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M/F PhD Student : The evolution and social functions of human non-verbal vocalisations: a comparative approach

This offer is available in the following languages:
Français - Anglais

Date Limite Candidature : mardi 12 juillet 2022

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General information

Reference : UMR5596-RABMAK-006
Workplace : LYON 07
Date of publication : Tuesday, June 21, 2022
Scientific Responsible name : Dr. Katarzyna Pisanski (CNRS, DDL) et Prof. David Reby (ENES)
Type of Contract : PhD Student contract / Thesis offer
Contract Period : 36 months
Start date of the thesis : 1 September 2022
Proportion of work : Full time
Remuneration : 2 135,00 € gross monthly

Description of the thesis topic

The doctoral thesis will be funded by the CNRS through an 80-Prime grant. It is part of an interdisciplinary research project on the evolution and social functions of human nonverbal vocalisations, with a specific cross-cultural focus, based in the DDL linguistics lab at the University of Lyon 2 and the ENES bioacoustics lab at the University of Saint-Etienne, France.
Human nonverbal vocalisations such as laughter, screams, roars, and grunts occupy a unique place in the human vocal repertoire (1–3) and yet have received relatively little attention in the human voice sciences compared to speech. Emerging and converging evidence suggests that the putative acoustic structures (forms) and social communicative outcomes (functions) of human nonverbal vocalisations are largely homologous to the calls of other mammals, from distress cries in infant mammals (4,5) to laughter in other great apes (6,7). However, unlike other mammals including non-human primates (8), we humans have a remarkable ability to easily and voluntarily modulate the acoustic structure of our vocalisations, and even to produce them in the complete absence of endogenous or exogenous stimuli that would normally trigger their production in non-human mammals (8–10). Selection pressure for this unprecedented vocal dynamicity in humans, that almost certainly arose before speech, could have played a crucial role in the evolution of speech (9,10). In this view, human nonverbal vocalisations represent "living fossils" of the missing link between animal calls and human speech, and studying them can provide novel insight into how humans came to speak and other mammals did not.
With this aim, the project will systematically investigate human vocalisations, from cries of pain to moans of pleasure, which still play a significant role in our everyday social interactions3. Tentatively, the project methods will entail three main work packages:
(1) Building an extensive cross-cultural archive of human nonverbal vocalisations. Voice samples will include both spontaneous ('genuine') and volitional ('acted') vocalisations collected from a range of social contexts, age groups, and cultures, by exploiting a combination of online resources, lab recordings, international alliances, and field missions.
(2) Comparative acoustic analyses and resynthesis. Using the software Praat (11) and soundgen (1,12), the student will measure key nonverbal vocal parameters such as fundamental and formant frequencies and nonlinear phenomena from nonverbal vocalisations. State-of-the-art acoustic resynthesis techniques will allow experimentally testing the causal effects of vocalisations on the biological and behavioural responses of human listeners in psychoacoustic playback experiments (see e.g., (13–15) for recent studies using this approach).
(3) Psychoacoustic playback experiments. To fully understand the communicative function of human vocalisations, we must study both the acoustic information they encapsulate, and how this information affects listeners, between and within cultures. In a series of perception experiments conducted in the lab, in the field, and online (e.g., Prolific), the student will present human listeners with natural vocalisations and/or their resynthesized variants within and between a subset of sampled cultures. Listeners will judge vocalisations on a given trait or state of biological and social relevance, for instance, assessing how much pain a person is experiencing16 or how strong a person sounds (17). By mapping listeners' judgments onto the acoustic parameters of the vocal stimuli (and known vocaliser traits/stats), we can test a number of specific predictions about the functional role of these parameters or vocalisation types, including their potential universality.
The 80-Prime project entails a critical cross-cultural comparative element. Despite the biological and social significance of nonverbal vocalisations in humans, these vocal sounds remain critically understudied in humans, and this is especially true for societies that are not 'WEIRD' (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic(18)). Indeed, the vast proportion of research on human behaviour is restricted to WEIRD university students, greatly limiting the generalizability of results to homo sapiens as a whole species, and preventing researchers from teasing apart the potential influences of factors such as age, geography, culture, socioeconomic status, media exposure, or language on human nonverbal behaviour. A key aim of the project is thus to identify the extent to which the production and perception of human vocalisations is universal, and otherwise what factors predict its variability, by studying this behaviour across diverse cultures. This will entail at least one major field mission to a small-scale, isolated human community.
Note that the work packages and methods described above are only indicate of the general structure of the research project, and will be further co-developed with the successful candidate.
The 3-year PhD will begin September 1, 2022. The research of the doctoral thesis will be promoted at local and international conferences, outreach events aimed at the general public, and through the publication of several research papers in top-tier international research journals within the biological and behavioural sciences.

