Archive for the ‘perception’ Category

Your Brain on Metaphors

November 17, 2010

We’re suckers for an article tagged “philosophy” and “neuroscience.”

In the NY Times, Robert Sapolsky explores the fact that while the neuron of a common housefly is remarkably similar to that of a human, we benefit from having a lot more neurons (about 100 million for every one the fly has). And, as Sapolsky says, this quantity yields quality, enabling us to carry out complex tasks like the digit manipulation required to trill on a piano, or make the decision to study hard to get good grades and eventually a good job. Gophers, Sapolsky points out, don’t do that.

Sapolsky, though, is taken with a different human-only trait:

Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.

And we even understand that June isn’t literally busting out all over. It would seem that doing this would be hard enough to cause a brainstorm. So where did this facility with symbolism come from? It strikes me that the human brain has evolved a necessary shortcut for doing so, and with some major implications.

We won’t get into the neurochemical analysis that Sapolsky does, but if you’re a fan of the brain, his article is a great read.


Music on the brain

November 9, 2010

The relationship between music and language (and to a degree, overall academic performance) has been explored extensively in the research. We’ve previously posted on the topic (and have also posted on why it’s so hard to shake a song that’s stuck in your head, which isn’t really as academically important, but is interesting…).

Most parents are familiar with the so-called Mozart Effect, wherein exposure to music (or more specifically, classical music) (or even more specifically music written by Mozart) (or if  you really want to get down to brass tacks, the first movement “allegro con spirito” of the Mozart Sonata KV 448 for Two Pianos in D Major) can improve academic performance. The idea was born out of a 1993 study published in Nature that reported that individuals who listened to the Mozart Sonata scored significantly higher on standard ized tests of abstract/spatial reasoning ability than those who were instructed to relax or those who just sat there in silence.

Listening to music we like does make us feel good, which, in turn, increases focus and attention, which improves performance on many tests of mental sharpness. According to an article in the Racine Journal Times, some studies have shown “improvement in the kind of mental skills we use in doing complex math problems, interpreting driving directions and pondering how to fit a large bookcase in the trunk of a small car.”

But the idea that simply listening to music will have a profound and lasting effect on academic performance has generally been dismissed. (For a thorough analysis of the shortcomings of the initial research, check out this post at the Sharp Brains blog). Instead, researchers (including, says the Journal Times, those who conducted the original “Mozart Effect” study) have shifted to focus on the cognitive effect of learning to make music. Says the Journal Times: “If you want music to sharpen your senses, boost your ability to focus and perhaps even improve your memory, the latest word from science is you’ll need more than hype and a loaded iPod. You gotta get in there and play. Or sing, bang or pluck.”

Learning to make music engages and demands coordination among many brain regions, including those that process sights, sounds, emotions and memories, says Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard University neurologist.

Years ago, Schlaug found a glaring and suggestive difference between the brains of 30 professional musicians and 30 non-musician adults of matched age and gender.

In the musicians, the bundle of connective fibers that carry messages between the brain’s right and left hemispheres – a structure called the corpus callosum – was larger and denser on average than that of their non-musical peers. The brawnier bridge was particularly notable toward the rear of the brain, at the crossing that links areas responsible for sensory perception and voluntary movement.

It suggested not only that musicians might be able to more nimbly react to incoming information but also that their brains might be more resilient and adaptable, allowing right and left hemispheres, which specialize in separate functions, to work better together.

Schlaug and colleagues also found that the musicians who had begun their musical training before the age of 7 showed the most pronounced differences – suggesting an early start might rewire the brain most dramatically.

