Thursday, August 28, 2008

Nursery words

Here's an article about a study of why "nursery words" exist in so many languages. Nursery words are things like mama (English), papa (Italian), baba (Ukrainian), and titi (Hungarian).

The study examined brain scans of babies as they listened to various words: "Brain activity increased in the babies' temporal and left frontal areas whenever the repetitious words [baba or nana] were played. Words with non-adjacent repetitions ('bamuba' or 'napena') elicited no distinctive responses from the brain."

The experiments showed that "The brain areas that are responsible for language in an adult do not 'learn' how to process language during development, but rather, they are specialized — at least in part — to process language from the start."

My own $0.02 here is that this is just one aspect of the mind's penchant for pattern recognition. As we evolved, our minds were selected for their ability to recognize patterns in whatever we perceive. This study is a wonderful example of why - the newborn brain can recognize a pattern of repeated syllables (baba) but isn't yet sophisticated enough to recognize the repetition when there is noise in the signal (bamuba).

The infant brain is flooded with new inputs as it adapts to life outside the womb. With no context for any of it - with no existing mental model of the world - all of the sights, sounds, smells etc are essentially random noise. The baby has no frame of reference to distinguish one perception from another: at first, the mother and the father aren't any more noteworthy to a newborn than the janitor or photographer. The babe's brain takes its best shot at building symbols for all the things it sees, but as various symbols fail to re-occur, they wither and fade out. It is only the repetition of seeing the mother over and over again that reinforces that symbol in the brain and allows the baby's mind to say "this is not a random image I keep seeing".

Similarly, the baby has no instinctive way to know that a conversation between its parents is a type of sound any more relevant than the sound of a door closing or window opening. But the repetition of "parents talking" especially in concert with the repetition of seeing the parents over and over again lets the baby's brain start to recognize that the sounds are not random. From there, it's a short step to assigning meaning to some of those sounds - how natural that the first words a baby learns feature both the repetition of syllables ('mama') and an association to a highly non-random image (the mother's face.)

I wonder if you repeated the study, but instead of using repeated syllables (nursery words) you used repeated sound effects (a drum roll, maybe?) the same areas in the brain would fire. I don't know if there's anything magic about the fact that it is a word that the babies heard that matters - after all, baby animals learn to assign meaning to the sound of their parents (screeches, roars, hisses, etc) without speaking Italian.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The future doesn't need universities

Easyrider made an interesting comment in response to my last post. He says that the internet basically allows any given amateur - if determined enough - to rival any given academic on a particular topic.
I'm sure academics would tear into this with gusto (in which case, please use the comments section of this blog :) but the idea reminds me (as many things do lately) of Clay Shirky's talk on TED about distributed organization versus hierarchy.

Shirky made the point that when communication costs were prohibitive, you'd tackle a problem by founding an organization, raising resources, incurring overhead, and directing the people involved. He also suggests that as soon as you create an organization, its primary goal becomes self-preservation, and whatever goal you were trying to meet becomes its secondary (or worse) objective.

In one of his articles, Shirky talks about how blogging has enabled the mass-amateurization of writing. In other words, if you wanted to be a writer, you used to have to get a job at a newspaper/magazine or convince a publisher to publish your novel. Nowadays, any hack with a keyboard and an internet connection can put something out there for the whole world to see (c.f. this page...)

When I ponder Shirky's two points in relation to Easy's comment, I have to wonder: what is it about a university campus that makes it so special? There's no denying that it's nice to be in the same general area as a bunch of other people who share your interests. But there are a whole lot more people out there in the world who share your interests than can possibly fit onto a single campus - why exclude them from the group of people with whom you study subject X?

Basically, a university is one of those old-world insitutions that was created to solve a problem of communication and coordination: how do we preserve, pass on, and add to the body of knowledge in subject X (economics, biology, politics, etc.) The answer in the past was necessarily: rent a building, pay some experts to hang around in it, and charge admission to the rest of the world...

Now, though, you might wonder: do we still need universities? Certainly the many courses that are already offered in a "Distance Education" format suggest that we don't. But just as certainly, there are many courses with experimental components that can't be replaced by reading a page on your laptop (...not looking forward to having surgery done by the guy who got his certification online...) And at a bare minimum, a university is a probably-trustworthy source for identifying experts; on the internet, it can be hard to verify someone's credentials (Wikipedia, for example, has suffered from this...)

So I think the answer is: we will always need experts, and we still need physical resources for certain types of learning (physical sciences, medicine, etc.) But what we maybe don't need is (to paraphrase the Shirky quote in my last article) to be "genuflecting to the idea of a university degree."

How can we enable the 90% of the world who may be interested in subject X (but don't attend a university for whatever reason) to contribute to X? Rather than settle for a 1-in-a-billion Einstein to break through the walls of academia and contribute -- how can we make it easier for the other 999,999,999 amateurs to participate?

Here's one way to start: every professor in the world could publish to the web a set of "open questions", with forum responses enabled. To paraphrase yet another quote: "with enough eyes, every problem is shallow." How long would it be before people start chipping in answers to the open questions of subject X?

PS: this can only work if the system guarantees that people who participate in answering a question are forever associated to the answer. The thing would fail instantly if a prof could delete any post responding to his questions, and so delete the winning answer to publish it for himself...