Science of the Spirit


Babies may be more language-savvy than thought

© Natalia Kirichenko, Shutterstock
A newborn baby in a pink hat and mittens.
Even 2-day-old babies know that some syllables just sound better than others, according to a new study.

Across world languages, certain syllables are more commonly used than others. But why this linguistic preference exists has been a matter of scientific debate. While some researchers have suggested that the preference results from the historical processes that shape languages, or the ease of pronunciation, others hold it may be innate, with the human brain being partial to certain sounds.

Now, the new study suggests that people are indeed born with a preference for some sounds over others.

"We believe that many things are learned, for instance, the vocabulary," said study author David Maximiliano Gómez, a language and cognition researcher at the University of Chile. But there are other aspects of language, such as the syllables people use, that might be innate, he said.

The study, published March 31 in the journal PNAS, shows that babies react to certain syllables very similarly to the way adults do, Gómez told Live Science.

The study was conducted on three groups of 24 Italian babies, ages 2 to 5 days. The children in the study listened to a few kinds of syllables, including "lbif" and "bdif," which are generally less popular among adults, and "blif" and "oblif," which adults more commonly prefer.
Arrow Down

Childhood poverty damages DNA

dust bowl family
© U.S. Library of Congress/Dorothea Lange
A hard-scrabble upbringing can do longterm damage
A rough childhood doesn't just make you grow up faster; it could actually make your body grow old early. In research studying how day-to-day circumstances affect our DNA, researchers have found evidence that social stresses from poverty could wear down children's genes, making them vulnerable to cancer and age-related disorders at an earlier age.

Children in the study were ranked based on their poverty level, having depressed mothers, experiencing harsh parenting, and living in unstable family structures. "We selected 40 of the most and least advantaged kids," Daniel Notterman, the study's principal investigator, told Quartz. All were boys, and all African-American. The study drew its cohort from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), a multiyear survey of 4,500 kids born in urban areas between 1998 and 2000.

When they compared the children, they found that the DNA from those in the economic bottom half looked slightly different from those at the top. The difference was in the repetitive sequence of genetic cipher called a telomere that caps off each strand of DNA. As humans age, each time their cells divide, a little bit of the telomere gets shaved away. Telomeres have been compared to the plastic bits that prevent the ends of shoestrings from fraying - and frayed DNA is bad for your health. "Small telomeres can lead to aging or cancer," says Rekha Rai, a biologist from Yale who studies telomere shortening and DNA damage.

Why we all love numbers

© Associated Press/Denis Poroy
We share a sensitivity to numbers
We cannot help but react to numbers, but why are odds masculine and evens feminine? Why were Levi's 501s and WD-40 given those names? And is number 3 really 'warm' and 'friendly'? Alex Bellos does the maths

Jerry Newport asks me to pick a four-digit number.

"2761," I say. "That's 11 x 251," he replies, reciting the numbers in one continuous, unhesitant flow. "2762. That's 2 x 1381. 2763. That's 3 x 3 x 307. 2764. That's 2 x 2 x 691."

Jerry is a retired taxi driver from Tucson, Arizona, who has Asperger syndrome. He has a ruddy complexion and small blue eyes, his large forehead sliced by a diagonal comb of dark-blond hair. He likes birds as well as numbers, and when we meet he is wearing a flowery red shirt with a parrot on it. We are sitting in his living room, together with a cockatoo, a dove, three parakeets and two cockatiels, which were listening to, and occasionally repeating, our conversation.

As soon as Jerry sees a big number, he divides it up into prime numbers. This habit made his former job driving cabs particularly enjoyable, since there was always a number on the licence plate in front of him. When he lived in Santa Monica, where licence numbers were four and five digits long, he would often visit the four-storey car park of his local mall and not leave until he had worked through every plate. In Tucson, however, car numbers are only three digits long. He barely glances at them now. "If the number is more than four digits I'll start to pay attention to it. If it's four digits or less, it's roadkill. It is!" he remonstrates. "Come on! Show me something new!"

How the Internet has ruined your brain for serious reading

© Shutterstock
According to Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University and one of the world's foremost authorities on the study of reading, the superficial manner in which we read material online is making it difficult for us understand works that require more than a momentary commitment to comprehend them.

