the brain -- the highly evolved frontal and temporal lobes -- process simple gestures with the same snippet of tissue that's used to hear the prose of Shakespeare, according to Gannon's study.

"It doesn't matter to the brain what channel the information comes in on or goes out," said Gannon, who is also an evolutionary neurobiologist.

A decade ago, he and his colleagues showed that great apes have the same brain architecture necessary for language as humans have. That surprised many at the time, despite whole fields of research showing that great apes can learn to understand complex human language. But the very fact that modern primates -- chimps, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans -- don't banter back and forth verbally was evidence to many language theorists that humans had evolved a more finely tuned brain.

Gannon wanted to challenge the theory with scientific proof that gestures convey the same complex messages as verbal language, and that the brain processes both forms of communication the same way.

Working with Dr. Allen R. Braun, chief of the language section at the U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, Gannon designed an experiment to watch the brain as it responds to spoken language and to
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