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Category: cognition (page 2 of 4)

Sarah Colwill and Foreign Accent Syndrome

Sarah Colwill is British, but her accent has changed since having a really bad migraine. Usually Foreign Accent Syndrome happens as a result of a stroke. That’s one whomping migraine, I must say. My sympathies.

People identify her accent as Chinese, but I don’t know. I’m leaning toward the idea that it’s not really a complete foreign accent (like you’d get if you were influenced by someone you knew with a foreign accent). I think the syndrome messes with your vowels, people hear you, and then they say, “Gee, you sound ___ (insert name of accent here).”

Here’s a test: If there’s someone in the room with you, play the audio for them, and get them to guess where her accent is from. (They’ll have to guess before the :20 mark because she gives it away then.)

But not only is it messing with her vowels, it also seems to be messing with her morphemes. Notice how she’s dropping endings off words:

And when I did speak, it sound Chinese. That last for about a week. And then I woke up again the next day, it sound more Eastern European. And it have been like that ever since.

I wonder if she was doing that before the migraine.

The saddest thing for me about FAS is how the speaker no longer identifies their voice as their own. Their own voice sounds strange to them.

“The first few weeks of the accent was quite funny but to think I am stuck with this Chinese accent is getting me down. My voice has started to annoy me now. It is not my voice,” added Colwill.

Judi Roberts felt the same way. After her stroke, her American accent changed to what people identified as British. She changed her name to Tiffany Noel, in accordance with her feeling that a part of her had died.

There are worse things that can happen to your brain, of course, but it’s hard to calculate the effect of no longer being able to sound like yourself.

Phineas gage photo found

It seems that a daguerreotype of Phineas Gage has been found. You’ll remember Gage from your first-year psych class, as the railroad worker who had an unfortunate encounter with an iron bar.

Gage was working on blasting that day in 1848. When you blast holes in rock, you first drill a hole in the rock, insert some gunpowder plus some sand, then insert your tamping rod and tamp it all down. But on this particular day, Gage forgot the sand. When he tamped directly on the dynamite, the resulting explosion blasted the iron bar right through his cranium. The bar landed with a clang about 30 meters behind him.

Incredibly, Gage survived, but some reports note that Gage’s personality changed from amiable to quarrelsome. This fact caused researchers to focus on the brain as the source of behaviour, and not some metaphysical spirit entity. If the brain gets damaged, the personality gets damaged.

I like the photo of Gage. He looks confident, and every bit the gentleman. The closed left eye shows he’s taken some knocks, but still he holds the token of his fame and near-destruction in his hands.

The whistling orangutan

Bonnie is an orangutan who has learned how to whistle from humans. Article plus video here.

The 140-pound (63.5-kilometer) orangutan at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., has been whistling for about two decades.

Now a new study suggests that the sounds she makes could hold clues about the origins of human language.

“The assumption is that someone was whistling and she probably picked it up from them,” said animal keeper and study co-auther Erin Stromberg.

Lisa Stevens, the zoo’s curator for great apes and giant pandas, said the key point is that the orangutan was not trained to whistle.

While orangutans can be taught new sounds with extensive training, Bonnie is the first indication that the animals can independently pick up the sounds from other species.

“It’s something she spontaneously developed,” Stevens said. “It wasn’t a trick.”

How does this relate to human language? Some linguists are interested in how language might have arisen in primates. In particular, Michael Arbib’s ‘Mirror Hypothesis‘ suggests that the ability to recognise and imitate the actions of others (both gestures and vocalisation) may have played a key role. Communication prepared the evolving brain for more complex cognition, and more complex cognition led to more involved communication.

With that in mind, it’s interesting that an ape would be able to imitate such an oral (if not vocal) behaviour. I was kind of surprised, however, that an orangutan was doing the imitating. As I remember, orangutans are rather solitary, and communication is social behaviour. Evidently the wiring for this kind of imitation goes pretty deep.

Fear of vanishing

I’ve been viewing the YouTube videos from the Exmormon Foundation. Worth a look. There are some clips from a film called “Line Upon Line”, featuring (mostly) non-angry, pleasant former saints telling their deconversion stories.

