And the way the brain processes these whistles is similar to the way it goes about deciphering English, Spanish or other spoken languages, according to research being published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature.
"Science has developed the idea of brain areas that are dedicated to language and we are starting to understand the scope of signals that can be recognized as language," said David Corina, a University of Washington associate professor of psychology and co-author of the study.
"But how far can you stretch this idea? Sign language studies have shown we can stretch the envelope and here we are expanding it in another way to a whistle language. The brain is adaptable, or plastic, in understanding a variety of forms of communication." The language studied by Corina and his colleague, Manuel Carreiras, a psychology professor at the University of La Laguna, on the island of Tenerife in the Canaries, is Silbo Gomero, or Silbo. It is primarily used by shepherds to communicate with each other over long distances of rugged terrain on the island of La Gomera, another island in the Spanish owned Canaries.
To see how the brain processes Silbo, the researchers recruited five silbadors, or speakers of Silbo, who also were fluent in Spanish and five Spanish speakers who did not understand Silbo. The word silbador comes from the Spanish verb silbar, which means to whistle.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to measure brain activation, or activity, during two tasks. The two groups first were given a passive listening task in which they listened to recorded sentences in Spanish and Silbo and were to keep track of what had been said. In the second task, the subjects listened to blocks of Spanish words for
Contact: Joel Schwarz
University of Washington