Over at the New Science of Learning Blog, Dr. William Jenkins (one of the neuroscientists behind the Fast ForWord programs), highlights a recent article, Music Training for the Development of Auditory Skills by Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran, that examines three specific areas of brain function where music training positively affects function:
  • Transfer of cognitive skills: Music has been shown to affect how the brain processes pitch, timing and timbre. Along with describing music, these are also key elements of speech and language—that are positively affected by musical training.
  • Fine tuning of auditory skills: “Musicians, compared with non-musicians, more effectively represent the most meaningful, information-bearing elements in sounds — for example, the segment of a baby’s cry that signals emotional meaning, the upper note of a musical chord or the portion of the Mandarin Chinese pitch contour that corresponds to a note along the diatonic musical scale.” While music does not appear to affect visual memory or attention, research shows that it does affect auditory verbal memory and auditory attention.
  • Better recognition of “regularities”: The human brain is wired to filter regular predictable patterns out from the noise surrounding us (e.g., we can pick out a friend’s voice in a room filled with many other sounds and voices.) Musical training enhances this cognitive ability.

Based on this information, Kraus and Chandresekaran argue “that active engagement with music promotes an adaptive auditory system that is crucial for the development of listening skills. An adaptive auditory system that continuously regulates its activity based on contextual demands is crucial for processing information during everyday listening tasks.”

So while the idea of a Mozart Effect, by which we can improve academic performance simply by exposing children to music, seems feeble at best, there are significant cognitive benefits to musical training, particularly in the area of language and processing abilities.


Isn’t it ironic?

October 15, 2010

A recent study, published in The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, examined how children recognize and use ironic language (defined as sarcasm, hyperbole, understatement and rhetorical questions) in natural household conversations.

Previous research, performed in a laboratory setting, indicated that children had no comprehension of irony before age 6, and little before age 11. This study looked at normal conversation in the home, and determined that even very young children understand and can use ironic speech, even if they can’t describe what they’ve done to a researcher.

Here’s the lead author of the report, Dr. Holly E. Recchia, an assistant professor of education at Concordia University in Montreal, quoted in a NY Times summary of the study:

You really see that they respond appropriately to this language in conversation. That’s not the same as saying they can explain their understanding explicitly.

The researchers identified a few patterns in the use of ironic speech. From the Times summary:

Although it is unclear why, compared with fathers and children, mothers used ironic language more in negative interactions than in positive ones, and rhetorical questions more frequently than any other form.

With all the children, hyperbole and rhetorical questions were most common. When the children were involved in a conflict, rhetorical questions and understatement were used more, while positive interactions usually involved sarcasm and hyperbole. Unlike their younger brothers and sisters, older siblings used sarcasm (“Thanks a lot — now you wrecked my collection”) more often than understatement (“I’m just a tiny bit angry with you right now”).
Compared with their parents, the children were more likely to use hyperbole, typically to emphasize grievous injustices done them by their siblings and parents: “You never give me an allowance, even when I’m good.” Older children used more irony than their younger siblings, and while younger ones were less likely to understand the meaning and function of the remarks, the differences were not large.

We should note that while we didn’t participate in this study, our families would fit squarely into the norm of those who did!

So what’s the relevance of research into children’s use of irony? Dr. Recchia, the study’s author, says that even though children’s understanding of irony was limited, it could still be useful:

“Parents tend to view ironic language negatively, but it’s not always negative or nasty. Sometimes it’s quite playful. It may be that humor and irony can help to defuse situations that might otherwise cause conflict. It may be an effective tool.”

Babbling Babies

October 14, 2010

On a visit to the pediatrician’s office, parents of newborns can expect to be asked about whether or not their kids are making noise. Recent research, highlighted in the NY Times, suggests that we should be looking for a specific kind of utterance from babies as young as 7 months old: their sounds should have developed into “canonical babble” that includes consonant sounds as well as vowels:

Babies who go on vocalizing without many consonants, making only aaa and ooo sounds, are not practicing the sounds that will lead to word formation, not getting the mouth muscle practice necessary for understandable language to emerge.

“A baby hears all these things and is able to differentiate them before the baby can produce them,” said Carol Stoel-Gammon, an emeritus professor of speech and hearing sciences at the University of Washington. “To make an m, you have to close your mouth and the air has to come out of your nose. It’s not in your brain somewhere – you have to learn it.”

