My haiku’ed PhD

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Inspired by PhD by haiku, vol 1: OnCirculation

For more than 17 syllables on this topic, see this chapter: How Languages Construct Time by Lera Boroditsky.

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For the love of language: Guest post

I met Emi Karydes as she was beginning her last year as an undergrad at UCSD. I knew she wanted to be involved in linguistic research, and although my work is really more about cognition, I convinced her that language was my first love and is at the center of my cognitive science research, and Emi became a research assistant. She taught me cool things about American Sign Language, made me laugh, and was tremendously helpful with whatever project I threw at her. A couple months after graduation, Emi reflects on her relationship with language – past, present, and future:

I started my freshman year at UCSD with an interest in everything, but no idea what I wanted to focus on. I had narrowed down my options to “something in the Arts/Humanities.” Then I took LING7, the Linguistics of American Sign Language, and I fell in love. (I am still a bit upset that it took me so long to learn about linguistics, but that is an issue for another day.) I don’t know how I feel about the idea of predestination or fate, but it certainly feels like I was always meant to be a linguist. The study of language touches on so many different aspects of life, from communication, to culture, to technology, to art, just to name a few, that it was the perfect major for someone who wanted to study everything.

Language is something that most people are fortunate enough to take for granted, so when you take a step back and analyze how and why language works it can be mind-boggling. I remember sitting in Phonology freaking out about the fact that as we are talking about the different sounds on the IPA chart, we’re producing them. It is impossible to study linguistics without using language, which I will admit has led me to start speaking  and just not stop because I get distracted by how my vocal tract produces the different phonemes. Lots of fun for the people stuck listening to me listening to myself, I’m sure. But my point is that there are so many amazing things happening in your brain and your body allowing you to communicate almost effortlessly, and we aren’t even consciously aware of it most of the time. Language is as close to magic as I’ve been able to find concrete proof for, and I love it.

“So, what exactly are you planning to DO with a linguistics major?” Honestly, whatever you want. Don’t let this question scare you away from a Linguistics major. Since language is so engrained in our everyday lives, linguistics can be applied to almost anything. Scratching the surface, there is speech pathology, or computational linguistics, or language construction, or gathering data on a language that is nearing extinction, or research into any of a number of unanswered questions. I graduated this year with a degree in General Linguistics, and am taking a year off to relocate from San Diego to Portland, but I am really looking forward to applying to grad schools and furthering my study of linguistics. I genuinely feel that what I’ve learned these last four years has helped me grow as a person, expanding my personal perspective and giving me a new method by which to think about the world as a community. So if you are going into this year with no idea what to study, try linguistics. It might just change your life.

P.S. Emi has some other talents you might want to check out.

What’s in a name of a hurricane?

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A few months ago, a study came out in PNAS that sparked a lot of media interest: Female hurricanes are deadlier than male hurricanes. The idea is not that the most severe hurricanes happen to have female names, but instead that more people die in hurricanes that have female names than in those with male names.

500px-Cyclone_Monica The study involved the analysis of death rates for over 60 years, which included 94 hurricanes. The archival data showed that for hurricanes that did little damage, the difference in the death tolls between masculine and feminine hurricanes was marginal. For hurricanes that had greater damage, however, the number of fatalities was substantially higher for female-named storms than for male-named ones. Further, they classified names for how masculine or feminine they are (referred to as the Masculinity-Femininity Index, or MFI). For example, a highly feminine name would be “Eloise,” (with a score of 8.944) while the female name “Charley” was rated as much less feminine (MFI = 2.889). The researchers found that even within feminine-named hurricanes, the more feminine a name was (the greater the MFI score), the higher the number of fatalities. Specifically, their data suggest that if a severe hurricane’s name is Eloise, it will kill 3 times as many people as if it’s named Charley. The explanation for the correlation between might seem intuitive and surprising at the same time: we have gender-based expectations that females are less aggressive. This unconscious bias seems to invoke a lower perceived risk for female hurricanes, so people take fewer precautions like evacuating. In light of these findings, The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the group who names the storms, might want to reevaluate its naming practices to avoid names that might encourage dismissal of a hurricane’s danger. In case they’re looking for inspiration, I have a few suggestions. What NOT to name a female hurricane:

