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Why can’t chimpanzees talk like humans?

Chimpanzees are our closest primate relatives, yet we are fluent conversationalists and they do not speak at all. What is the evolutionary reason behind this huge difference? Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans can learn to communicate with humans through pictures or sign language, however, the vocal sounds they produce go hardly beyond coos and grunts. It’s puzzling that they can’t learn to speak any words even when they are raised by humans from birth. Do chimpanzees simply lack the vocal tract anatomy necessary to produce varied sounds or do they have less neural control over their vocal tracts? 

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Do abstract concepts have abstract meanings?

In the language sciences, words like “freedom”, “justice”, and “peace” are classified as abstract concepts, because – unlike concrete words like “car” and “elephant” – they don’t refer to objects in the physical world. Recent studies reveal that in fact abstract concepts are rooted in our experience of emotion and social interaction, and maybe less abstract than one may think! 

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Our brains are exclusively tuned to the sound of WARnings

In Greek mythology, the Sirens were dangerous sea-nymphs living in cliffy and rocky islands. With their enchanting songs, these half-bird half-woman creatures lured ships to wreck on rocky shores and then killed the sailors. Even today, sirens lead to nothing but destruction. The wailing sound of air-raid sirens in Ukraine reminds us of the essential reality of Siren songs ‘warning for danger’. Even in peace, we hear public warning sirens if nothing but for testing, just like the ones echoing across the streets of the Netherlands on the first Monday of every month. But why are siren sounds so efficient to signal danger and what really happens in the brain when we hear an alarming sound?

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Talking to chatbots: the way of the future

With some melancholy one thinks of the time companies could be called by phone and an actual human would be available to answer your questions. Alas, those times are over. Phone numbers are getting harder to find, or they are simply absent. Progressively, direct human contact is replaced by “chatbots” which some companies lovingly call their “digital colleagues”. The Dutch post (PostNL), for example, boasts that their digital colleague “Daan” successfully handles over 160.000 queries per month. 

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Does using text-speak speed up communication? Perhaps not for the receiver!

The growing popularity of sending messages electronically has led to changes in the way people communicate. To increase the efficiency of their messages, people often abbreviate words or expressions, for example by combining letters with numbers, using acronyms, or removing vowels or letters altogether. For example, gr8 for “great,” ROFL for “Rolling On the Floor laughing” or msg for “message”. But does this also make reading faster for the receiving person? 

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How can we better understand each other when wearing a face mask?

Imagine you are traveling by train with your friends. You try to tell them what you did during the weekend. It’s quite crowded in the train. Next to you there’s another group of friends who are talking to each other, behind you there is a man who is on the phone, and in front of you, there’s a parent who is playing with a toddler. You enthusiastically try to tell your friends about the museum you visited this weekend. “Sorry, what are you saying?”, asks your friend with a questioning face. “Those face masks are so annoying!”

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Losing words on the tip of the tongue 

When you are having a conversation with someone, do you ever want to say a specific word, but for some reason, you cannot find it? You know that word, you can even picture it in your mind or you know its first letter, but still, you don’t manage to say it. Have you ever wondered why you can’t find that word and what happens in your brain while you’re desperately searching for it?

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Concept cells in the human brain and neural networks

Did you know that if you are a fan of Star Wars, in your brain there might be neurons that respond only to characters from the movie? Interestingly, some types of artificial brains that scientists generate with computers (called artificial neural networks) also spontaneously develop such neurons. What does it (and what does it not) tell us about the real brain? And what does it have to do with language?

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Words as Medicine

In recent decades developments and progress in medicine are strongly technology-driven. E-health, social robots, and AI are strong drivers of innovations in the clinic. However, all this should not detract from the crucial role that is played by the narratives in which the communication between the health professionals (doctors, nurses, etc.) and patients is embedded. Words are not harmless.

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