The consonants in babble mean the baby is practicing, shaping different sounds by learning to maneuver the mouth and tongue, and listening to the results.” They get there by 12 months,” Professor Stoel-Gammon continued, “and to me the reason they get there is because they have become aware of the oral motor movements that differentiate between an b and an m.”

What’s the best way for babies to learn? Sorry parents, but it’s on us: “Babies have to hear real language from real people to learn these skills. Television doesn’t do it, and neither do educational videos: recent research suggests that this learning is in part shaped by the quality and context of adult response.”

Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention

October 11, 2010

NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week featured an author interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Katherine Ellison, whose new book Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention chronicles her struggle to effectively parent a child with ADHD, while dealing with her own ADHD symptoms.

You can hear the entire segment on the Talk of the Nation web site, or view a transcript of the discussion. There’s also an excerpt from Ellison’s book.


Pulling a voice out of a crowd

June 28, 2010

In the most recent University of California at Berkeley College of Letters and Science newsletter, we uncovered the highlights of a Cal professor’s research into the brain’s remarkable ability to pay attention to certain sounds.

“It’s like when you focus on one voice at a cocktail party,” says Michael DeWeese, a Berkeley professor of physics. “Your brain has top-down executive control that can direct your attention to sounds you want to focus on despite all the distracting sounds in your environment.” DeWeese is working out the neurological mechanisms behind selective auditory attention.

So how does our brain filter out background noise and allow us to focus our attention on relevant auditory stimuli?

The brain is thought to modulate attention by altering neural behavior. Just as aspirin can increase the amount of stimulus required to make a neuron pass along pain messages, neuromodulator molecules such as acetylcholine can make some neurons more or less likely to relay information about sound stimuli. “There is some change in the internal cell processing of signals,” DeWeese says. “In addition,  the transmission of sensory information is gated at the circuit level.” These changes likely occur within many of the neurons in a given circuit, and to different degrees in different brain regions.

Encoding sound efficiently, and ignoring those deemed unimportant, offers strong evolutionary advantages. “It allows the brain to use those operations in a dynamical, smart way. You don’t want to waste your sensory processing resources on sounds that don’t matter,” DeWeese says.

Comprehension of speech in noise is a skill that frequently improves after Fast ForWord training, despite the fact that the Fast ForWord programs don’t include any exercises specifically geared at that skill. Ann Osterling, a pediatric speech-language pathologist with a private practice in Champaign, IL, says this is because Fast ForWord training is improving the underlying skills needed to process speech in noise. Ann offers the following examples:

  • the brain has been trained to hear each of the phonemes more clearly – for some kids there have been “fuzzy” representations of similar sounding phonemes which are now more clear – so it is easier for the brain to recognize it
  • the brain has been trained to process the phonemes more rapidly – it doesn’t have to spend as much time trying to determine what each phoneme is
  • the brain can remember more sounds/words in a row because it is processing more rapidly
  • it is now easier for the brain to attend – and thus pick up the important message and filter out what is/isn’t important
  • there is improved ability to sustain attention for listening
  • overall, the brain is more efficient at listening and understanding

As for Dr. DeWeese’s research, there are some exciting opportunities: “Understanding how the brain normally focuses on sounds could help scientists identify anomalies in those who have difficulty focusing their attention, such as patients with schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).” (The article also mentions that DeWeese’s findings could contribute to the design of hearing aids and hands-free devices that will respond to nearby voices, and deemphasize background noise, but we don’t think that’s nearly as cool.)

2010 Illusions of the Year

June 3, 2010

File this one under “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”…

A couple of months back, we highlighted a cool illusion related to curveballs in baseball. That post was a hit, so we thought we’d pass along the winners of the Best Visual Illusion of the Year award for 2010. From the contest Web site:

The Best Visual illusion of the Year Contest is a celebration of the ingenuity and creativity of the world’s premier visual illusion research community. Contestants from all around the world submitted novel visual illusions (unpublished, or published no earlier than 2009), and an international panel of judges rated them and narrowed them to the TOP TEN. At the Contest Gala in the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, the top ten illusionists presented their creations and the attendees of the event voted to pick the TOP THREE WINNERS!