  • Any flower name: this includes Daisy, Petunia, Lilly, and sadly, Rose
  • Pooh Bear (imagine the reactions if meteorologists announced that Hurricane Pooh Bear was headed for the coast)
  • Any name that has repeated syllables: can we expect people to take Coco or Fifi seriously?
  • Any name that’s shared with a Barbie doll, like Skipper, Stacie, and certainly Barbie
"Hurricane Barbie is on her way!"
Hurricane Barbie is on her way!

And some names that people might take more seriously:

  • Names that invoke big, tough women you wouldn’t want to mess with: Bertha, Agnes, or Madea
  • Gender-neutral names, like Alex, Casey, or Jamie
  • Non-human names: names like PX-750 or The Hulk might do the job
If you heard "Hurricane Madea is heading for the coast," what would you do?
Don’t mess with Hurricane Madea.

The future of cog sci

As a final project in a class on theories and methods in cognitive science, we had to give a talk on what we believed to be the future of cog sci, drawing on what we had synthesized during the course and our own specific interests. I’ve started to think of this blog as a time capsule for my thoughts about the field, so I find it fitting to post my presentation (or at least, the spoken part and a few screenshots from the visual). I’ll probably look back on this someday and think, “oh, how much I had yet to learn…” but that will not be such a travesty. Today, having completed only 10 weeks of grad school courses, here’s what I think about the present and future of cog sci:

As I was thinking about the future of cog sci, I started by rephrasing the question to myself. Where’s the field going? What questions and methods will push the field forward? I don’t need to specify that cog sci isn’t a physical thing, so it can’t actually go anywhere, or that, questions and methods don’t have agency and therefore can’t push the abstract field anywhere. The fact that we produce and comprehend phrases like this naturally and possibly even base our perceptualizations on them is one of the many phenomena we’re still working on understanding.

Because we’re all familiar with the cultural convention of blending time and space with a timeline, I’m going to use that as a jumping off point. In order to tackle the question of the future of cog sci, we have to consider the larger context of its historical roots.

Early research was materialistic in that it didn’t differentiate the mind from the brain. Neuroscience contributed the tenet that brain activity equals thought, while computer science gave rise to the conviction that thinking is equivalent to symbolic information processing. As new topics for investigation have emerged, many researchers have abandoned the traditional assumptions. The orderliness “mind as a computer” metaphor just doesn’t mesh with the complexity and messiness of our cognition.

Traditional cog sci: the mind is inseparable from brain processes and the notion of the mind as a computer was widespread
Traditional cog sci: the mind is inseparable from brain processes and the notion of the mind as a computer was widespread

Over time, more and more people have begun to recognize that every brain is situated in a unique body, and every body situated in a dynamic world. Spivey eloquently noted, “it might just be that your mind is bigger than your brain.” This is where we are now: context often reigns supreme. Most researchers accept that people behave differently inside a lab than outside it, and they strive to make their experiments as ecologically valid as possible, or in other words, as similar as they can to the real-world circumstances they want to generalize about.

A brain within a body within a dynamic, complex world
A brain within a body within a dynamic, complex world

Gick and Holyoak provide one of many examples of the importance of context, specifically linguistic context, for reasoning. Half of their subjects were given the tumor problem: a patient needs radiation to kill a tumor. A weak ray will not be strong enough to kill the tumor. A strong ray will be too strong, killing much of the healthy surrounding tissue. What should the radiologist do? Few people answered correctly. Other participants received the fortress problem: There’s a fortress at the intersection of many roads. The general wants to capture the fortress, but if all his troops attack from the same road, they run the risk of being blown up by mines. What should he do? This question is much easier: the army should split up and attack from many angles. The answer to the tumor question was the same: the radiologist should send converging weak rays from different directions so that they’ll be strong enough cumulatively to kill the tumor. But the framing of the problem makes a significant difference for how people go about and succeed in solving it.