The author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain told the Washington Post that she worries "that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing."

"The brain is plastic its whole life span," Wolf said, "the brain is constantly adapting." And it is currently "adapting" to an online environment that favors the acquisition of information at the quickest possible speed.
Life Preserver

REST: The science behind sensory deprivation therapy

I tried not to panic. I was floating effortlessly in a pitch-black tank filled with salty, skin-temperature water, wearing earplugs and nothing else. Within minutes I could no longer feel the sponge in my ears or smell the musty scent of water. There was no light, no smell, no touch and - save for the gasping of my breath and drumming of my heart - no sound.

I was trying out North America's avant garde drug: sensory deprivation. Across the continent "float houses" are increasing in popularity, offering eager psychonauts a chance to explore this unique state of mind. Those running the business are quick to list the health benefits of frequent "floats", which range from the believable - relaxation, heightened senses, pain management - to the seemingly nonsensical ("deautomatization", whatever that means). Are these proclaimed benefits backed up by science or are they simply new-age hogwash?

A Sordid (and Sensationalized) History

Why would anyone willingly subject him or herself to sensory deprivation? You've probably heard the horror stories: the Chinese using restricted stimulation to "brainwash" prisoners of war during the Korean War; prisons employing solitary confinement as psychological torture. Initial research studies into the psychophysical effects of sensory deprivation, carried out in the 1950s at McGill University, further damaged its reputation, reporting slower cognitive processing, hallucinations, mood swings and anxiety attacks among the participants. Some researchers even considered sensory deprivation an experimental model of psychosis.

Psychopaths: Population subset without conscience

We think of psychopaths as killers, alien, outside society. But, says the scientist who has spent his life studying them, you could have one for a colleague, a friend - or a spouse

There are a few things we take for granted in social interactions with people. We presume that we see the world in roughly the same way, that we all know certain basic facts, that words mean the same things to you as they do to me. And we assume that we have pretty similar ideas of right and wrong.

But for a small - but not that small - subset of the population, things are very different. These people lack remorse and empathy and feel emotion only shallowly. In extreme cases, they might not care whether you live or die. These people are called psychopaths. Some of them are violent criminals, murderers. But by no means all.

Professor Robert Hare is a criminal psychologist, and the creator of the PCL-R, a psychological assessment used to determine whether someone is a psychopath. For decades, he has studied people with psychopathy, and worked with them, in prisons and elsewhere. "It stuns me, as much as it did when I started 40 years ago, that it is possible to have people who are so emotionally disconnected that they can function as if other people are objects to be manipulated and destroyed without any concern," he says.

Comment: Ignore Ronson and Fallon's 'insights'; they're muddying the issue, intentionally or not.

Most psychopaths are very difficult to spot, so there's no point in trying. Instead try to learn all you can about them. Besides Hare and Babiak's work as a good introduction to the topic, there is also Dr. Martha Stout's work.

While it's tempting to seek a silver lining about this bleak revelation that psychopathy has reached pandemic levels, we would caution against thinking that because they're CEOs, doctors, lawyers and soldiers, they're successful and therefore 'good'.

What if the war those soldiers are waging is illegal (brought about by high-level psychopaths - Blair & Bush, anyone?) - is their 'service' still 'good'? What if the 'work' those CEOs produce is destroying a country's economy, draining people's wealth and leading to massive bonuses for a few while starving the rest?

'Successful' when applied to psychopaths doesn't mean they're productive members of society; it means they've successfully hidden their alien condition, which is all the better for preying on unaware people. When you get down to it, the world has only one root problem from which all else stems: psychopaths.

Bad Guys

Study: Are all mafia members psychopaths?

the Godfather
The view that the Mafia is an organization of especially ruthless psychopaths is wrong - in fact, members of 'Cosa Nostra' have lower psychopathic traits than other criminals.

That's according to a new study from Italian researchers Schimmenti and colleagues, who, appropriately enough, are based in Sicily, the Mafia's birthplace.

