Sunday, June 29, 2008

What Does It Mean To Be Alive?

What Does It Mean To Be Alive?

Science Daily reports on a study that suggests that "knowledge is shaped by language." The study compared children who speak English with children who speak Indonesian, specifically in terms of how they classify things as "alive."

In English, the word "animal" can sometimes refer to all living beings, including humans, while at other times it refers only to non-human living beings. In Indonesian, the equivalent word unambiguously excludes humans. In the study, the two groups of children identified pictures of things as "alive" or not. Indonesian children easily included plants and animals in the "alive" group, while English-speaking children even up to age 9 often excluded plants. The researchers concluded that

"understanding the conceptual consequences of language differences will serve as an effective tool in our efforts to advance the educational needs of children."
"Conceptual consequences of language differences...." Where have I heard something like that before? Oh yeah, Sapir Whorf, anybody?

The Gentle Art of Deconstruction

Tempting times reveal a richness of language
Author Ruth Wajnryb, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, pauses to savor how a little other-awareness can make a simple email message seem like a rich exchange of meaning. We get to listen in as she contemplates how much more a person can say simply by sharing words with a sympathetic friend. Along the way, she also provides an admirable model of self-awareness.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Defender of Language Freedom Coagulates

George Carlin died Sunday, June 22, 2008, at age 71.

A brilliant observer of human nature and an unblinking realist, Carlin's humor cut through all the bullshit that we humans like to believe about ourselves and reminded us that, at base, we are just more dust in a very dusty universe. His insistence on the right to say anything, anytime, anywhere, took his work all the way to the Supreme Court, who judged the noises he made as "indecent." How wonderful that he lived long enough to deliver those glorious, unfettered cable performances with way more than seven "dirty words"!

And how lucky we all are to have his many records and performance to study. A person could learn an awful lot about general semantics from this man who established, unequivocally that "the word is not the thing" (in all senses of the word! ;-)

From George himself, this epitaph: "Weather forecast for tonight: dark. Continued dark overnight, with widely scattered light by morning."

Morning light will be a little harder to come by for a while.

Goodbye, GC.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


I admit I don't know much about CP Snow, but I find significance in this quote by him, which I came across today:

"It is more justifiable to say that those without any scientific understanding miss a whole body of experience;they are rather like the tone deaf from whom all musical experience is cut off and who have to get on without it."
- CP Snow (Writer)
Over the years, I have heard a number of people claim that hearing about or learning the science behind some wondrous phenomenon "takes all the mystery out of it", or "robs the event of its beauty" or "brings it down to heartless, cold facts."

Baloney! This quote by Snow gives me a new answer for future such moments--no, no, I can say, science adds the glorious soundtrack to the movie of life! If you learn *how* this thing happened, you ADD a dimension to the wonder you feel when you see it.

I have seen this subject covered elsewhere, of course, including in an excellent and moving article by Ann Druyan, widow of the late, great scientist and writer, Carl Sagan. The article first appeared in Skeptical Inquirer, and I had the privilege of reprinting it in ETC in January, 2006.

On further research, I find that Snow stirred up the academic world, at least in England, with a lecture in 1959 on this very subject, titled Two Cultures. This excerpt appears on the Wikipedia page for Snow:
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.
This harmonizes nicely with something my friend, Ed Bailey, said to me in an email yesterday:
In court a judge will tell you real quick "ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating them."

Why is ignorance of the laws of science such a widely accepted excuse for violating them?
Why indeed?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Brain Fitness Program -- Part 3

Learning happens all the time. How do we drive the right kind of learning?

1. Learning can only occur when we are in the right "mood".

We must be engaged in the task in order to trigger plasticity.

2. Change strengthens connections between neurons that are activated at the same time.

Things that happen together "go together" in our brains. Practice makes perfect by saving a combination of connections that "work" while casting off those that don't.

3. Neurons that fire together wire together. Components of activity that occur at the same time create connections. Visual input coordinates with memory and sound and balance, etc.

When we think of "farm", it activates a constellation of related ideas.

4. Initial changes are just temporary. If the outcome of an event is evaluated as good or important, we convert the memory to long-term. Doesn't have to be dramatic. It can also happen through repetition.

5. Brain plasticity is a two-way street. We can drive positively or negatively. Chronic pain and bad habits are plasticity in action. A malleable brain is a vulnerable brain.

6. Memory is crucial to learning. The model of what we want to do is held in memory and as we act, we evaluate the outcome against the model.

