Posts Tagged ‘perception’

Technology as a tool

November 4, 2010

Technology can make a lot of things easier and more efficient: email is faster than the US Mail, and shopping online doesn’t require hunting for a parking space. In the case of the Fast ForWord programs, technology actually enables something that isn’t otherwise possible: it can be used to modify to a consonant sound that a student is struggling to process and make it longer and louder. Go ahead: just try to make the /b/ sound in the word “bat” longer. It isn’t going to happen without some technological assistance.

The NY Times highlights technology – specifically the Apple iPad – that, while not specifically designed for those with disabilities, is nonetheless helping them communicate.

The article highlights Owen, a 7 year old with a motor-neuron disease that leaves him without the strength to maneuver a computer mouse. But he got the touch-screen iPad to work on his first try. The article also describes iPads used to train basic skills to children with autism, and, loaded with a speech-to-text application to give those with disabilities a voice.

One of the major advantages of the iPad is its relatively low price compared to specialized computer equipment that individuals with disabilities have used in the past. And, according to one interviewee, the “cool” factor of the iPad makes it a less stigmatizing tool in social situations.

Baby’s Developing Brain

November 3, 2010

Over at the Science of Learning blog, Dr. Martha Burns has just completed a two part series on the development of the infant brain. The good news and bad news for parents is that we play a significant role.

In August, Dr. Burns described the infant brain as a learning machine: working to determine the relevant information about language and the environment, while designing itself, quickly, to become an expert in said language and environment. The parents’ role is to provide an environment that fosters the development of skills that will be helpful later in life.

In her recent conclusion, Dr. Burns provides some more detail on how parents can help the developing infant brain, especially with the goal of developing the kind of sustained attention skills required in a classroom. The brain, says Dr. Burns, wires itself for learning based on early stimulation and experience. To facilitate this development:

  • Parents of infants can build sustained attention to speech by ensuring that children are seeing and hearing speech at the same time. In other words, get in their face!
  • Parents of older children should set aside time for reading together or talking about the highlights of the day.

Getting a child accustomed to sitting for 30 minutes and listening to songs or stories will establish the attention skills required in school.

Oh. And unfortunately, while this probably goes without saying, lay off the TV:

The American Pediatric Association has recently published research indicating that too much exposure to television during the first two years of life seems to increase the likelihood that the child will be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder in the early school years.

We have previously posted about the importance of engaging children with language. From that posting:

Particularly in the critical stage of brain development (when only stimulation is required to develop neural pathways), continuous exposure to language is of utmost importance. The differences in students early experiences with language and literacy are meaningful: by first grade, children whose parents have engaged them with language know twice as many words as those whose parents have not. And it continues: high school seniors near the top of their class know four times as many words as their lower-performing peers, whose vocabularies are equivalent to high-performing third graders.

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.”

Chunking language

September 26, 2010

Any article that begins with a reference to They Might Be Giants (or, as they are called in our house, “Maybe They’re Giants”) is going to catch our attention. NY Times language writer Ben Zimmer cites his son’s mastery of TMBG lyrics when he tackles fixed phrases in a recent articleMake yourself at home. He points out that:

Ritualized moments of everyday communication — greeting someone, answering a telephone call, wishing someone a happy birthday — are full of these canned phrases that we learn to perform with rote precision at an early age. Words work as social lubricants in such situations, and a language learner like Blake is primarily getting a handle on the pragmatics of set phrases in English, or how they create concrete effects in real-life interactions. The abstract rules of sentence structure are secondary.

Recent research into language acquisition is focusing on these fixed phrases or  “lexical chunks” – meaningful strings of words that we memorize:

Chunks may consist of fixed idioms or conventional speech routines, but they can also simply be combinations of words that appear together frequently, in patterns that are known as “collocations.”

Not everyone is sold on chunking for learning language. Zimmer cites the research of lexical-chunking critic Michael Swan:

Though he acknowledges, as he told me in an e-mail, that “high-priority chunks need to be taught,” he worries that “the ‘new toy’ effect can mean that formulaic expressions get more attention than they deserve, and other aspects of language — ordinary vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and skills — get sidelined.” … Formulaic language is all well and good when talking about the familiar and the recurrent, he argues, but it is inadequate for dealing with novel ideas and situations, where the more open-ended aspects of language are paramount.

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.

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.)

Laughing in Every Language

April 1, 2010

Happy April Fool’s Day!

But seriously folks…

Apparently, if you want to do research on laughter, you have to call it “positive emotional response.” According to Jaak Panksepp, a Bowling Green University psychology professor, “There’s no funding in fun research.”

But there is progress being made in understanding laughter, which scientists consider a social response, rather than simply a reaction to a joke.

You may laugh at a prank on April Fools’ Day. But surprisingly, only 10 to 15 percent of laughter is the result of someone making a joke, said Baltimore neuroscientist Robert Provine, who has studied laughter for decades.

“Laughter above all else is a social thing,” Provine said. “The requirement for laughter is another person.”

Laughing is primal, our first way of communicating. Apes laugh. So do dogs and rats. Babies laugh long before they speak. No one teaches you how to laugh. You just do. And often you laugh involuntarily, in a specific rhythm and in certain spots in conversation.

Over the years, Provine, a professor with the University of Maryland Baltimore County, has boiled laughter down to its basics.

“All language groups laugh `ha-ha-ha’ basically the same way,” he said. “Whether you speak Mandarin, French or English, everyone will understand laughter. … There’s a pattern generator in our brain that produces this sound.”

Each “ha” is about one-15th of a second, repeated every fifth of a second, he said. Laugh faster or slower than that and it sounds more like panting or something else.

We’re sort of fascinated by this issue of timing and duration in laughter. We blogged last year about why it’s so difficult to remember jokes (referencing a NY Times article that also cited Dr. Provine’s research), and one of the reasons is that jokes “live or die by nuance, precision and timing.” It doesn’t seem to be a stretch to see how imprecise or delayed temporal processing can lead to awkward social situations because kids miss the funny part. After all, nobody wants to have people pant at their jokes…

But enough of this serious science stuff. It’s April Fool’s Day! So on with the pranks – hopefully they will produce a “positive emotional response”!

Got a song stuck in your head?

March 16, 2010

That song you can’t get out of your head? It’s called an earworm. And scientists say some (musicians, women and the anxious) are more susceptible to them.

From today’s New York Times Science section Q and A:

How a melody becomes an earworm, however, is unclear. A 2001 survey by James J. Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati, a consumer psychologist, found that “music characterized by simplicity, repetitiveness and incongruity with listeners’ expectations is most likely to become ‘stuck.’ ”

According to Dr. Kellaris, 98% of us will experience a sticky tune. And the cure? Belt it out:

After further research, Dr. Kellaris theorized that one way to scratch what he called a “cognitive itch” is to sing the mental tune aloud.

More info, including links to studies of musical perception, is on the Times web site.

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