Outbreaks of contagious laughter (and mewing)

May 10, 2014

Robert Provine’s book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation has a very interesting chapter on contagious laughter. This curious phenomenon has long been exploited in such items as laugh boxes and musical laugh records, as well as being central to laugh tracks (from Ancient Rome to modern TV) and churches of “holy laughter”.

Contagious laughter is, of course, also an everyday occurrence, spreading directly from person to person in normal interaction. But even this activity can become abnormal, when for instance instead of dying down it persists and spreads over a wide area, as happened in the Tanganyika laughter epidemic (though it wasn’t just laughter).

Provine writes:

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A world of fragmented words

October 13, 2011

The Man with a Shattered World (1972) is a short, extraordinary book about a Russian soldier, “Zasetsky”, who at 23 was shot in the head in World War II and spent the rest of his life “in a kind of fog all the time, like a heavy half-sleep”, trying to put his mind and life back together.

He suffered great pain and confusion as a result of his injury. Memory loss was severe, physical coordination and proprioception much impaired. He forgot how to gesture to a nurse for help, how to speak with doctors, how to kiss his family when he finally got home. Vision and movement were gravely problematic; thought was torturous.

In spite of these daunting difficulties, he taught himself to read and write again, and wrote a journal of his experience that grew to 3000 pages painstakingly written (and rewritten) over 25 years. The Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria adapted it for the aforenamed book, adding context to extracts from his patient’s notebooks.

A passage from Luria:

Intricate turns of speech that are so routine to us that we fail to notice their complexity are, in fact, codes that have taken centuries to develop. We readily employ them, because we have mastered linguistic patterns – our most basic means of communication. . . .

The man who wrote this journal no longer had the capacity for such an instantaneous grasp of intricate patterns (whether of spatial or linguistic relationships). The damage to his cerebral cortex had affected precisely those parts of the brain that enable one to evaluate what he has seen (as neurologists would say, to ‘simultaneously synthesize separate parts into a complete whole’).

All Zasetsky’s vision to the right of centre was gone; on the left were large gaps. This, coupled with aphasia and other cognitive disabilities, made reading intensely difficult. He was horrified to discover that he couldn’t understand the sign on a bathroom door, and that the text of a newspaper looked like gibberish.

But he made progress:

When I begin to read a word, even a word like golovokruzheniye [dizziness], and look at the letter k, the upper right point, I only see the letters on the left (v–o). I can’t see anything on the right of the letter k or around it. To the left of it I can see the two letters v and o but nothing further to the left. If someone were to trace the letters further to the left with a pencil, I’d see where the movement of the pencil began, but not the letters.

Writing too was onerous. It was easier for him to write automatically, so he learned to do this and would then read over, letter by letter, what he had written to see if it made sense and to work out what came next.

Sometimes he would strain over a page for a week or two, trying to find the right words for an idea and remember them long enough to fit them together and arrange them in writing.

I have some peculiar kind of forgetfulness or amnesia with almost any word, or else I’m very slow. I can’t remember a word or, if I can, I don’t know what it means. . . . If I hear the word table I can’t work out what it is right away, what it is related to. I just have a feeling the word is somewhat familiar . . .

Even a short paragraph read aloud to Zasetsky quickly broke into meaningless fragments. Hearing it repeatedly was of little help, because his sense of syntax was lost. It was a generalised problem: he had lost his understanding of what things meant and how they worked, how they fit together and related to one other: the world he experienced was shattered.

Zasetsky was tormented by his brain injury but determined to communicate it as best he could. Narrating his struggle to make sense of things became a full-time occupation – an obsession. The Man with a Shattered World is a very sad tale, but no reader can fail to feel deep admiration for its subject’s dedication to his task, and for his unfaltering humanity.

Here is Oliver Sacks speaking about Luria and the book:

Silbo Gomero and whistled languages

June 20, 2011

Whistled languages are found around the world, but they are rare. A casual listen might suggest little more than a basic code with a modest vocabulary, but whistled languages are rich and complex surrogate languages seemingly capable of expressing just about anything that can be said in the languages from which they derive.

Whistled languages transpose some of the phonetic features of their source languages. Silbo Gomero, based on Spanish, is one of the better known. It is used on La Gomera, a small island of the Canaries with many hills, woods and ravines – terrain well suited to whistles. ‘Silbadores’ can transmit news and other intelligible information over distances of several kilometres.

A silbador whistling down a Gomeran hill

For centuries, Silbo Gomero has served social, practical, and ceremonial functions. Its origins are uncertain, but it is thought to have come from north Africa. Where other whistled languages of the Canaries have died out, Silbo Gomero enjoys a protected status with UNESCO and was recently added to the island’s school curriculum.

Ramón Trujillo, who wrote a book about the Gomeran whistle, said it “has the basic structure of a natural language and serves as its substitute” (translator: Jeff Brent). This point is echoed by Meyer and Gautheron, whose “Whistled speech and whistled languages” (PDF) tells us the whistle is “a vehicle for articulated language in the true sense of the word”.

Their paper is a very useful introduction, offering a concise overview of where and why whistled languages arise, how they work, their phonological features, and so on:

Whistled languages have naturally developed in response to the necessity for humans to communicate in conditions of relative isolation (distance, night, noise) and specific activities (social information, shepherding, hunting or fishing, courtship, shamanism). Therefore, they are mostly related to places with mountains or dense forests. Southern China, Papua New Guinea, the Amazon forest, subsaharan Africa, Mexico, and Europe encompass most of these locations.

The ability to use a whistled language is passed down through countless generations as part of a particular region’s oral culture. The whistling, though perplexing to outsiders, is taught, used, and experienced as a natural language by its adepts. Even at a neural level,

areas of the brain normally associated with spoken-language function are also activated in proficient whistlers, but not in controls, when they are listening to Silbo Gomero (Carreiras et al., 2005).

Another fMRI study showed that Silbo Gomero

activates left posterior temporal and inferior frontal regions in persons familiar with the use of this speech surrogate. . . . For subjects unfamiliar with Silbo, language regions are not activated. Our results provided further evidence for the flexibility of the human capacity for language to process a wide variety of signal forms.

Non-profit research association The World Whistles has a website offering audio samples of various whistled languages, along with a wide range of publications. The whistles sound so much like birdsong that I was unsurprised to find an anecdote on Linguist List that “some of the commonly used silbo introductions have been picked up and repeated by birds”.

This page from SIL in Mexico transcribes a whistled conversation about oranges and coffee plants in Sochiapam Chinantec.


The BBC reports on Silbo Gomero’s revival.

Julien Meyer has a useful article at Scientific American on the status of whistled speech and what it tells us about the human brain.

Finally two videos: a short cheerful clip about Silbo Gomero, from Busuu.com:

And UNESCO’s 10-minute film, which is well worth a look: