Archive for the 'Forget What You’ve Read!' category

On Language : in response to Ben Zimmer

Sep 25 2010 Published by under Forget What You've Read!

Last week, Ben Zimmer published an article in the NY Times on chunking in language.  This morning, I received an email in my inbox from one Prof Plum, who was writing to a parent (a good friend of his) to explain what was right -- and what was wrong -- with the article.  I was CC'd, as Plum thought I might enjoy the explanation.  I did!  With permission, I have included it below for any interested readers.  But first, here's Zimmer :

In recent decades, the study of language acquisition and instruction has increasingly focused on “chunking”: how children learn language not so much on a word-by-word basis but in larger “lexical chunks” or meaningful strings of words that are committed to memory. 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.” In the 1960s, the linguist Michael Halliday pointed out that we tend to talk of “strong tea” instead of “powerful tea,” even though the phrases make equal sense. Rain, on the other hand, is much more likely to be described as “heavy” than “strong.”

A native speaker picks up thousands of chunks like “heavy rain” or “make yourself at home” in childhood, and psycholinguistic research suggests that these phrases are stored and processed in the brain as individual units. As the University of Nottingham linguist Norbert Schmitt has explained, it is much less taxing cognitively to have a set of ready-made lexical chunks at our disposal than to have to work through all the possibilities of word selection and sequencing every time we open our mouths.

Plum's response covers why word-chunks are better thought of as a skill than an inventory, how we unconsciously change our speech when we talk on cellphones, and how we can learn verbal humor.

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8 responses so far

The question is : are you dumber than a rat?

Many developmental psychologists buy into an argument that suggests that children are dumber than rats.  Should you?

Human cognition is geared towards the central task of predicting the world around it.  As you may remember from an earlier post I did on the A-not-B task in infants, children aren't born understanding causal relationships right off the bat -- as a kid, you need to learn that when batter goes into the oven, it comes out as cake; when a dog jumps in water, it comes out wet; and when a shaggy-dog runs dripping through the house, mommy gets mad. As an adult, prediction operates in just about everything you do, from how much you drink at a party (who do you really want to be going home with?) to how hard you push down on the breaks (how fast do you need the car to stop?) to what you think I'm going to say next (yep, there's lots of evidence that you're predicting my words in a manner not wholly unlike Google auto-complete).

One thing that matters immensely in all of this is informativity.  There are many illusory correlations in the world that you might forge -- how do you establish the causal links that matter and are meaningful?

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33 responses so far

Mollies, PokeBalls, and Naked Ladies : A Topsy-Turvy Lesson in Learning Words from Context

This morning, I scrawled a letter to a friend that began with the following:

Spent the weekend at the FyeahFest with a starry-eyed lot of starving hipsters, in vintage hops and wingtips. Had not realized how obvious the effects of doing molly are on the pupils… the droves wandering past had eyes like shining saucers.

Unlike my trusted ami de plume, you may not know what on the lord's green earth I just said.  In particular,  if you’re not into psychedelics or don’t know anyone who is, you may be wondering just what ‘molly’ is, anyway.  The extraordinary thing is that -- odds are -- even if you’ve never heard the word used before, you can probably wager a pretty good guess as to what it means.

Take a moment.  What’s your bet?

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7 responses so far

But Science Doesn't Work That Way : Miller and Chomsky (1963)

Sep 02 2010 Published by under Forget What You've Read!

In this post, our heroine -- spurred on by her godly pursuit of science and a bevy of caffeinated drinks -- compares the standard approach to language to intelligent design.  It might get noodly.

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31 responses so far

The Long Tail of Language

Aug 31 2010 Published by under Forget What You've Read!, From the Melodye Files

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.  Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!”
–Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

My apologies to readers who may be wondering when the promised series would materialize.  The weekend was spent taking snaps of Laura La Rue and drinking double-digit vino in the kitchen with Professor Plum and Miss Scarlet.  If this science-thing doesn’t work out, I’m off to join the jet-set.  I’m still wondering if it’s possible to style myself after a desperately bespectacled Grace Kelly?

(More on that later…)

In any case : in today’s posting, I take up a rather curious property of human languages that you may have never properly been introduced to.  And that property is Zipfian.

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5 responses so far

Why dictionaries don't supply meaning : Miller on communication

Aug 26 2010 Published by under Forget What You've Read!

At the moment, I am taking a (temporary) break from my furious critiquing of peer review, and have begun working busily on a new series about the workings of human languages.  Writing about this is for a general audience is hard, particularly because I suspect that many people have unexamined intuitive views about language that might be very different from the view I am trying to put forth. Additionally, if you're a linguist, an analytic philosopher, or a psychologist studying language, you will likely have a long-held world view that my writings may challenge.  (It's all rather intimidating, really...)

But in any case, one of the serious puzzles that I'll be piecing together in upcoming posts is how on earth we are able to communicate about the wonderful complexity of the world through a noisy, lo-fi channel (speech).  Some of the most important questions I'll be asking are : How do we understand what someone means through words?  How do we communicate meaningfully through words when we speak?  What is the relationship between words and the world?

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15 responses so far

Eyes Wide Shut : A Field in Search of a Science

Aug 25 2010 Published by under Forget What You've Read!

Today's post is the third in a series on the politics of ideas, and examines the current political climate of psychology and cognitive science.  In earlier posts, I discussed how certain crooked editorial practices can effectively subvert the review process, and how lack of transparency in review breeds precisely the kind of culture that anonymous-review was designed to undermine.  Today, I address the question of why these problems exist in the first place, and explore how changing the culture of review may also change the culture of the field -- for the better.  Enclosed are tales of incest, money laundering, and epicycles.  Count yourself forewarned.  If you would like to skip straight to my practical suggestions, these can be found in the second-to-last section: "Changing the Culture through the Journals."

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19 responses so far

Eyes Wide Shut : The Anonymous Workings of Peer Review

Aug 24 2010 Published by under Forget What You've Read!, Links Best Served Cold


Since my writings on the Hauser controversy several weeks ago, I have watched the scandal unfold with some interest.  This is not least because the post I wrote was subjected to some fairly vicious attacks, both in the comments section and in comments on other blogs.  I was accused of ‘gossip-mongering’ and ‘idle speculation,’ among other, less savory activities.  On one blog, it was even suggested that I had anonymously commented on my own post as a supposed ‘insider’ to lend credence to my story.  (For the record : come on!)

Given the potential fall-out for researchers associated with Hauser, I can understand why tempers might be running hot.  However, one of the things that has interested me throughout the process, is that all of the nastiest comments I’ve received have been anonymous.  Certainly, there have been self-identified researchers who politely disagreed with me or pressed me to justify or clarify certain statements.  Yet, for the most part, hostility arose from the nameless.  Anonymity, it would seem, empowered commentors to lash out against me in a way that I expect they never would in ‘real life’ [1, 2].

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47 responses so far

The Development of Causal Reasoning: On Optimal Search in the A-not-B task

Aug 16 2010 Published by under Forget What You've Read!, From the Melodye Files

I am a horribly forgetful girl.

Which is a funny thing to say, really, because I’m not quite sure whether it’s my memory that’s bad or my attention.  Recently, for instance, I spent several hours searching for my phone to no avail, only to find (the following morning) that I had left it in my underwear drawer.  It reminded me of when I left my driver’s license in the refrigerator with my passport; or the time I put a bowl of ice-cream in the oven for safekeeping.

It is desperately hard to ‘find’ things again once I’ve committed such an error, because there is simply no logical way to retrace my steps.  “Ah yes, the oven!  A perfect place to stow the ice-cream…”

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9 responses so far

Is The Child The Father of the Man?

One of the fundamental themes (and a continuing debate) in developmental psychology concerns the continuity or discontinuity of temperament and personality from infancy through the rest of a child’s life and into adulthood.

Some researchers believe that they have found evidence for the continuity of relatively stable personality traits through development. Despite the clear importance of environmental stressors and other random events, the evidence seems fairly clear that the personality traits that dictate the response pattern to such life events in adulthood is fairly predictable based on early childhood temperament.

ResearchBlogging.orgSchwartz and colleagues, in 2003, investigated amygdalar responses to novelty in adults who had been previously classified as inhibited or uninhibited at age two. (The amygdala, a part of the limbic system, has been shown to be involved in the processing of emotional information.) Children classified as inhibited tend to be shy around people, objects, or situations which are unfamiliar, while uninhibited children tend to approach or even seek out novel people, objects, or situations. They hypothesized that there would be neural differences between the two groups, particularly in response to novel versus familiar faces. The hypothesis was confirmed for this sample, as the two groups had different responses to the stimuli in this fMRI study. One interpretation of these results is that there is continuity in temperament at least to early adulthood, although only a longitudinal study could truly address that question. This study found a correlation between early temperament categorization and adult amygdala activity, which leaves open several possible alternative interpretations.

Caspi, in 2000, gave somewhat more convincing longitudinal evidence that there is developmental continuity of temperament, using data from the Dunedin longitudinal study. In general terms, he found that undercontrolled (uninhibited) three year olds grew up to become impulsive, unreliable, and antisocial, while inhibited three year olds became unassertive and depressed, and had less social support.

More specifically, undercontrolled toddlers were rated by teachers and parents as having more externalizing problems at age 5, 7, 9, and 11. In adolescence (age 13 and 15), the undercontrolled toddlers continued to have externalizing behavior problems, and they showed more internalizing problems as well. The inhibited children had significantly more internalizing problems than the undercontrolled or control groups.

By age 18, the undercontrolled children were low on traits designed to measure constraint. In self-descriptions, terms used included “reckless” and “careless”, and they indicated low harm avoidance. They scored high on negative emotionality measures. They also reported high aggression and alienation. Much of these findings are consistent with the findings from early adolescence. The inhibited children were low on the constraint measurements, and low in positive emotionality. They self-reported high self-control, high harm avoidance, and low aggression. They also reported low social potency – that is, they shied away from leadership roles. Informant ratings at age 21 were consistent with these self-ratings at age 18. Finally, by age 21, undercontrolled children were involved in conflicted relationships; inhibited children had significantly higher social support. Similar significant patterns were also found by age 21 for employment, psychopathology, and criminal behavior.

Ultimately, a considerable amount of data from these studies and others suggest that adult personality is indeed predictable from childhood temperament, but that still does not explain why this is so. A more comprehensive view, accounting for biological, cognitive, emotional, social, and environmental factors, is necessary. Despite the fact that random life encounters cannot be predicted, stable differences in personality likely influences how such events are subjectively experienced.

Image Source

Schwartz, C. (2003). Inhibited and Uninhibited Infants "Grown Up": Adult Amygdalar Response to Novelty Science, 300 (5627), 1952-1953 DOI: 10.1126/science.1083703

Caspi, A. (2000). The child is father of the man: Personality continuities from childhood to adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78 (1), 158-172 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.78.1.158

3 responses so far

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