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The Universal Melodies of Baby Talk and the Power of Sound

baby talk 2

Solving the enigma of baby talk, or why we speak to wee ones in a language quite different from the one we exchange with grown-ups, defies logic. Despite what may seem as a humiliating assault on the English language, people all over the world do it—that is, communicate to newborns in high-pitched squeals, oohs and ahhs.

Recently, a fascinating piece aired on Radio Lab explored this topic, as a prelude to a larger theme of the power of sound.

Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich interviewed Anne Fernal, director of the Center for Infant Studies at Stanford University. Years ago, Dr. Fernal observed mothers at a hospital in Germany speaking different languages (Turkish, Greek, Sicilian, etc.) to babies, which collectively created what she describes as a “deep universal music.” Despite the language differences, the women expressed the same intonations in sound when speaking to the children. She traveled all over the world, and corroborated her findings that there are universal melodies of baby talk:

“I found four universal melodies (expressed to convey the commands or actions) to praise, to stop, to call attention to and to comfort…”

“To praise” elicits a melody of a high, then low note, while “to stop” is abrupt, sharp and in musical terms, staccato.

Host Krulwich narrates:

“This is music that is understood by infants who are just new in the world—but we all know what it means…we all know these songs.”

Dr. Fernal continues:

“We often think of speech as being about something, but to me these songs aren’t about something, but feel more like touch, at a distance.”

The Radio Lab episode, titled “Sound as Touch” guides us through a scientific journey of what this all means—sound stimulates brain activity, which triggers emotions, which help us make sense of the initial sound, etc. Overall, it illuminates the power of sound in our lives—its ability to do more than just communicate, but to generate emotions, a sense of familiarity, or to alert us to threats, even danger.

Here’s the full audio:

Dr. Fernal, in her work, demonstrates four universal melodies we communicate to newborns, but teases our imaginations of what else. Are there others that we express to each other—a code of songs, or sounds— that are universal in nature, but not yet deciphered? Radio Lab‘s “Sound as Touch” doesn’t venture there, but instead considers sound’s psychological impact, and our amazing ability to process what we hear, internalize its message and react.

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The Lessons Learned from Ants


Today we face problems unlike those in the past—technological security threats, environment-related illness (e.g. cancer) and food shortages—to name a few, in a world whose population is bursting at the seams; and yet, though our plights may be contemporary, the path to better understanding them may reside in our backyard, in insects millions of years old.

Ants, the arthropods that astound us with their strength and work efficiency, behave in such a way that sheds light on how systems, specifically simple systems, work. Just as various models teach us how to understand behavior and the way things operate—imagine neural networks of the brain, for example, as a metaphor for understanding how people make decisions—so too does ant behavior.

Deborah Gordon, an ant scientist, recently gave a 14-minute TED talk that illuminated the value of ants. She’s on a mission to collect “ant collective search algorithms,” or in other words, maps of ants at work, in an effort to better understand how other systems, like computers or the spread of cancer, function. Here are some highlights:

 “Now, the Internet uses an algorithm to regulate the flow of data that’s very similar to the one that the harvester ants are using to regulate the flow of foragers…So data doesn’t leave the source computer unless it gets a signal that there’s enough bandwidth for it to travel on. In the early days of the Internet, when operating costs were really high and it was really important not to lose any data, then the system was set up for interactions to activate the flow of data. It’s interesting that the ants are using an algorithm that’s so similar to the one that we recently invented, but this is only one of a handful of ant algorithms that we know about, and ants have had 130 million years to evolve a lot of good ones, and I think it’s very likely that some of the other 12,000 species are going to have interesting algorithms for data networks that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

The inner workings of an ant colony may not be that of a computer processing system (or a fast-paced business, or collaborative project), but certainly lessons can be learned from the numerous patterns of behaviors that have evolved since the dawn of time. The sea, a dominant force of nature, teaches us to respect and, at times, surrender to things out of our control. Ants too, in all their seeming chaos, have developed organization that could help inform, or at a minimum, inspire how we manage our own lives.

Ms. Gordon knows this, and her imagination runs wild with ideas of how ants can help us. About treating cancer, she says:

“There are many different kinds of cancer. Each one originates in a particular part of the body, and then some kinds of cancer will spread or metastasize to particular other tissues where they must be getting resources that they need. So if you think from the perspective of early metastatic cancer cells as they’re out searching around for the resources that they need, if those resources are clustered, they’re likely to use interactions for recruitment, and if we can figure out how cancer cells are recruiting, then maybe we could set traps to catch them before they become established.”

Here’s the video in its entirety:

To sum it up, Ms. Gordon ends with this:

“So ants are using interactions in different ways in a huge variety of environments, and we could learn from this about other systems that operate without central control. Using only simple interactions, ant colonies have been performing amazing feats for more than 130 million years. We have a lot to learn from them.”

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An Existential Journey of Wonder with Animator Xiangjun Shi

Contemplating your place in the universe? Xiangjun Shi did, and she created this marvelous animation about it. Enjoy!




