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Artificial Grammar Reveals Inborn Language Sense, JHU Study Shows

Parents know the unparalleled joy and wonder of hearing a beloved child's first words turn quickly into whole sentences and then babbling paragraphs. But how human children acquire language-which is so complex and has so many variations-remains largely a mystery. Fifty years ago, linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky proposed an answer: Humans are able to learn language so quickly because some knowledge of grammar is hardwired into our brains. In other words, we know some of the most fundamental things about human language unconsciously at birth, without ever being taught.

Now, in a groundbreaking study, cognitive scientists at The Johns Hopkins University have confirmed a striking prediction of the controversial hypothesis that human beings are born with knowledge of certain syntactical rules that make learning human languages easier.

"This research shows clearly that learners are not blank slates; rather, their inherent biases, or preferences, influence what they will learn. Understanding how language is acquired is really the holy grail in linguistics," said lead author Jennifer Culbertson, who worked as a doctoral student in Johns Hopkins' Krieger School of Arts and Sciences under the guidance of Geraldine Legendre, a professor in the Department of Cognitive Science, and Paul Smolensky, a Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in the same department. (Culbertson is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester.)

The study not only provides evidence remarkably consistent with Chomsky's hypothesis but also introduces an interesting new approach to generating and testing other hypotheses aimed at answering some of the biggest questions concerning the language learning process.

People

Persuasive speech: The way we, um, talk sways our listeners

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© Unknown
Want to convince someone to do something? A new University of Michigan study has some intriguing insights drawn from how we speak.

The study, presented May 14 at the annual meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, examines how various speech characteristics influence people's decisions to participate in telephone surveys. But its findings have implications for many other situations, from closing sales to swaying voters and getting stubborn spouses to see things your way.

"Interviewers who spoke moderately fast, at a rate of about 3.5 words per second, were much more successful at getting people to agree than either interviewers who talked very fast or very slowly," said Jose Benki, a research investigator at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR).

For the study, Benki and colleagues used recordings of 1,380 introductory calls made by 100 male and female telephone interviewers at the U-M ISR. They analyzed the interviewers' speech rates, fluency, and pitch, and correlated those variables with their success in convincing people to participate in the survey.

Since people who talk really fast are seen as, well, fast-talkers out to pull the wool over our eyes, and people who talk really slow are seen as not too bright or overly pedantic, the finding about speech rates makes sense. But another finding from the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, was counterintuitive.

"We assumed that interviewers who sounded animated and lively, with a lot of variation in the pitch of their voices, would be more successful," said Benki, a speech scientist with a special interest in psycholinguistics, the psychology of language.

Einstein

Hawking Claims Heaven Is A 'Fairy Story'

Heaven?
© redOrbit
British scientist Stephen Hawking reaffirmed his atheist views during an interview with The Guardian published on Monday.

Hawking said he believes heaven is a "fairy story" for people who are afraid of the dark.

He told The Guardian that his views were partly influenced by his battle with motor neuron disease.

"I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first," he told the newspaper.

"I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

His stance on religion has hardened significantly in the last century since the publication of its 1988 international best-seller A Brief History of Time.

Info

How Adversity Dulls Our Perceptions

Perception
© Unknown

Adversity, we are told, heightens our senses, imprinting sights and sounds precisely in our memories. But new Weizmann Institute research, which appeared in Nature Neuroscience this week, suggests the exact opposite may be the case: Perceptions learned in an aversive context are not as sharp as those learned in other circumstances. The findings, which hint that this tendency is rooted in our species' evolution, may help to explain how post-traumatic stress syndrome and other anxiety disorders develop in some people.

To investigate learning in unfavorable situations, Dr. Rony Paz of the Institute's Neurobiology Department, together with his student Jennifer Resnik, had volunteers learn that some tones lead to an offensive outcome (e.g. a very bad odor), whereas other tones are followed by pleasant a outcome, or else by nothing. The volunteers were later tested for their perceptual thresholds - that is, how well they were able to distinguish either the "bad" or "good" tones from other similar tones.

