Mark Changizi argues that speech, writing and music evolved from our brain's interactions with nature.Image courtesy of

By Ashley Yeager

Mark Changizi says there’s no “special sauce” in the human brain. Instead, he argues that our way of thinking is just the brain’s ability to recognize and mimic visual and sound patterns found in nature.

Changizi, an evolutionary neurobiologist and director of Human Cognition at 2ai Labs, spoke about his research during Duke’s first neurohumanities research group seminar on Sept. 20. The group is co-organized by the Franklin Humanities Institute and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

During his talk, Changizi explored with the audience of both scientists and artists his investigations between shapes and sounds, nature and the fundamental elements of speech, music and writing.

He said that our brains didn’t evolve to have language and music instincts. Instead, language and music shaped themselves to be tailored to our brains. Because our brains were cut for nature, language and music mimicked it to transform ape to man.*

Comparing letter structures, with simple opaque, object positions like fallen trees, for example, Changizi explained that there are 36 topological shapes that form the basis for the letters found in 100 different writing systems across the world.

He showed the audience how these different structures could be made by crossing his arms. Most would think that this makes an X, but based on the position of the two objects, the shapes are ultimately two T intersections, he said.

By dropping objects and listening to the thunks and bangs, he explained the origin of sounds that have become words. And, by walking across the room, he pointed out elements in music such as pitch, loudness and melody.

Changizi's latest book explores how speech, music and writing evolved. Credit:

“If you have a dog, you know exactly where he is in the house and probably what he is doing, just by listening to his movements,” Changizi said. The same goes for kids banging drawers in the kitchen.

Changizi explores this idea and more of his research in his latest book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Benbella 2011).

He said he has drawn a lot of  inspiration from art, adding that artists and those in the humanities are the true experimentalists that must shape the complicated structures to affect human minds.

It’s these experimentalists who really know “what minds like or don’t like,” he said, adding that he turns to their work to explore the “universal regularities” that are being discovered about the mind.

*This passage is adapted from Changizi’s book. To read an excerpt, click