Multimodal communication and social attention across three primate species: a window into the origins of human language

Multimodal communication and social attention across three primate species: a window into the origins of human language

By In PhD proposals 2018 On April 6, 2018

Project: Multimodal communication and social attention across three primate species: a window into the origins of human language

Laboratory: Laboratoire d’Ethologie Expérimentale et Comparée (LEEC, EA4443)

Affiliation: Université Paris 13 – Sorbonne Paris Cité
Address: 99 avenue Jean-Baptiste Clément, 93430 Villetaneuse

LAB Director
Name: Heiko Rödel
Phone number: +33(0)149403218

Name: David Sillam-Dussès
Phone number: +33(0)149403954

Subject Keywords: communication, evolution, development, primates, attention
Summary of lab’s interests: For the last 40 years, the Laboratory of Experimental and Comparative Ethology EA 4443 (LEEC) has been a landmark at the Université Paris 13, well known for excellence in research on animal behaviour in France. The main focus of this laboratory is to investigate mechanisms, ontogeny, function and evolution of social behavior in animals. To this end, the researchers study social insects (hymenoptera and termites), marine worms (polychaetes) and mammals (murid mice, rabbits and dolphins) with the help of animal facilities and with national and international collaborations on other animal models.

Project summary: Humans communicate combining signals of different sensory modalities (mainly visual, audible and tactile) arranged into a single stream. While language is often considered to be uniquely human, many of its multimodal components are shared with other species and can provide a window on both the origins and acquisition of language. Among the selective forces potentially causing the pre-linguistic to linguistic transition, one is the recipient’s attentive state. Any multimodal hypothesis of language evolution should thus articulate the flexible use of signals of various sensory modalities with the variations in the sensory modalities of the recipient’s attention. The aim of this project is to examine the hypothesis that attentional disruption by caretakers may constitute a primary factor fostering the tactical use of sensory modalities to channel communication and pair-bonding by young dependent infants. The study aims to understand how infants adjust and elaborate their visual and acoustic communicative means to their mother’s attention modalities, i.e., considering tactile, auditory, visual and olfactory cues as candidate channels with a three-primate-species comparative study: olive baboons (Papio anubis), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and humans (Homo sapiens sapiens). This study will be investigated through a combination of quantitative field studies with laboratory experiments.
Interdisciplinary aspect of the project: There are two phases in this project. The first of them, aims to analyse multimodal communication within mother-infant interactions across three primate species according to the mother’s attentional state. The second phase is experimental and aims to provide the first evidence of the role of chemical communication in modulating maternal attention and infants’ multimodal signalling. This will require the use of a technique newly developed by chemists and biologists: the microporous organogel. Thus, it needs expertise of scientists in developmental psychology, evolutionary anthropology, chemical ecology, and ethology. That is why this PhD research proposal is by nature interdisciplinary.
Funding: The field missions and the experiments will be funded by the “chaire d’excellence” of D. Sillam-Dussès (120,000 euros/6 years).