Same brain region handles whistles and words

Areas of the brain linked to speech also spring into action when people communicate with each other by whistling, according to a new report. Neural tissue involved in language apparently adapts to a wide range of signaling systems, according to Manuel Carreiras of Spain’s University of La Laguna and his colleagues.

Spanish-speaking shepherds on La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands off Spain’s coast, communicate over long distances and rocky terrain using whistles for specific Spanish vowels and consonants, thus forming whistled words. Their whistled language is called Silbo Gomero.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure blood-flow changes in the brains of three shepherds fluent in Silbo Gomero and three Spanish speakers unfamiliar with the whistled language. Participants listened to words and sentences conveyed both in spoken Spanish and in whistles.

The fMRI images show that the same left-brain areas exhibited pronounced blood flow—a sign of intense neural activity—as both groups of volunteers listened to Spanish. However, when the volunteers listened to Silbo Gomero, these brain areas, which are associated with using and understanding language, showed activity only in the shepherds, Carreiras’ group reports in the Jan. 6 Nature.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.