Our take? The third place winner is pretty cool, but the first place illusion might just keep you awake at night. We still haven’t really figured that one out.

Research roundup: Language and Music

June 2, 2010

The link between music and language has been long-established. Here are a couple of recent NY Times articles about music that caught our eye:

  • Ahh, the Sweet Sound of Music Training
    A new study shows that the consonance of a musical interval — how pleasant it sounds — may vary based on a listener’s level of music training. In the study, a listener’s preference for harmonically related notes (those that are multiples of the same frequency) correlated to the length of time the person had played a musical instrument.

Auditory Processing Disorder Takes a Toll on Learning

April 28, 2010

From Tuesday’s New York Times:

“It definitely affected his whole world,” she said of her son. “Not just learning. It cuts them off from society, from interactions.”

The “she” is Rosie O’Donnell, whose son, Blake, was diagnosed with Auditory Processing Disorder. The Times article details her family’s journey from frustrated first grader, through an APD diagnosis, to comprehensive home, school and clinic-based interventions and support.

Given its focus on Rosie O’Donnell, the article reads a little more like People magazine than most items we link to here. But there are some explanations of the challenges of auditory processing that will resonate with parents whose kids are struggling with APD.

Be Amazing Learning is a certified provider of Fast ForWord programs, which can be effective interventions for kids struggling with Auditory Processing Disorder. For more information about these programs, as well as a link to a study of children with APD who showed improvement in phonemic decoding and sight-word reading abilities after training with Fast ForWord, visit our Web site:

Approximate Number Sense

April 5, 2010

We focus a lot on literacy here at Be Amazing Learning, but at our core, we’re about the brain and how to make it operate most efficiently. So anything about the brain is going to pique our interest. This week, it’s the concept of an approximate number system.

Our approximate number system our instinctive ability to represent numbers. It’s what we use to find the shortest check-out line at the grocery store. And, as the New York Times reported, it’s:

an ancient and intuitive sense that we are born with and that we share with many other animals. Rats, pigeons, monkeys, babies — all can tell more from fewer, abundant from stingy. An approximate number sense is essential to brute survival: how else can a bird find the best patch of berries, or two baboons know better than to pick a fight with a gang of six?

Our approximate number sense is different from the ability to “do” math (or, as the Times says, “the ability to manipulate representations of numbers and explore the quantitative texture of our world”). “Doing” math is a uniquely human and very recent skill:

People have been at it only for the last few millennia, it’s not universal to all cultures, and it takes years of education to master.

However, research indicates a strong correlation between the innate approximate number sense and our learned ability to do math. In a 2008 study in the journal Nature, Justin Halberda and Lisa Feigenson of Johns Hopkins University and Michele Mazzocco of the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore devised a test of approximate number sense.

Comparing the acuity scores with other test results that Dr. Mazzocco had collected from the students over the past 10 years, the researchers found a robust correlation between dot-spotting prowess at age 14 and strong performance on a raft of standardized math tests from kindergarten onward. “We can’t draw causal arrows one way or another,” Dr. Feigenson said, “but your evolutionarily endowed sense of approximation is related to how good you are at formal math.”

The researchers don’t know yet how the two number systems interact:

Brain imaging studies have traced the approximate number sense to a specific neural structure called the intraparietal sulcus, which also helps assess features like an object’s magnitude and distance. Symbolic math, by contrast, operates along a more widely distributed circuitry, activating many of the prefrontal regions of the brain that we associate with being human. Somewhere, local and global must be hooked up to a party line.

Want to test your approximate number sense? The Times has an interactive screening similar to the test of acuity used in the Nature study.

(Hat tip to Scientific Learning’s Brain Gain email series for this topic.)

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