Tumor and fortress problems
Tumor and fortress problems

Language is an undeniably huge part of our culture and day-to-day lives. We communicate so much directly, and possibly even more indirectly. When I say, “can you open the window?” we understand that I am in fact asking, “will you open the window?” The intended unspoken information conveyed is interesting, but what I find even more interesting is all the information we convey linguistically without intending to. When I talk about cognitive science moving forward, I’m blending the concepts of physical movement and time, with the assumption (thanks to my culture and language) that the future is forward. If I tell you that there’s a canyon separating the rich and the poor in America, I might be conveying different information than if I say, “the poor are lagging behind the rich.” A canyon is often an impenetrable divide resulting from natural causes. Lagging behind, on the other hand, suggests a separation because the slower group is incompetent or lazy, but a separation that can change throughout the course of a race. Do these different metaphoric instantiations of a single, abstract concept have consequences for our thoughts and behaviors?

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Are there implications of talking about a canyon between the rich and poor versus the poor lagging behind in the economic race?

We know that context is important. But context is a really broad term. What context is important for different aspects of cognition? How can contextual alterations shape our thoughts and behaviors? This is, I think, one of the many important directions in which cog sci is heading.

A new way of looking at vision

Visual processing has always been one of the topics in cognitive science that interests me the least, but after reading this paper, “Constructing Meaning,” by Seana Coulson, I’ve changed my mind (at least a tiny bit). Instead of ascribing to the folk psychological view of vision as a “passive registration process in which people record optical information that exists in the world,” she suggests that it’s an “active, constructive process in which people exploit optical information to interact with the world.”

Early accounts of vision represented it as a hierarchical, feed-forward process, but more recent studies have revealed that there are in fact a number of backward connections, in which information is passed from higher-level areas to lower, as well as a number of lateral information transfers. Vision isn’t as simple as was once thought.

As if this wasn't already complicated enough, there's more than this to vision! Image: http://www.webmd.com/eye-health/picture-of-the-eyes
As if this wasn’t already complicated enough, vision is even more complex than this!
Image: http://www.webmd.com/eye-health/picture-of-the-eyes

Further demonstrating this point is the notion of context sensitivity. One example is the phenomenon of color constancy: even when lighting conditions change, the color we perceive objects remains constant. Another example is neural filling-in. We all have a blind spot, the region of the retina where the optic nerve attaches and there aren’t receptors, but we don’t perceive the small hole in our visual field that we would if our brains weren’t somehow filling in the gaps. This is a specific example of the more general problem that despite frequent blinks (about every 5 seconds), we don’t experience perceptual discontinuity. And a final example that I thought was earth-shattering the first time I read Noe’s account of it: when we look at an object, we’re actually only seeing it in two dimensions, but we perceive the whole of it in its three-dimensional glory.

The short story: we don’t perceive what’s actually there, but instead construct a representation of what we’re seeing based on context and prior knowledge of the world around us.

Then Coulson likens the process of visual perception to language processing. Making meaning out of an utterance is not simply a decoding process based solely on the linguistic information, just as visual perception isn’t simply passively absorbing visual stimuli. Instead, perceiving linguistic meaning involves a complex interplay between linguistic and nonlinguistic knowledge. After reviewing quite a bit of cognitive neuroscience data, Coulson concludes that the studies “argue against a deterministic, algorithmic coding and decoding model of meaning, and for a dynamic, context sensitive one.” I thought this paper was a really cool way of saying that context is crucial for making meaning, whether out of visual or linguistic input, rather than an incidental property of the stimuli.

Embodied Language Conflict

Last night, I read a cool paper by Bergen and colleagues on the role of embodiment in understanding language. The idea is that portions of the brain that are used for perception and motor activity also play a role in understanding language via a process referred to as “simulation”.