7. Motivation is a key factor in brain plasticity. Wanting to improve or master a skill makes the learning more likely and successful. The story of Pedro Bach-y-Rita recovering from a stroke gave insight into how the brain reorganizes and refines.

If we don't learn, we become boring. We seek comfort instead of novelty.

To learn, your heart must be healthy. The task should be challenging, but not too difficult.

Neuroplasticity is the default mode of the brain. We just need to take advantage of it by staying active and interested.

It's about living to the very end of life. More than half of us by age 85 can no longer maintain our independence and may be "non compos mentis".

Be encouraged to know that if you exercise your brain in the right ways, you will feel better and retain your vitality and independence.

Overall, I found this an accurate and informative program. They focused on general accepted aspects of current theory and explain most of them with clarity, if a bit simply. I'm a bit ambivalent about the "Fitness Gym" that the show promotes, mainly because I think one would get better effect from simply having lots of interests and pursuing them. One thinks of the writer or artist or musician who remains sharp, active and fully competent long past 85. But certainly for those who have not necessarily lived a very active mental life, a "gym" to regain the necessary skills probably makes good sense.

Brain Fitness Program -- Part 2

The typical 30-year-old commands about 30,000 words. At 80, it's more like 10,000. But understanding brain plasticity can help us forestall some of that degeneration. It doesn't seem so much due to loss of neurons, as to loss of synapses and myelin, the covering on neurons that insulates them.

As we get older, the speed with which we think does slow down. If you then introduce distractors, you could look like you are having trouble: drinks, noise, anxiety, etc.

Older people have a fear of falling. Falling has more to do with brain decline than muscle loss. But when we worry about falling, we do things that contribute--we watch our feet, actually teaching our brain to use our eyes for balance instead of our ears. This is negative plasticity. If we repeat any behavior enough, the path becomes a "rut". One researcher used cognitive therapy with OCD people, telling them to ignore their burdensome compulsive thoughts and view them as "just my brain, not real." This mindful attention improved these patients as well as another group who got standard OCD drugs.

Attention improves our ability to change the brain. We learn what we attend to, and the more mindfully we do that, the better we do. But we also have to attend to new things in order to keep the brain growing and learning. Attending to the same old stuff doesn't contribute to learning. The effort should result in the release of neurochemicals that reward us for the effort. We feel better and have a "brighter" life. Routine tasks don't trigger the same rewards, and don't accomplish neuronal growth. It has to be new and challenging and interesting. We do get some comfort from the familiar stuff, but as we do, we lose the increased enjoyment that we get from learning new tasks.

One of the critical aspects of learning is memory, and the place essential to memory is the hippocampus. Loss in this area results in the inability to form new memories.

Brain-change--harnessing the potential of plasticity:

The show tells the story of a soldier who received a traumatic brain injury. Roger Taub discovered that you can challenge the patient's brain with specialized tasks and regrow some of the lost skills. This depends on neuroplasticity.

Concept of brain-span vs life-span. Plasticity allows the age of the brain to differ from the age of the body.

Another station break.

Brain Fitness Program -- Part 1

Tonight I'm watching The Brain Fitness Program on Public Television, hosted by Peter Coyote. The first segment focuses on brain plasticity. Despite what we have traditionally believed, we continue to build brain neurons and connections far into adulthood. One expert suggests that the old belief came from a backwards assumption that since the brain is so complex, it wouldn't make sense that we might just "throw more wires in there." Research appears to say that neurogenesis can be sustained or ramped up by *physical* activity--running or swimming, for example. Of course, some mental activities can keep things growing and connecting as well.

Children with cleft palates were believed to have "inherited" an inability to learn to speak. A surgeon discovered that if you fix the cleft palate, they learn like "normal" children. Turns out the cleft palate blocked their hearing so they couldn't learn to speak because they had an inadequate model. Fix their hearing and they learn language.

Brain injuries can sometimes result in reassignment of other regions to take over the tasks of the injured part. And regions responsible for tasks that we perform excessively can actually expand.

Our experiences create new synapse and strengthen existing synapses. Donald Hebb showed that neurons are co-strengthened when they co-respond (neurons that fire together, wire together.)

The next segment moves on to discuss the technology that reveals all this neuronal activity. Functional MRIs allow researchers to watch the brain as it actually perform tasks. This technology also tracks the flow of blood, which suggests which parts of the brain are active during a given task.

Changes that come about when we think new thoughts or perform tasks are what the brain was designed to do.

Pause for a station break. Give money to Public Television to keep shows like this on the air.....