One of the stories in Part 2 tapped into something unexpected for me. A young woman says:

Leaving the Church is hard because you are so afraid of what’s going to happen to you. And you don’t have any examples of that because people leave the Church and they scurry away, you know? Like, you don’t know — When you’re in the Church, you do not know any ex-Mormons. You don’t know ’em! And so I was really afraid of leaving the Church because I was like, no way, this can’t be real. What will I do with my life if I leave the Church? Who am I going to be, right? And so, I think that that fear keeps a lot of people, either consciously or subconsciously, in the Church.

Well, that’s about right. In testimony meetings, Latter-day Saints seem to tell each other constantly how they don’t know where they’d be without the Church. They’d probably all be dead. Or in jail. Like everyone else who isn’t in the Church. And Latter-day Saints are routinely warned that if they don’t keep the promises they make in LDS temples, they’ll be in Satan’s power. Have to keep ’em scared of ghosts, you see.

But this quote touched on another part of the scariness that I think I must have harboured without realising. I have known a few people that stopped coming to church. They deleted themselves from the sample, you could say. And, what do you know, they did disappear, and I never saw them again. So the unspoken impression I think I got was: If you leave the Church, you will disappear. How frightening!

It’s nobody’s fault. Just an artifact of participation (or lack thereof) in social groups. But for me it seems a powerful cognitive illusion that I hadn’t noticed before.

So it’s a good thing that I show up every once in a while at church. I drop the boys off to be with their Mom, wearing nice but non-churchy clothes. No, I haven’t disappeared, I tell my old friends. I’m still here, and I’m very happy without religion.

Another political experiment

How likely are you to be a conservative? It may depend on how easily you scare.

Subjects were tested for political opinions, and categorised as liberal or conservative.

The participants were then given two laboratory tests, to establish their physiological responses to frightening or unexpected stimuli. In the first test, they viewed 33 images, three of which were distressing or threatening: a large spider on the face of a frightened person; a dazed person with a bloody face; and maggots in an open wound. The scientists measured the electrical conductance of the skin, a standard measure of distress and arousal.

In the second test, the volunteers were subjected to a loud, unexpected noise, with scientists measuring the involuntary blinking that followed. A strong startle response is indicative of heightened fear and arousal.

No points for guessing which group contained the bigger scaredy cats.

Those with “markedly lower physical sensitivity to sudden noises and threatening visual images” tended to support liberal positions, while those with strong responses tended to be more conservative.

Acting conservatively is an appropriate response to uncertain and risky situations. Conservatives know this, and therefore try to emphasise the scary side of our world. As a result, modern conservatism is a laundry list of over-stated grievances and fears intended to exploit feelings of resentment and victimhood. They’re coming for your job. Your guns. Your women. Taxes, children, bible, flag. Conservatives, then, are the ones who respond most to this fear-mongering and paranoia.

Courage, citizens.

Calm down, all of you.

The scripture of the day:

“We’re sensitive to the fluid dynamics of the campaign, but we have a game plan and a strategy,” said Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe. “We’re familiar with this. And I’m sure between now and Nov. 4 there will be another period of hand-wringing and bed-wetting. It comes with the territory.”

Democrats last week were in a panic over Palin, prompting the run on adult diapers that reverberated through the economy, inadvertently destroying Lehman Brothers, fomenting global warming, and hastening the eventual heat death of the universe.

I admit to indulging in a bit of the panic. One night I woke up at 3, worrying that Obama was going to lose this thing. Another night I dreamed that McCain had asked me to be his running mate. There I was thinking, “What am I doing on the Republican ticket?” (It has occurred to me since that I’d be a stronger running mate than Palin. I don’t have any foreign policy experience, but I do have a degree in International Relations.)

We Democrats do this. We fret and fume, and watch helplessly as the worst people in the world control the dialogue and capture everyone’s attention with the dumbest things. And we worry that, yet again, the scumbags will win.