Schimmenti et al went to a prison in Palermo, Sicily, and interviewed 30 convicted Mafia members:
Seven of the Mafia members (23%) had been convicted of murder, 17 (57%) for other violent offenses, and the remainder for crimes including trafficking in narcotics, extortion, fraud, sexual exploitation and kidnapping...
They compared them to a comparison group of 39 prisoners from the same jail, whose crimes were not gang-related. Their offenses included murder, rape, child sexual abuse and armed robbery.
People 2

Social isolation affects DNA

grey parrot
In captivity, grey parrots are often kept in social isolation, which can have detrimental effects on their health and well-being. So far there have not been any studies on the effects of long term social isolation from conspecifics on cellular aging.

Telomeres shorten with each cell division, and once a critical length is reached, cells are unable to divide further (a stage known as 'replicative senescence'). Although cellular senescence is a useful mechanism to eliminate worn-out cells, it appears to contribute to aging and mortality. Several studies suggest that telomere shortening is accelerated by stress, but until now, no studies have examined the effects of social isolation on telomere shortening.

Daniel Dennett's seven tools for thinking - a review of Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

daniel Dennett
© Peter Yang/August
Daniel Dennett: 'Often the word "surely" is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument.'
Cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett is one of America's foremost thinkers. In this extract from his new book, he reveals some of the lessons life has taught him

1. Use your mistakes

We have all heard the forlorn refrain: "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!" This phrase has come to stand for the rueful reflection of an idiot, a sign of stupidity, but in fact we should appreciate it as a pillar of wisdom. Any being, any agent, who can truly say: "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!" is standing on the threshold of brilliance. We human beings pride ourselves on our intelligence, and one of its hallmarks is that we can remember our previous thinking and reflect on it - on how it seemed, on why it was tempting in the first place and then about what went wrong. I know of no evidence to suggest that any other species on the planet can actually think this thought. If they could, they would be almost as smart as we are. So when you make a mistake, you should learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth and then examine your own recollections of the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can manage. It's not easy. The natural human reaction to making a mistake is embarrassment and anger (we are never angrier than when we are angry at ourselves) and you have to work hard to overcome these emotional reactions.

Try to acquire the weird practice of savouring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked out all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you and go on to the next big opportunity. But that is not enough: you should actively seek out opportunities just so you can then recover from them.

In science, you make your mistakes in public. You show them off so that everybody can learn from them. This way, you get the benefit of everybody else's experience, and not just your own idiosyncratic path through the space of mistakes. (Physicist Wolfgang Pauli famously expressed his contempt for the work of a colleague as "not even wrong". A clear falsehood shared with critics is better than vague mush.)

This, by the way, is another reason why we humans are so much smarter than every other species. It is not so much that our brains are bigger or more powerful, or even that we have the knack of reflecting on our own past errors, but that we share the benefits our individual brains have won by their individual histories of trial and error.

I am amazed at how many really smart people don't understand that you can make big mistakes in public and emerge none the worse for it. I know distinguished researchers who will go to preposterous lengths to avoid having to acknowledge that they were wrong about something. Actually, people love it when somebody admits to making a mistake. All kinds of people love pointing out mistakes.

Generous-spirited people appreciate your giving them the opportunity to help, and acknowledging it when they succeed in helping you; mean-spirited people enjoy showing you up. Let them! Either way we all win.

Writing to Heal

© Marsha Miller
Dr. James Pennebaker
For nearly 20 years, Dr. James W. Pennebaker has been giving people an assignment: write down your deepest feelings about an emotional upheaval in your life for 15 or 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days. Many of those who followed his simple instructions have found their immune systems strengthened. Others have seen their grades improved. Sometimes entire lives have changed.

Pennebaker, a professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and author of several books, including Opening Up and Writing to Heal, is a pioneer in the study of using expressive writing as a route to healing. His research has shown that short-term focused writing can have a beneficial effect on everyone from those dealing with a terminal illness to victims of violent crime to college students facing first-year transitions.

"When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health," Pennebaker says. "They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up. People will tell us months afterward that it's been a very beneficial experience for them."

In his early research Pennebaker was interested in how people who have powerful secrets are more prone to a variety of health problems. If you could find a way for people to share those secrets, would their health problems improve?