References
(We encourage interested candidates to visit the lab websites to learn more about the lab's research axes and other recent publications on human vocal behaviour).

1. Pisanski, K., Bryant, G.A., Cornec, C., Anikin, A., and Reby, D. (2022). Form follows function in human nonverbal vocalisations. Ethol. Ecol. Evol.
2. Pisanski, K., and Bryant, G.A. (2019). The evolution of voice perception. In The Oxford Handbook of Voice Studies, N. S. Eidsheim and K. L. Meizel, eds. (Oxford University Press).
3. Anikin, A., Bååth, R., and Persson, T. (2018). Human non-linguistic vocal repertoire: Call types and their meaning. J. Nonverbal Behav. 42, 53–80.
4. Lingle, S., Wyman, M.T., Kotrba, R., Teichroeb, L.J., and Romanow, C.A. (2012). What makes a cry a cry? A review of infant distress vocalizations. Curr. Zool. 58, 698–726.
5. Koutseff, A., Reby, D., Martin, O., Levrero, F., Patural, H., and Mathevon, N. (2017). The acoustic space of pain: cries as indicators of distress recovering dynamics in pre-verbal infants. Bioacoustics 0, 1–13.
6. Bryant, G.A., and Aktipis, C.A. (2014). The animal nature of spontaneous human laughter. Evol. Hum. Behav. 35, 327–335.
7. Scott, S.K., Lavan, N., Chen, S., and McGettigan, C. (2014). The social life of laughter. Trends Cogn. Sci. 18, 618–620.
8. Ackermann, H., Hage, S.R., and Ziegler, W. (2014). Brain mechanisms of acoustic communication in humans and nonhuman primates: An evolutionary perspective. Behav. Brain Sci. 37, 529–546.
9. Pisanski, K., Cartei, V., McGettigan, C., Raine, J., and Reby, D. (2016). Voice modulation: A window into the origins of human vocal control? Trends Cogn. Sci. 20, 304–318.
10. Fitch, W.T. (2018). The biology and evolution of speech: A comparative analysis. Annu. Rev. Linguist. 4, 255–279.
11. Boersma, P., and Weenink, D. (2020). Praat: Doing phonetics by computer v 6.1.21.
12. Anikin, A. (2019). Soundgen: An open-source tool for synthesizing nonverbal vocalizations. Behav. Res. Methods 51, 778–792.
13. Anikin, A., Pisanski, K., Massenet, M., and Reby, D. (2021). Harsh is large: nonlinear vocal phenomena lower voice pitch and exaggerate body size. Proc. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci. 288.
14. Anikin, A., Pisanski, K., and Reby, D. (2022). Static and dynamic formant scaling conveys body size and aggression. R. Soc. Open Sci. 9, 211496.
15. Massenet, M., Anikin, A., Pisanski, K., Reynaud, K., Mathevon, N., and Reby, D. (under review). Nonlinear vocal phenomena affect human perceptions of distress, size and dominance in puppy whines. Proc. R. Soc. B-Biol. Sci.
16. Raine, J., Pisanski, K., Simner, J., and Reby, D. (2018). Vocal communication of simulated pain. Bioacoustics, 1–23.
17. Raine, J., Pisanski, K., Oleszkiewicz, A., Simner, J., and Reby, D. (2018). Human listeners can accurately judge relative strength and height from aggressive roars and speech. iScience 4, 273–280.
18. Henrich, J., Heine, S.J., and Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behav. Brain Sci. 33, 61–83.

