Ancient Whistling Language Uses Both Brain Hemispheres

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Although both hemispheres of the brain generally work in tandem, it has long been believed that the left hemisphere plays a larger part in the comprehension of language.  But a recent study conducted with a whistle-speaking population in Northeast Turkey is challenging that assumption.

Though they also use spoken language, the 10,000 or so Turks who converse via this ancient language can communicate with each other from as far away as three miles via a series of whistles that, when strung together, sound like a bird's song. Since it's already known that the right hemisphere of the brain is important for appreciating music, researchers speculated that the lilting whistles' musical melodies might activate this region while also engaging the left hemisphere’s language centers.

To test this theory, Onur Güntürkün of Germany's Ruhr University Bochum asked 31 fluent whistlers in the tiny town of Kuşköy to listen to pairs of different spoken or whistled syllables played into the left and right ears simultaneously and report what they heard. Because the left hemisphere depends slightly more on sounds received by the right ear and vice versa for the right hemisphere, whichever ear the reported syllable was played into corresponded to the opposite engaged hemisphere. By comparing the rate at which each hemisphere was selected, researchers were able to determine that spoken syllables resulted in the right ear/left hemisphere dominating 75 percent of the time, a finding that's consistent with previous studies. But as the researchers suspected, the dominant hemisphere when reacting to whistles was split almost exactly evenly.

This sort of auditory test for neurological activity isn't all that precise. But the results, published in Current Biology, hint at larger issues worth investigating.

"They tell us that the organization of our brain, in terms of its asymmetrical structure, is not as fixed as we assume," Güntürkün told The New Yorker. "The way information is given to us appears to change the architecture of our brain in a radical way."

But researchers who want to study the whistled Turkish language—either for its neurological implications or its cultural value—will have to act fast. The age of texting is causing this unique language to die out. "You can gossip with a mobile phone, but you can’t do that with whistling because the whole valley hears," Güntürkün told New Scientist.