And every time the polls show the race to be closer than we’d like, we get people telling us that there’s something wrong with what we’re doing. It always seems to be about… the good people. Yes, those simple humble folk who bow their heads and pray around the dinner table every night (with no fancy lettuce, mind you). They’re founts of wisdom, these common decent souls, issuing simple homilies as they hook their thumbs into their armpits and rock back and forth. And we Democrats abuse them mercilessly as we look down our urban noses at their pious ways. We’re losing… (wait for it!)… people of faith.

Here’s a prognosticator now. Scott Atran.

I’m an atheist liberal academic who strongly leans Democrat. But I’m stunned at how blind so many of my colleagues and soul mates are to the historical underpinnings of American political culture and the genuine appeal of religious conservatism for so many of our fellow citizens.

Among many Republican conservatives, one factor strongly correlates with patriotism and national security, is of even more overriding concern in daily life, and stands inseparable from love of country. Religion.

Well, it’s one thing to understand the appeal religion has for people, and quite another to be infected with it yourself. I only wish Democrats were more immune to it — they’re nowhere near as secular as Atran is suggesting.

Or this article from Jonathan Haidt. I’ve linked to him before.

When Republicans say that Democrats “just don’t get it,” this is the “it” to which they refer. Conservative positions on gays, guns, god, and immigration must be understood as means to achieve one kind of morally ordered society. When Democrats try to explain away these positions using pop psychology they err, they alienate, and they earn the label “elitist.” But how can Democrats learn to see—let alone respect—a moral order they regard as narrow-minded, racist, and dumb?

Now, how is this view different from the “Democrats need to learn some respect” meme seen here? Only in tone, not in substance. If we don’t tell the believers (you know, the ones who are trying to block certain kinds of marriage and birth control) that their views are perfectly valid and very nice, they’ll never vote with us.

As though they ever would. When did Republicans ever concede any ground to us? Now that they’re down in the popularity polls, are they abandoning parts of their social agenda? No-sirree! Are the radio hate jocks acting more conciliatory? With rare exceptions, no. Do we hear Republicans saying that they need to reach out to secular Americans and try to understand us? No, they still think we’re vermin, and they wonder whether we can have any sense of morality at all.

But that could be the point. The antagonistic approach (surprise!) doesn’t win friends. So the question Haidt, Atran, and other concern trolls pose is: Do you want to win elections or don’t you? It’s all very well for you to be right, but do you want to be president?

Well, I understand the concern. I’ve seen the disaster that political and religious fundamentalists have wrought and I’m not anxious for more. But I am not certain that it is worth winning elections at any cost, if part of that cost is abandoning rationality and sinking into the mire of fuzzy-headed spiritism. That’s an approach that’s guaranteed to make the problems we face worse, not better.

And suggesting that Democrats need to mend their ways is silly. How do conservatives magically know what individual Democrats think? How do they know your individual views? Have they asked you? Or are we just being stereotyped — again? I think the latter, and if you feel like modifying your behaviour so others won’t stereotype you, frankly you need to grow a set. If we all changed our ways tomorrow and acted like Atran, Haidt, et al wanted, how long would it take hardcore conservative fundamentalists to even notice? They haven’t yet noticed that Bush is an incompetent liar and they still think Iraq was a fine idea. The reality lag for these people is measured in geological time.

So don’t wait for them. Have your facts straight, pick your battles, and tell people (politely but firmly) when they’re wrong on factual matters. Realise that it may not be possible to be ‘right’ on moral matters — they often won’t be good at realising this — so you may need to state your values clearly, and stay open to change.

Sam Harris’s response to Haidt is my favourite:

How should we live? Is it wrong to lie? If so, why and in what sense? Which personal habits, uses of attention, modes of discourse, social institutions, economic systems, governments, etc. are most conducive to human well-being? It is widely imagined that science cannot even pose, much less answer, questions of this sort.

Jonathan Haidt appears to exult in this pessimism. He doubts that anyone can justifiably make strong, realistic claims about right and wrong, or good and evil, because he has observed that human beings tend to make moral judgments on the basis of emotion, justify these judgments with post hoc reasoning, and stick to their guns even when their post hoc reasoning demonstrably fails…. This reliable failure of human reasoning is just that—a failure of reasoning.

