Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Glossocratic Considerations. Also Whistling.

Last week I was happily whistling to myself as I often do while listening to music, and found myself wondering: if motor actions in the body are usually controlled by the opposite hemisphere in the brain, what part of the brain controls the tongue?

Turns out not to have a simple answer, or it if does, I haven't found it yet. The closest I could find was references to an area of the brain known as Broca's area in the left hemisphere of the brain that seems to be involved in the production of speech. However, from what I can tell that area doesn't actually contain the motor neurons that control the tongue, but simply sends the motion information to them. So, unless someone out there knows more about it than I do I'm going to assume that the tongue is controlled by both hemispheres of the brain given its location along the line of bilateral symmetry of the human form.

Also, in the course of writing this blog post I did a little research on whistling which completely took over my original purpose for writing it. I have a pretty good memory for music, and when I'm listening to music I like or know I tend to (often unconsciously) do something along with it such as tapping my fingers or, yes, whistling. And yet, I'm the only person I know who really does this, so it's always been a bit of a lonely hobby. So you can imagine my surprise upon learning that there exists an International Whistler's Convention held every year for the past 30 or so in Louisville, Kentucky, where whistlers come from all over the world to compete for the championship.

From hard experience I have learned that very few people seem to appreciate my whistling, so it's rather gratifying to watch videos of some of these champions getting standing ovations from crowds. (And personally, after watching quite a few videos of great whistlers, I don't feel untoward saying that with some more practice and dedication I could be nearly as good, especially as I figured out the technique of circular breathing entirely on my own before ever even hearing of it, allowing me to whistle continuously without having to pause for breath most of the time.) It's too bad that more people don't whistle these days, as it truly is the instrument of the Everyman (and woman); anyone can whistle, without need of expensive instrument or lessons. It used to be a fairly widespread artform, with many performers in music halls being know for their skill. In the past, when people have asked me if I play a musical instrument, I've usually said no, since while I used to play the harmonica I've hardly touched it in years. In the future, however, I'm going to proudly reply “yes – the uniquely human instrument”.


  1. I just sing along to things all the time, even when it's not a particularly appropriate time. Recently I've been harmonizing to myself, but it's hard for me to concentrated when I feel like I should be singing.

    Out of curiosity, what about eyes? I know about Broca's area, and when it's damaged it causes speech impediments and things (I'm not too clear on neurolinguistics), but it doesn't explain the tongue. I do know that sounds are acquired in the first few years, and if you don't hear a sound then, it's a lot harder to reproduce. Sounds to me like more of a creative ability, even if it seems more automatic. But that's just me. (This comment got really long, sorry!)

    But year, Whistler's Convention! Sounds awesome!

    1. No problem, I love long comments. It means people are interested in what I'm saying. :D

      When you ask about the eyes, what do you mean? You mean what part of the brain is in charge of seeing? I'm no brain surgeon, but as an astronomer I do know a few interesting facts about the human eye. Maybe I'll do a post on them in the near future.

      And you're now like the third or fourth person I've mentioned the IWC to who's suggested I go next year. :)


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