Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Molecular Anthropology, Linguistics, and Me

I'm going to get my DNA sequenced!  I'm super excited about this.  It's part of a new collaboration I am doing with some molecular anthropologists here at Binghamton University.  While I at first joined up with the anthropologists because I love Dr. Brennan on Bones ("She refuted him so hard it paralyzed his arm!"), it has quickly become apparent that there are some interesting collaboration opportunities with them.

This DNA sequencing that I am going to be getting done is preliminary to our project.  They tell me that they (and possibly others) have identified a genotype that is associated with people's individual preferences about spoken versus written communication.  I, for example, loathe talking on the phone and only ever talk to even my sister in IM (I still call my mom though... she's too sweet and old-fashioned for IM).  This inevitably causes friction when I run into some (freak!) person that keeps asking me for my phone number and wants to call me to talk about something.  Don't call me!  We live in the future!  Use email!

In my own personal case, I believe my aversion to phone calls is that I interpret what people say quite heavily based on the movements of their lips (though this is true to a certain extent for everyone.)  So when I talk on the phone, I frequently have to ask my conversation partner to repeat what they have said, and I have a really hard time following along in real time.  I much prefer IM and email, where I can perceive every word that is being communicated with perfect accuracy, and take time to think, check wikipedia, check my calendar, take a drink, get a snack, before I reply.

According to my new anthropologist friends, there are genetic markers which are predictive of the preference for spoken / written communication.  On some level, that doesn't make sense to me yet, because our written language is newer than our genes, but on another, deeper, level where I think about how I feel when someone talks to me on the phone, it kind of does make sense.

Feelings don't count for much in science though, so I think a big part of the collaboration will be in using my own area of expertise, human electrophysiology, to start making the gene / communication link make sense by use of an intermediary:  the human brain.  For example, one question we might ask is this:  do the brains of spoken communicators process speech and text differently from those of written communicators and if so, what is that difference like?

We have a long way to go before even starting to design an experiment (let alone collect data, analyze it, and interpret it,) but as we go through those more formulaic phases, I'll be holding on to the excitement of:  I get to get my DNA sequenced!  And find out if my extreme distaste for talking on the phone has been in my genes all along.


  1. I'm totally an email person too. I hate the phone. If someone leaves me a voicemail, they've demonstrated that they don't know me well enough for me to get back in touch (except for my Mom).

    I never considered that this might be genetic. I attributed it to my general grumpiness. I do think the possibility that different people process language in fundamentally different ways is a neat idea and is something that's mostly ignored by language scientist types.

  2. "I never considered that this might be genetic."

    Me either! Until these anthropologists showed up in a big posse in my lab and suggested it. I mentioned to them that a lot of the academics I know are the same way, and the Chief Anthropologist pointed out that maybe academia selects in some way for this genotype.

    Also I wanted to mention that in my opinion, getting to do all these crazy different experiments like DNA sequencing is one of the true few and far between perks of being an academic cognitive scientist. I was preparing a lecture for an intro cog neuro course today, and realized that I have scans of myself from EEG, fMRI, EROS, and now will soon be getting a DNA sequence too. Science!

  3. Do you think this would generalize beyond speech to people who use signed languages? Is it speech vs writing, or face-to-face vs remote communication? Or maybe the genetic marker is linked to one's ability to speechread?

  4. @Matt That's an interesting question! I really don't know enough to answer it yet. One question it raises is this: is the spoken / written distinction more about auditory vs visual or face to face vs. remote (as you point out.) I'll have to raise this with the anthropologists next time they mob my lab!

  5. Interesting, SL! Another possible distinction is between synchronous and asynchronous communication (i.e.). phone and to a lesser degree chat are synchronous whereas email is essentially asynchronous. I am not a big fan of communication in general, but if at all I should, I would rather do it on my own time (which usually never seems to come :)). Again, this probably comes back to social implications of synchronous vs. asynchronous but is different from the auditory/visual or face-to-face/remote dimensions of communication.

  6. I am not a big fan of communication in general
    I hear you, mother priya!

    This project is developing... under IRB review now. I'll need to do an updated post soon!