Haidt often writes, however, as if there were no such thing as moral high ground. At the very least, he seems to believe that science will never be able to judge higher from lower. He admonishes us to get it into our thick heads that many of our neighbors “honestly prefer the Republican vision of a moral order to the one offered by Democrats.” Yes, and many of them honestly prefer the Republican vision of cosmology, wherein it is still permissible to believe that the big bang occurred less than ten thousand years ago. These same people tend to prefer Republican doubts about biological evolution and climate change. There are names for this type of “preference,” one of the more polite being “ignorance.” What scientific purpose is served by avoiding this word at all costs?

And second is Roger Schank.

It is all very nice to come up with complex analyses of what is going on. As is often the case, the real answer is quite simple. Most people can’t think very well. They were taught not to think by religion and by a school system that teaches that knowledge of state capitals and quadratic equations is what education is all about and that well reasoned argument and original ideas will not help on a multiple choice test.

We don’t try to get the average child to think in this society so why, as adults would we expect that they actually would be thinking? They think about how the Yankees are doing, and who will win some reality show contest, and what restaurant to eat it, but they are not equipped to think about politics and, in my mind, they are not equipped to vote. The fact that we let them vote while failing to encourage them to think for themselves is a real problem for our society.

Republicans do not try to change voter’s beliefs. They go with them. Democrats appeal to reason. Big mistake.

Well, that’s pretty dark. But maybe (just maybe!) this time the good guys will win. I think so, but I’m an optimist. Obama beat the Clintons, he can beat McCain. Even if he doesn’t, you have to live with yourself more than other people do. So quit your hand-wringing and your bed-wetting. You’re already part of the community on the Web that’s waging the battle of opinions, and setting the agenda for the next Information Age, comment by intelligent well-supported comment. Take heart! Be your own freaky self. Vote.

That is all.

Zombie memes and the ‘backfire effect’

Some memes just don’t die. Okay, memes about McCain and Palin stay alive because they repeat them even after they’ve been debunked. But what about Obama being a Muslim? What about that creationist on your blog who gets slapped down every week, but who keeps coming back with the same arguments?

There’s an interesting study out of Duke University (PDF here) about how some people resist correcting bad information.

They gave some conservatives and some liberals bad information about politics, and saw how it changed their opinions. When they then gave correct information, liberals adjusted their opinions back, but never quite all the way back to their former level.

When conservatives got the facts, however, they didn’t adjust their views at all. In fact, they actually believed the wrong information more.


Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration’s prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation — the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration’s claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar “backfire effect” also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.

False ideas spread quickly when people like them, and they’re incredibly difficult to quash.

Since conservatism is currently the view of choice for the most extreme reality-denying Christianists, I think it’s fair to say that religious (non-)thinking bears more than a smidgeon of the blame for this. Religious thinkers (with whom I have had many discussions) don’t change their minds easily. They think it’s good to live in a fantasy world, and anything that would dissuade them from it is actually a trick from the Crafty One. Add in all the good ol’ folks who don’t trust those fancy-pants ‘experts’ who ‘know things’ and present you with ‘facts’, and you’ve got a sizable group of conservatives.

I find this result unsurprising, but incredibly depressing. How can we have government and consensus in a country where half the people in it won’t accept accurate information, and insist on remaining delusional? And I’m not too sure about you guys in the other half, either.

Thank goodness our Democratic candidates are aware of science and reason, and aren’t trying to pander to the… the… um…

Never mind.

The MWF works through market forces.

You may have heard of Rocky Twyman, the guy who’s behind “Pray at the Pump”. Since April, they’ve been asking a supernatural being to lower gas prices. And holy Regression Fallacy! it seems to be working.

A prayer group in Washington DC is claiming the credit for the recent sharp drop in the US price of petrol.

Rocky Twyman, 59, a veteran community campaigner, started Pray At The Pump meetings at petrol stations in April.

Since then, the average price of what the US calls gasoline has fallen from more than $4 a gallon to $3.80.