Work Context

The PhD position is funded by the CNRS through an 80-Prime grant that will cover the salary of the PhD and key research expenses (e.g., laptop, recruitment costs, recording and playback equipment, mission expenses).
The project involves a partnership between two CNRS teams specialising in animal communication, linguistics, speech development, and anthropology:
1. DDL linguistics lab (Language Dynamics Laboratory, CNRS & University of Lyon 2). The DDL lab has expertise in languages around the world and of the neuro-cognitive mechanisms of vocal development, production, and perception in humans.
2. ENES bioacoustics lab (Sensory Neuroethology Lab, Lyon Neuroscience Research Centre, CNRS & University Jean Monnet, Saint Etienne). The ENES lab is a global leader in animal vocal communication across an extensive range of species, including humans.
The student will complete their PhD within these two partnering French labs, and will have access to all critical resources and materials of both teams such as laptop, recording equipment, sound attenuated recording chambers, and software licenses. The student will be co-supervised by the principal investigators of the project who are independent international leaders in their field with together more than 175 scientific articles:
Dr. Katarzyna (Kasia) Pisanski (CNRS permanent researcher @ DDL; ORCID 0000-0003-0992-2477; katarzyna.pisanski@cnrs.fr)
Prof. David Reby (Professor @ ENES; ORCID 0000-0001-9261-1711)
To further ensure its feasibility, the project will also involve external national and international collaborations (with e.g., UCLA, UCL).
The student will be enrolled in the ED NSCo doctoral school in Lyon, specialising in neurosciences & cognition: https://nsco.universite-lyon.fr/the-neurosciences-and-cognition-doctoral-school-ed-476-nsco--148506.kjsp?RH=ED-NSCO.
The student will also be encouraged to take part in the ENES Bioacoustics Winter School, a two-week intensive course in acoustic communication in the first two weeks of January 2023.

Constraints and risks

In the context of the work packages outlined above, the student will be responsible for co-designing experimental protocols, collecting and analysing data, and disseminating research results, namely via:

- Voice recording
- Acoustic analysis and resynthesis
- Organizing, storing and coding stimulus materials and data
- Human participant recruitment, including collaborating with international research teams to broaden the cross-cultural sample.
- Designing experimental online platforms to collect data in playback/rating experiments, and conducting these experiments with human participants in the lab, online, and in the field.
- Data processing and statistical analysis of data
- Writing up of research results for publication in research journals and dissertation materials
- Research presentations (lab, national and international conferences)

The student is expected to help coordinate and collect data during at least one major research field mission targeting an isolated and understudied human population abroad. Study populations for this mission may include, for example, the Yali of Papua New Guinea or the Cook Islands Māori, but will ultimately depend on the global situation, field conditions, coordination with partnering teams and discussions with the selected candidate. The field mission is expected to span a one to three months. Data collection during this mission will involve acoustic recording and playback experiments. The student will also contribute regularly to the joint activities of the DDL and ENES laboratories.

Additional Information

The position is open to any individual who has completed a master's degree before August 31, 2022. Preference may be given to those with specialised knowledge and skills in Animal Behaviour, Acoustic communication, Evolutionary biology, Experimental Psychology, Neuroscience, Cognitive Science, Speech/Language Sciences, Anthropology, or a related discipline involving the study of sound, cognition or behaviour.

The candidate should have some foundation in bioacoustics and acoustic analysis, particularly useful would be some experience analysing nonverbal vocal parameters (e.g., fo, formants, nonlinear phenomena). The candidate should be competent in statistical analysis (e.g., linear mixed modelling) and also have very good oral and writing skills, especially in English. Experience in conducting fieldwork, particularly in isolated and remote regions, and knowledge of human or animal voice production and perception are additional strong assets. Seriousness and rigor in the conduct of experimental protocols and an autonomous working capacity will be essential.

Short-listed candidates will be contacted shortly for an interview (online or in-person) to be conducted between July 7 and July 12, 2022.

The application file must only be submitted through the CNRS employment portal.

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