As expected from previous studies, in the neutral or positive conditions, the volunteers became better with practice at discriminating between tones. But surprisingly, when they found themselves exposed to a negative, possibly disturbing stimulus, their performance worsened.

The differences in learning were really very basic differences in perception. After learning that a stimulus is associated with highly unpleasant experience, the subjects could not distinguish it from other similar stimuli, even though they could do so beforehand, or in normal conditions. In other words, no matter how well they normally learned new things, the subjects receiving the "aversive reinforcement" experienced the two tones as the same.

Bulb

When words get hot, mental multitaskers collect cool

How useful would it be to anticipate how well someone will control their emotions? To predict how well they might be able to stay calm during stress? To accept critical feedback stoically?

Heath A. Demaree, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University, finds clues in what psychologists call "hot" and "cold" psychology.

"People differ with regard to how well they can control their emotions, and one factor that predicts it is non-emotional in nature - it is a 'cold' cognitive construct," Demaree explains referring to Working Memory Capacity.

Working memory capacity, or WMC, is the "ability to process a stream of information while engaging in a separate task or while being distracted" he said. For example, taking notes during a lecture: you must listen to what the lecturer is saying at the moment, remember what has already been said, and write it down.

People with a high level of working memory capacity were best at using a coping mechanism to make themselves feel better and control negative emotions after being harshly criticized.

This kind of research where "cold" cognitive psychology meets "hot" emotional psychology is a new route providing the foundation for Demaree's recent study: "Working Memory Capacity and Spontaneous Emotion Regulation: High Capacity Predicts Self-Enhancement in Response to Negative Feedback," published in Emotion.

In the study, Demaree and Brandon J. Schmeichel, a professor of psychology at Texas A&M University, test connections between high WMC and the control of emotions.

Demaree explains that this research is "rare because it predicts how emotional functioning is related to WMC... and ours is some of the first research that shows that cold cognition predicts hot emotion."

People

The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system

Abstract

The polyvagal theory describes an autonomic nervous system that is influenced by the central nervous system, sensitive to afferent influences, characterized by an adaptive reactivity dependent on the phylogeny of the neural circuits, and interactive with source nuclei in the brainstem regulating the striated muscles of the face and head. The theory is dependent on accumulated knowledge describing the phylogenetic transitions in the vertebrate autonomic nervous system. Its specific focus is on the phylogenetic shift between reptiles and mammals that resulted in specific changes to the vagal pathways regulating the heart. As the source nuclei of the primary vagal efferent pathways regulating the heart shifted from the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus in reptiles to the nucleus ambiguus in mammals, a face - heart connection evolved with emergent properties of a social engagement system that would enable social interactions to regulate visceral state.

Hourglass

Mystery of Fading Childhood Memories Solved

Childhood fun
© Unknown

The memories of childhood experiences, whether a tear-jerking boo-boo or a funky dance that sent Mom and Dad into fits of laughter, have all but vanished by the time we reach adulthood. It turns out those memories are even more fleeting than previously believed, fading between the ages of 4 and 7, new research finds.

Until now, based on studies of adults, scientists had thought that children under age 3 or 4 didn't have the cognitive or language skills to form memories. And so these memories weren't exactly lost, but were never even stored in our brains in the first place. [Read: Fetuses Have Memories]

But Carole Peterson, a psychology professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, and her colleagues had found that young children have lots of memories they could talk about. "So it was very clear that the explanation that had been given for adults just had to be wrong, because children do have the cognitive, linguistic and memory skills to talk about things that had occurred in their past," Peterson said.

Family

How your nervous system sabotages your ability to relate

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© nexuspub
An interview with Stephen Porges about his polyvagal theory

What if many of your troubles could be explained by an automatic reaction in your body to what's happing around you? What if the cure for mental and emotional disorders ranging from autism to panic attacks lay in a new understanding and approach to the way the nervous system operates? Stephen Porges, Ph.D., thinks it could be so. Porges, professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and director for that institution's Brain-Body Center, has spent much of his life searching for clues to the way the brain operates, and has developed what he has termed polyvagal theory. It is a study of the evolution of the human nervous system and the origins of brain structures, and it assumes that more of our social behaviors and emotional disorders are biological - that is, they are "hard wired" into us - than we usually think. Based on the theory, Porges and his colleagues have developed treatment techniques that can help people communicate better and relate better to others.