Variations of the Perky effect can be used to study language understanding. For example, if a person is simulating while understanding language, it may be harder for him to use that same part of the brain in a visual or motor task. This is exactly what Bergen et al. found:

In Experiment 1, participants viewed sentences whose verbs literally denoted up or down, such as “The cork rocketed,” an “UP” sentence. At the same time, they had to characterize pictures of objects that were either located at the top or bottom of a screen. When the objects were located at the top, they were slower to do so, demonstrating an interference effect that may have occurred because they were simulating an “UP” sentence. This effect was also observed for “DOWN” sentences and objects located at the bottom of the screen.

When reading that "the cork rocketed," you probably simulated something in the upward direction, like this. Image: www.thewinectr.com
When reading that “the cork rocketed,” you probably simulated something in the upward direction, like this.
Image: http://www.thewinectr.com

Experiment 2 was the same, except up/down nouns were used instead of verbs. The experimenters again found an interference effect in the same direction. This suggests that the specific lexical entry isn’t what causes the simulation, but instead understanding the sentence as a whole may.

In Experiment 3, sentences containing verbs that expressed metaphorical motion were used (for example, “The prices climbed.”). There was no interference effect, nor was there an effect in Experiment 3, in which abstract, non-metaphorical verbs (such as “the percentage decreased”) were used. Together, these add support to the idea that the meaning of a sentence as a whole triggers simulation, rather than individual words.

Then this morning, I read a post about a paper that counters Bergen et al.’s findings. In the fMRI study reported, participants were shown nouns, verbs, noun-like nonwords, and verb-like nonwords (their endings were what signaled whether they were noun- or verb-like). The authors found that when viewing verbs and verb-like nonwords, participants’ premotor cortices were activated more than when viewing nouns and noun-like nonwords. They took this as an indication that the observed cortical responses to action words result from ortho-phonological probabilistic cues to grammar class, as opposed to embodied motor representations.

But, what about context? We rarely come in contact with words in isolation, but instead with words embedded in the context of a sentence, and sentences in their contexts too. Since the methods in the anti-embodied language study aren’t reflective of the real-life situations in which we encounter language, are they meaningful? How can we reconcile a these two studies?

The Power of Words from London: Part 2

One of my favorite things that I saw in London was the British Library. They have an exhibition right now called Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, which slaps viewers over the head with the impact language can have on people.

propaganda

Although the exhibit was relatively chronological, it was actually organized thematically, which was a cool and unexpected way to showcase everything that falls under the umbrella of “propaganda” (as defined by Merriam-Webster): ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect.

When people think of propaganda, they most often think of linguistic messages, usually in print, that a government sends its people to tell them what’s good vs. evil or right vs. wrong. Propaganda is just another one of those examples of how humans intuitively know that their words have the power to shape their readers’ or listeners’ perceptions and behaviors… otherwise no one would bother with propaganda in the first place. Propaganda may begin as a simple message but, sort of like a snowball, grows as it’s spread farther, eventually becoming something much larger and more powerful than it started out as:

“The propagandist uses a keyboard and composes a symphony.” -Jacques Ellul

The exhibit started with Origins, which detailed the ways that earliest rulers reinforced their authority, created a sense of shared identity, vilified enemies, and justified wars.
Next was the section Nation, which focused on the aspects of society that government controls: education, currency, national symbols, and sometimes media, and how these tools have been used as propaganda to influence their people’s beliefs.
The Enemy and War sections were similar, demonstrating how nations use emotionally-laden propaganda to persuade their citizens to unite against a common enemy and to maintain morale during war.
The Health section was also interesting because public health campaigns aren’t what I’d typically think of as propaganda, but the exhibit showcased many images and slogans used to demonize or encourage different health habits.
The final section, Today, focused on digital technology and the new routes that it has opened up for states to communicate to the people but also for the people to challenge and criticize the messages they receive.

Overall, a really interesting exhibit that opened our eyes a little more to the manipulative messages that surround us in everyday life.