Whistled language uses both sides of the brain

Unlike spoken Turkish, whistled form processed symmetrically by hemispheres

man whistling

TRILL  A man fluent in whistled Turkish sends messages in melodies. The brain handles whistled language differently from spoken language, new research suggests.

O. Güntürkün

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Amid the mountains of northeast Turkey, people whistle messages that ring across valleys like ornate bird songs. Unlike with hearing spoken languages, listeners who understand this rare form of communication rely on both sides of their brains, a new study suggests.

For most people, the left side of the brain does the heavy lifting in understanding speech. But when listening to whistled Turkish, people appear to engage both brain hemispheres, scientists report in the Aug. 17 Current Biology.

Biopsychologist Onur Güntürkün of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany and colleagues asked 31 people fluent in spoken and whistled Turkish to listen to syllables through headphones. For spoken Turkish, most people were better at picking out sounds with the right ear, which feeds information straight to the left side of the brain. But for whistles, the left and right ears performed similarly in allowing people to pick out the syllables correctly. The results suggest that the melodic language relies on a wide stretch of the brain. 

MESSAGE IN A WHISTLE Two Turkish men’s whistles fly across a valley, carrying greetings and an invitation to a cafe. O. Güntürkün

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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