The term "polyvagal" combines "poly," meaning "many," and "vagal," which refers to the important nerve called the "vagus." To understand the theory, let's look at the vagus nerve, a primary component of the autonomic nervous system. This is the nervous system that you don't control, that causes you to do things automatically, like digest your food. The vagus nerve exits the brain stem and has branches that regulate structures in the head and in several organs, including the heart. The theory proposes that the vagus nerve's two different branches are related to the unique ways we react to situations we perceive as safe or unsafe. It also outlines three evolutionary stages that took place over millions of years in the development of our autonomic nervous system.

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© nexuspub
The bulk of Porges's work is now conducted in the Brain-Body Center, a 24,000-square-foot, interdisciplinary research center at the University of Illinois. At the Center, professionals in the fields of endocrinology, neuroanatomy, neurobiology, psychiatry and psychology work together. They study models of social behavior and develop treatments for disorders such as autism and anxiety. Porges' polyvagal theory is becoming part of the training of bodyworkers, therapists and educators. An example is last summer's national Hakomi conference held at Naropa University, where Dr. Porges was the keynote speaker. (Hakomi is both a system of bodywork and a system of body-centered psychotherapy.) Here, Porges speaks about the polyvagal theory and its significance with Nexus publisher Ravi Dykema.

Comment: Try out Éiriú Eolas: the amazing stress control, healing and rejuvenation program based on breathing techniques that stimulate the vagus nerve.


People

Scientist seeks to banish evil, boost empathy

  • Psychopathology expert says idea of evil has done no good
  • Sees empathy as world's most valuable but ignored resource
Simon Baron-Cohen has been battling with evil all his life.

As a scientist seeking to understand random acts of violence, from street brawls to psychopathic killings to genocide, he has puzzled for decades over what prompts such acts of human cruelty. And he's decided that evil is not good enough.

"I'm not satisfied with the term 'evil'," says the Cambridge University psychology and psychiatry professor, one of the world's top experts in autism and developmental psychopathology.

"We've inherited this word.. and we use it to express our abhorrence when people do awful things, usually acts of cruelty, but I don't think it's anything more than another word for doing something bad. And as a scientist that doesn't seem to me to be much of an explanation. So I've been looking for an alternative -- we need a new theory of human cruelty."

Baron-Cohen, who is also director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, has just written a book in which he calls for a kind of rebranding of evil to offer a more scientific explanation for why people kill and torture, or have such great difficulty understanding the feelings of others.

His proposal is that evil be understood as a lack of empathy -- a condition he argues can be measured and monitored and is susceptible to education and treatment.

Comment: The reader is invited to read the SOTT editor's commentary in this article about Baron-Cohen's speculations: Why a lack of empathy is the root of all evil

For more information on the science of evil, readers are encouraged to read Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes By Andrew Lobaczewski.


Heart

Why We Don't Need God to Be Good (and What Religious Folk Don't Want You to Know)

Neuron
Religious people find it very annoying that people don't need God to be good, as science has now incontestably proved.

For millennia, we've been brainwashed into believing that we needed the Almighty to redeem us from an essentially corrupt nature. Left to our own devices, people would quickly devolve into beasts, more violent, tactless, aggressive, and selfish, than we already are.

Today, we know that this isn't true. With the discovery of mirror neurons by Italian neuroscientist Giaccomo Rizzolatti in the 1990s, we now have physiological proof of why -- and how -- our species became hard-wired for goodness. Mirror neurons are miraculous cells in the brain whose sole purpose is to harmonize us with our environments. By reflecting the outside world inward, we actually become each other -- a little bit; neurologically changed by what is happening around us. Mirror neurons are the reason that we have empathy and can feel each other's pain. It is because of mirror neurons that you blush when you see someone else humiliated, flinch when someone else is struck, and can't resist the urge to laugh when seeing a group struck with the giggles. (Indeed, people who test for "contagious yawning" tend to be more empathic.) These tiny mirrors are the key to most things noble and good inside us.