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  PATHFINDER PROJECTS  -  On the trail of the human phenomenon

Eight new Pathfinder projects are now well and truly up and running. They are trying to understand the essence of what constitutes our humanity – that ‘little difference’ that gives us a special place in the living world.

A little girl sleeping in a cage. © Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt
This photo may seem strange. A little girl sleeping in a cage. In fact she is at a dog show where her family’s pets are being presented. The dogs seem happy at the chance to show off while the girl is just having a nap. An illustration of the mutual trust that can exist between humans and animals.
© Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt
1. Calacei – the mysteries of language
"In the 1950s, linguists, such as the American Noam Chomsky, started to explore and analyse the foundations of the faculty of language. Although the results were revealing, linguistics has not yet answered the question as to what is inherent to humankind in particular that permits the progressive acquisition of this syntaxic complexity by a very young child,” explains Jacques Mehler, a specialist on cognitive neurosciences at the Sissa(1) in Trieste (IT) and coordinator of the Calacei project.(2) “It is in this area that neurosciences – by using technological tools to observe how the brain responds to stimuli related to language learning in very young children – are introducing a scientific approach that is delivering a lot of new data.”

The studies(3) focus in particular on the ability of babies to distinguish voice phenomena and to detect ‘global’ properties such as the prosody particular to oral language. Parallel research on primates looks at the behavioural reactions of discrimination between, for example, natural sounds (voice of a human being) and the non-human sound of a recorded voice. Other studies try to detect the manner in which a child’s brain assimilates and adopts the pedagogical relationship that governs its learning.

“This is a very complex relationship that involves a whole set of emotional circumstances and attempts to satisfy a desire. The acquisition of language in fact underlies the ability to take up a place in the human social group,” stresses Mehler. “The question is whether we are born with this inherent aptitude of the human mind to observe that it is a member of a group with which it shares a common status. Neurological observations enable us to identify brain phenomena that reflect the fact that certain categories of autistic children suffer from a representation deficit, as they are not aware that their emotions, desires and thoughts are shared by other people.” 

2. Neurocom – at the origins of communication
Working in a similar field, but extending beyond the realms of speech alone, teams of linguists, psychologists, ethologists, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists contribute to the Neurocom (Neural origins of language and communication) project. Their aim is to distinguish, within communication channels, the specifically human neuronal components. By combining neuro-imaging techniques and behavioural tests in various communication situations (verbal, gesticulatory, audiovisual), the partners seek to compare the impact, on the cortex, of reactions peculiar to the adult man, babies and certain primates.  

3. Refcom – the limits of animal communication
Couple of gorillas living in a zoo.
Refcom – Research on the behaviour of primates. Here, a couple of gorillas living in a zoo. The female is attentive to information supplied by the environment, a fact to which the male and group leader is not indifferent.
The eight partners on the Refcom (Origins of referential communication) project are making a comparative study of the different types of messages that enable humans and animals to communicate with each other. “We want to discover whether the communicative abilities of the human being are the result of a unique integration of numerous aptitudes that are shared with other species,” explains Project Coordinator Juan Gomez, a psychologist at the University of St Andrews University (UK).

We know, for example, that monkeys send out alarm calls when they sense the presence of a predator. Bonobos and gorillas accompany these with gestures. Beyond the reference species, the partners are also looking at dolphins, parrots and dogs – the latter using both innate signs and signs learned from humans. They are studying the specific modes of animal groups living in freedom and in captivity. Comparisons are being made with groups of children, including autistic children, to understand exactly what sets humans apart from animals in this area.   

4. SEDSU – the magic of signs
A closely related semiotic approach is being pursued by teams working on the Sedsu (Stages in the Evolution and Development of Sign Use) project. These researchers are looking at the development of the ability to interpret sign language (gestures, pictures, abstract symbols, sounds, etc.). “The recognition and understanding of signs has developed differently in different species of primates,” explains Jules Davidoff (Goldsmiths College - UK). The perception is more global in humans than in chimpanzees that are more struck by a particular detail. Another key characteristic of humans is the ability to distinguish the meaning of a sign from its identifiable form. “We want to improve our knowledge of how the transition from one stage of development to another can be explained by the acquisition of a new level of knowledge. This level would then open the door to an increasingly advanced ability to use signs, ultimately resulting in human language.” The project is also exploring human universality, as well as its cultural variations. For this reason, sign recognition is also being studied among populations in Namibia, the Amazon, Thailand and India.

