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Isochrony in Human Rhythm

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Andrea Ravignani and Guy Madison, The Paradox of Isochrony in the Evolution of Human Rhythm, Front. Psychol., 06 November 2017 |
Isochrony is crucial to the rhythm of human music. Some neural, behavioral and anatomical traits underlying rhythm perception and production are shared with a broad range of species. These may either have a common evolutionary origin, or have evolved into similar traits under different evolutionary pressures. Other traits underlying rhythm are rare across species, only found in humans and few other animals. Isochrony, or stable periodicity, is common to most human music, but isochronous behaviors are also found in many species. It appears paradoxical that humans are particularly good at producing and perceiving isochronous patterns, although this ability does not conceivably confer any evolutionary advantage to modern humans. This article will attempt to solve this conundrum. To this end, we define the concept of isochrony from the present functional perspective of physiology, cognitive neuroscience, signal processing, and interactive behavior, and review available evidence on isochrony in the signals of humans and other animals. We then attempt to resolve the paradox of isochrony by expanding an evolutionary hypothesis about the function that isochronous behavior may have had in early hominids. Finally, we propose avenues for empirical research to examine this hypothesis and to understand the evolutionary origin of isochrony in general.
This paper deals with isochronous temporal patterns. The emphasis is on the quantitative properties of isochronous patterns, and their perception and production in humans. The paper is organized in seven sections, namely:
(1) What is isochrony?, where we lay out crucial definitions and summarize basic relevant concepts;
(2) The relevance of isochrony to human music and speech, where we discuss how isochrony might partly underlie some behaviors in modern humans, such as music, speech and dance;
(3) Mathematics, physics and signal processing, where we discuss isochrony from the pure perspective of its physical and mathematical structure (as opposed, for instance, to its biological, behavioral or cognitive nature);
(4) Physiology and neuroscience, where we suggest how isochronous patterns have biological and psychological relevance for living organisms;
(5) Comparative cognition: Non-human animals, where we briefly summarize previous empirical attempts in finding, either directly or indirectly, isochronous behaviors in other species;
(6) Isochrony in interaction, where we move from isochronous behaviors in single individuals to group behaviors potentially involving isochrony;
(7) Evolutionary hypotheses and future empirical work, where we join all strands laid out in the previous six sections, and sketch an evolutionary account for the origin of isochrony in our species.
The aim of this paper is not to provide an exhaustive review of each of these areas. Rather, we attempt to establish a first connection between as many explanatory levels of isochrony as possible, across scientific disciplines and research traditions.
In the penultimate section:
There is a close match between the most precise levels of isochrony that humans are capable of producing and those they are capable of perceiving (Madison and Merker, 2002; Merker et al., 2009). This match also offers some support for the hypothesis that isochrony might have been shaped for communicative purposes. In other words, a communication system, and in particular one that takes advantage of, and evolves from, perceptual biases (Ryan, 1998), will show a match between features of the signal and the capacities to perceive those features. For example, the plumages of many bird species reflect ultraviolet light, which humans and other species cannot see, while conspecific birds can readily perceive and use to select a mate (Andersson and Amundsen, 1997; Vorobyev et al., 1998; Eaton, 2005). We hypothesize that an analogous process might have resulted from isochrony (expanding on Merker, 1999, 2000), if this were a communicative trait. In particular, a communication system employed to transmit information about deviations from an isochronous pulse would evolve toward levels of precision comparable between production and perception (Merker, 1999, 2000). This comparable precision is exactly what can be observed in human motoric and perceptual isochrony (Madison and Merker, 2002; Merker et al., 2009), offering some preliminary, indirect support for a possible communicative function of isochrony.
Isochrony in Human Rhythm

Isochrony does not appear to be used in the overt communication of modern humans, but might have played a role in some form of communication employed by our ancestors. In fact, isochrony is the optimal way to establish synchronized group signaling because it makes the duration of next interval perfectly predictable by another person or conspecific (Merker et al., 2009). This musical perspective on the evolution of isochrony connects to turn-taking, which is a crucial component of human language (Figure 8). Turn-taking allows speakers to effectively interact in conversation: it avoids that speakers’ utterances overlap, while still enabling utterances to occur within a reasonable amount of time from each other. Interestingly, turn-taking in language is both predictive and exogenous, but seems to lack isochrony, except maybe in a few special cases. Still, turn-taking exhibits a particular temporal structure (Stivers et al., 2009; Levinson and Torreira, 2015). This structure appears to arise by a constant 200 ms lag (Figure 9C) between the ends and starts of utterances across cultures (Stivers et al., 2009), rather than a lag between the starts of consecutive utterances. This fixed-interval delay contrasts with the slightly positive or negative lags found in animal synchronization experiments (Figures 9A,B), and the anticipatory reaction in human musical synchronization. So, in modern humans, turn-taking is far from isochrony (except for when it is a by product of utterances having the same duration within and between speakers), but it might promote isochrony (Schultz et al., 2016). This makes turn-taking in modern organisms a potential approach to understand the evolution of isochrony (see Figure 8).
Isochrony in Human Rhythm

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