“I’m very happy to come back and revisit this going, no, sorry, human language is a sorry thing compared to dolphins”.

Cognitive Neuroscientist & Broadcaster

Sophie is based at University College London where she researches communication, voices, speech and laughter. She is the Deputy Director of UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. Sophie is also a passionate science communicator. She is a regular on The Cosmic Shambles Network’s live shows, The Infinite Monkey Cage and other prominent series. in 2017 she will deliver the prestigious Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures.

Well, at one very kind of basic level what I do is I take models of how the primate brain works and try and apply that to humans, because we’re primates and the primate brain is wired somewhat differently from other mammals, so, a lot of what I do comparatively is trying to understand humans and their communication abilities in the context of how primate brains communicate. But it’s very interesting to bear in mind some of the patterns you see across nature because it can be a bit salient to realise how very complex communication can be across different animals. For example, dolphins do crazy things with their voices that we don’t really understand.

Non-vocal communication

There’s a huge amount of variety and complexity in just vocal communication in other animals, so you’ve got all sorts of different uses of the voice, and even different sorts of voices, we don’t really understand it but sea mammals like dolphins and whales have got really complicated ways of generating sound and this goes all the way through to, you know, other ways of making noise, so insects very often stridulate, so they rub body parts together and make incredibly loud sounds that way! The loudest sound in nature is produced by a very, very small water bug.

And then you’ve got all sorts of other ways of transmitting information, so visual information, smell information, that’s a more kind of widespread pattern of communication, but I’m particularly interested in voices.

Primitive communication

Well, I suppose you can think about…there’s, like, some basic elements of communication that tend to be extremely common across animals and humans, so expressions of emotion can be extremely well… are very widely recognised even across species, so there are emotions like anger or play that are very, very similar, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a lion or a human, there’ll be similarities there. And then you have…what seems to be different about language isn’t just one thing, so one of the things that is particular about language is we use meaning referentially, so we have particular words for particular things in our world.  But even that, you can find elements of that in other animals, so vervet monkeys produce different kinds of danger calls depending on what the threat is, meerkats do the same thing.

And dogs can learn all sorts of different meanings of human words, and work out what a new thing must be based on if they see something unfamiliar and they’re hearing an unfamiliar word, and so it’s possible referential meaning isn’t limited to us.

And then you’ve got things like grammar and syntax, so you’ve got the sequential dependencies of how words go together in order. But there are elements of that in birdsong. So it can be quite hard to point to something and say, here’s something that is absolutely specific just to human language that you can’t find anywhere else in nature. What does seem to be unusual about humans is that we have it all together, so once you’ve got human language you do seem to have something that is unparalleled in complexity. That being said, we don’t know enough about dolphins so, you know, I’m very happy to come back and revisit this going, no, sorry, human language is a sorry thing compared to dolphins.


Well, I think one of the things that is really exciting about human communication is simply, we will deploy pretty much anything we can get our hands on in the service of communication. So as soon as people started making marks on cave walls to represent information we start using that communicatively, and whatever the new technological advances are, we find a way of developing it, so, like my grandparents’ generation used postcards like people use emails nowadays, because there were several posts a day and you could send messages back and forth to each other. That completely went when people got telephones, and then when we got phones, mobile phones, it’s quite interesting that one of the main things we then started doing communicatively was texting each other; no one saw that coming, we thought we’d still carrying on talking. And one of the things that has always been an issue, as soon as you’ve only got textual information that could be handwritten, in an email, in a text, you’re stripping away all the vocal information that often gives you, like, someone’s emotion or intention, and people have always tried to kind of emphasise with their text what their meaning is, you know, underlining things, putting in exclamation marks. So you can see from the 1990s when people started to make much more widespread use of communication with computers and just text, people would use emoticons and smileys, where they just drew out with text an ASCII symbols and as soon as we got phones that had more sophisticated possibilities for emojis, people started using that to try and clarify their meaning. And you…it’s not a different way of communicating, it’s simply trying to use new technology to do what you’ve always tried to do, which is make your meaning clear. And it is quite interesting, now, there’s a nuance with which people will use emojis to indicate different kinds of laughter or, you know, kind of, I’m crying with laughter, or, and this is really interesting, I didn’t know we needed a way of expressing approval, but now we’ve got all these emojis, all those kind of “100%” signs or ”thumbs up”, “OK”, this sort of thing, it’s lovely to have that as a new tool for sort of clarifying or extending your meaning. So I think it’s not doing anything qualitatively different, it’s just extending what we already use.


Visit the exhibition at Conway Hall until January 31st where you’ll be able to purchase a limited edition comic book featuring all the interviews and images. Or alternatively order online by emailing superhero@cosmicshambles.com