“We don’t have anybody else to turn to but God,” Mr Twyman told the BBC. “We have to turn these problems over to God and not to man.”

God, schmod. Isn’t it obvious who’s behind the recent drop in petrol prices? Not supernatural beings or market forces. It’s… the Magical Wishing Ferret!


Now it’s true that no one’s been asking the Magical Wishing Ferret for his help. But that’s what makes him so great. He knows what you need, and gives it to you before you ask.

That other ‘god’ makes you go through all kinds of contortions before he’ll do anything. Sometimes you literally have to starve yourself just to get his attention, the sadist.

None of that crap for the MWF. He’s good about getting you what you want, although he needs you do the work for the sake of your character. He doesn’t require any faith (just occasional chocolate), and he’s much more deserving of admiration than other gods I could mention. And you certainly don’t have to hang out at petrol stations shouting at the sky to curry his favour.

Paradolia of the daylia

The workings of god are mysterious, so here’s some mystery meat.

What looks like the Arabic word for God and the name of the prophet Muhammad were discovered in pieces of beef by a diner in Birnin Kebbi.

He was about to eat it, when he suddenly noticed the words in the gristle, the restaurant owner said.

If I were the supreme ruler of a world full of war, crime, violence, and hunger, I couldn’t think of a better way to manifest myself than by putting my name in pieces of gristle. No, wait. Actually, I’d just be dicking with you.

I like Arabic script, even though I’ve never studied it. So I wanted to find out what the name of Allah looks like. Here it is. Not a terribly complex shape, is it?
Look like a match to you? Then you’re not looking with the eye of faith. If you were, you’d see the name of god (well, one of the names of god) any place where there are parallel lines. You’d see it everywhere, from tomatoes

to fish.

I know; it’s like so obvious on the fish. How could you yet disbelieve?

There’s a whole page of this stuff here. As you might guess, it’s pretty weak tea. Finding parallel lines is even easier than finding faces in tortillas, it would seem. And isn’t it strange that everyone finds an image that serves to confirm their own beliefs and not anyone else’s? Truly amazing.

I’d love any Arabic speakers to let me know if they’ve ever seen any blasphemous words in, say, an eggplant. Keep me posted.

Charades are SOV

When you make a sentence like “Englebert licked the donuts”, there are lots of ways to arrange Englebert and the donuts. And the licking. You could put Englebert first and the donuts somewhere later, which seems logical. Or the licking could come first, with Englebert at the end of it all and the donuts in the middle.

How you order them has a lot to do with which language you’re speaking. English speakers like to put Englebert (which your grade school teacher used to call the ‘subject’) at the front, the verb ‘licking’ next, and the donuts (the ‘object’) last. So English is a Subject-Verb-Object language, or SVO. Japanese, on the other hand, tends to go SOV.

A curious thing, though, is that about 90% of the world’s languages put the subject first, with 75% being either SVO or SOV. Only about 10 percent of the world’s languages put the object before the subject. Perhaps that’s not so strange. Subjects are the doers (usually), so it makes sense to most of us that the most active agent comes first.

That’s with words. But what kind of word order do we see when people are asked not to use words? That’s the subject (or object?) of this study.

For the study, the team tested 40 speakers of four different languages: 10 English, 10 Mandarin Chinese, 10 Spanish and 10 Turkish speakers. They showed them simple video sequences of activities and asked them to describe the action first in speech and a second time using only gestures.

When asked to describe the scenes in speech, the speakers used the word orders typical of their respective languages. English, Spanish, and Chinese speakers first produced the subject, followed by the verb, and then the object (woman twists knob). Turkish speakers first produced the subject, followed by the object, and then the verb (woman knob twists).

But when asked to describe the same scenes using only their hands, all of the adults, no matter what language they spoke, produced the same order –– subject, object, verb (woman knob twists). When asked to assemble the transparencies after watching the video sequences (another nonverbal task, but one that is not communicative), people also tended to follow the subject, object, verb ordering found in the gestures produced without speech.

Is there something about the SOV order that most closely mirrors the structure of thought? Or is it just the easiest way to get the message across?

I’m filing this under ‘complicated, but interesting’.

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