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The Social Brain


Stephanie White




Stephanie White majored in biopsychology at Connecticut College, then obtained her Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford, followed by postdoctoral work at Duke. Throughout, she has used a neuroethological approach to understand how social interactions shape the brain. Her own lab studies songbirds to investigate how the environment influences one's learning and creativity. Recently, humans have entered this comparative framework with collaborative exploration of the speech-related gene, FoxP2, in human and songbird vocal learning.


I'm a scientist that cares about the brain. And what I'm wondering right now is whether what's going on in your brain? Would it be the same? If instead of looking at me here, you were watching me on the video screen up there? And I think the answer is no. And this issue, this idea of the impact of life versus virtual social interactions has huge implications for how we educate ourselves, for our mental health, and even for our evolution as a species. Let me tell you why I think that scientists know that American babies can learn to distinguish the sounds that are important for Mandarin Chinese, if and only if they're tutored by live Mandarin speakers, not when they're shown a video of that same person.

At the under other end of the lifespan, the best thing you and I can do, to stave off dementia, as we age is to be bilingual. And this is the best protector better than any pharmaceutical currently on the market, in delaying Alzheimer's, in some studies by as much as five years. So language is very powerful. And in a sense, it offers a passport into our brains. But as a neuroscientist, there's the problem. Language is uniquely human. And this makes it very difficult to get at the nuts and bolts of how the brain gives rise to language. Fortunately, subcomponents of language exist in other species, and one of these is vocal learning. And this is our ability to modify the sounds that we make like we do when we're learning to speak.

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