5. Wayfinding – spatial memory and orientation
Another field being studied is that of spatial memory and the sense of orientation, abilities that are not exclusive to humans. Yet our ability to construct representations of the external world is linked to specific cognitive functions. The Wayfinding project is retracing the historical development of these abilities and in particular strategies for adapting to circumstances. Six laboratories specialising in psychology, physiology, biology, neurosciences, anthropology and artificial intelligence are using a range of psychological tests and neuro-imaging techniques in their investigations in this field. Researchers are exploring and comparing orientation mechanisms in humans, rats and monkeys. “We have sketched the hierarchy of processes by which we find our way and have seen clearly that the most elaborate are specific to the human cognitive system,” stresses Project Coordinator Albert Postma of Utrecht University (NL). “At the human level, we are also comparing individual differences – in terms of age, gender, culture, state of health – that appear in personal ‘navigation systems’.” 

6. EDICI – imitating to learn
A marmosets mother sharing her food with her offspring. © Bernhard Voelkl
EDICI – Marmosets are small monkeys from the Americas with a genetic make-up that is close to that of humans. Here is a mother sharing her food with her offspring. The young are very wary of any unfamiliar food and do not touch it unless their parents give it to them. Researchers on the EDICI project are studying this particular aspect of their learning process.
© Bernhard Voelkl
Imitating is one of the first games played by children and animals and a vital element in the learning process in both cases. It is the sheepdog and not the shepherd that teaches the puppy the job. “A whole line of European researchers – from Konrad Lorenz to Jean Piaget and Lev Vigotsky – have established to what extent imitation is a major engine for cognitive and social development in the course of human life,” stresses Ludwig Huber (University of Vienna – AT), Coordinator of the EDICI (Evolution, Development and Intentional Control of Imitation) project. “The progress achieved in the neurological bases and methods of investigating the developing processes of the ability to imitate today make it possible to go further in our understanding of its origins and development and, in particular, of the unique and complex specificity of the human being in intentionally controlling this ability.”

7. FAR – reasoning and rules

Electro-encephalographic tests carried out at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birbeck College, University of London.

FAR – What part of the young brain is activated during certain learning activities? Electro-encephalographic tests carried out at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birbeck College, University of London.
One of the most distinctive characteristics of the human mind is its reasoning ability and logic, in particular the ability to define concepts and rules enabling it to ‘organise’ the world with which it interacts. These cognitive aspects of human understanding are the subject of study for researchers on the FAR (From Associations to Rules in the development of concepts) project. The team is made up of psychologists, specialists in neuroscience and evolution and also computer scientists needed to construct the models and simulations. The project aims to analyse the different types of human and animal cognition and to demonstrate the importance of language in this differentiation. “We are trying to retrace the origins of rule-based reasoning, which is the archetypal form of human reasoning,” explains Denis Mareschal of Manchester University, the Project Coordinator. “We are looking at where this ability came from and if it can exist in the absence of language [thus among babies and animals]. We are concentrating on this phenomenon because concepts and categories are at the heart of any form of intelligent behaviour, human or otherwise. We also want to know if, depending on the circumstances, adults can vary in the strategies used for learning new concepts, whether based on rules or otherwise. We hope that all this will shed light on the key to finding out why this ability was able to emerge in the course of evolution.”

8. PXB140404 – the hallmarks of the human brain
Another question – if not ‘the’ question – in determining who we are is to know in what way our brain differs to that of our cousins, the great apes. The PXB140404 project aims to discover the molecular base of the cognitive capacities, and their corresponding genes, that are unique to human beings. The project should make it possible to reveal and date a number of genetic mutations that contributed to our heritage and that are shared with other species, as well as the origin of our other specificities. Experts in biology, bioinformatics, psychiatry and neuroscience are working on this exploration which is opening up new horizons for cognitive science. 

(1) Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati
(2) Universal and Specific Properties of a Uniquely Human Competence. Tools to study language acquisition in early infancy project conducted in partnership with German and British teams.
(3) This research, carried out on very young children when they first begin to acquire language, requires an active and naturally indispensable involvement of parents and respects rigorous ethical standards. 

  Fundamental research and quality of life  
  The NEST-Pathfinder interdisciplinary projects lie in the field of fundamental research. But progress in knowledge of all aspects of the unique nature of the human mind – at the genetic, neurobiological, behavioural or psychological level – is far from being an exercise in ‘science for science’s sake’. Researchers are very much aware of the possible implications of their work for improving the quality of life of the individual and of society. One of the most obvious fields is education, including in schools and further training. Another is the approach medicine can adopt towards all diseases of the brain, such as neurodegenerative diseases linked to ageing and many problems of mental health, such as schizophrenia, depression and autism. 

There are also many potential benefits for the increasingly intangible dimensions of technology. An in-depth understanding of the cognitive functions of humans is a key factor in the creation of machines and intelligent interfaces.


  More exhaustive information on NEST-Pathfinder projects on the subject of ‘What it means to be human’ – as well as on the interdisciplinary research teams involved – is available on the fact sheets [ http://europa.eu.int/research/fp6/nest/pdf/nest_pathfinder_projects_nov2005.pdf ] that can be consulted.