The Secret Chatter of Plants


As the case with many posts on the outdoor world, what is most certain in an age of science, investigation and exploration is the mystery that surrounds nature and its effects; we simply don’t know everything, and the more we dig, sometimes all we get are more questions.

Recently, NPR featured a spot on plants, specifically on plants that “talk” to each other. It is spring now, and the Earth is beginning to unveil its awakened harvest. Life is in bloom all around us—growing, reaching high, responding in ways that make clear to us humans that the natural world is thriving, that it is alive. When I came upon this story, I was primed to believe its premise was true. But is it really possible, for plants to communicate to one another?

According to NPR’s Robert Krulwich:

“When a leafy plant is under attack, it doesn’t sit quietly. Back in 1983, two scientists, Jack Schultz and Ian Baldwin, reported that young maple saplings getting bitten by insects release a spurt of chemicals that float through the air. You and I wouldn’t notice, but these chemicals carry a slight odor that neighboring plants can detect. It’s a little like a silent scream. These chemicals come from the injured parts of the plant and seem to be an alarm. Maybe not an intentional warning like, ‘Watch Out! Aphid Attack!’ but more like a simple distress call like, ‘Aphids! Aphids! Aphids!’ or, ‘Attack! Attack!’ The chemicals the plants pump through the air are a blend of organic molecules — alcohols, aldehydes, ketones and esters — known as volatile organic compounds, VOCs for short.”

In other words, an injured plant alerts a neighbor, which may take it upon itself to summon the infantry of the wild—in the case of the bean plant attack by aphids, wasps. Is this communication intentional, or random? According to NPR’s segment, scientists aren’t sure, but they are nevertheless stunned:

“But, the more they [scientists] look, the more they discover plants chattering. ‘It’s pretty spectacular what plants do,’ Ted Farmer of the University of Lausanne said. ‘I’m amazed.’”

Mr. Farmer is not the only academic to believe in this wonder. Richard Karban, of the University of California, Davis, corroborated the findings in The Scientist Magazine, and shared his enthusiasm:

“In last 15 years the idea that plants are communicating has become much more accepted. It’s exciting to unravel all these different realms of plant communication.”

But where does this leave us, as living organisms inhabiting a shared space, with other flourishing species? Why are plants sounding the alarms? Is it intentional? And to what or whom is the communication directed? Inquiring minds want to know.

The most comprehensive write-up on this topic was a piece last December by Kat McGowan, published in Quanta Magazine. In it, she sums up our curiosity and recommends an approach familiar to those in the fields of humanities—an empathetic one:

“Whether or not such practical applications come to pass, the science of plant talk is challenging long-held definitions of communication and behavior as the sole province of animals. Each discovery erodes what we thought we knew about what plants do and what they can do. To learn what else they’re capable of, we have to stop anthropomorphizing plants, said [Ian] Baldwin (of Dartmouth University), who is now at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and try instead to think like them, to phytomorphize ourselves. Imagining what it’s like to be a plant, he said, will be the way to understand how and why they communicate — and make their secret lives a mystery no longer.”

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Why Risk Takers Go For It And Others Pause


Risk takers may not crave thrills and danger merely based on bravado or desire. According to researchers, they may roll the dice, however unwisely, because they simply can’t help themselves.

The site Eureka Alert recently reported:

“We all have these desires, but whether we act on them is a function of control,” says Sarah Helfinstein, a postdoctoral researcher at UT Austin and lead author of the study that appears online…in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study’s findings were based on data from 108 subjects who sat in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner — a machine that allows researchers to pinpoint brain activity in vivid, three-dimensional images — while playing a video game that simulates risk-taking.

The researchers used specialized software to look for patterns of activity across the whole brain that preceded a person’s making a risky choice or a safe choice in one set of subjects. Then they asked the software to predict what other subjects would choose during the game based solely on their brain activity. The software accurately predicted people’s choices 71 percent of the time.

“These patterns are reliable enough that not only can we predict what will happen in an additional test on the same person, but on people we haven’t seen before,” said Russ Poldrack, director of UT Austin’s Imaging Research Center and professor of psychology and neuroscience.

In other words, some individuals are risky because they’re wired that way. If this is true (and more research is needed to corroborate the findings), then real-world implications could be far-reaching for those who engage in unsafe sex or drug abuse, for example. As Ms. Helfinstein states:

“If we can figure out the factors in the world that influence the brain, we can draw conclusions about what actions are best at helping people resist risks.”

This is not to say that all risky behavior is nefarious. In fact, in American culture, risk is often associated with success. Where the consequences of failure are severe for some decisions, the reward is also great. It is not uncommon to hear of risk takers depicted as trail blazers. Last Fall, for example, the Huffington Post ran a piece called “7 Reasons Why Risk-Taking Leads To Success.” Their list included reasons such as:

  • Taking risks shows confidence and helps you stand out.
  • Success won’t fall in your lap — you have to pursue it.
  • You don’t achieve your dreams by playing it safe.

While well-intentioned risks (applying for an ambitious job, telling a joke in front of a tough crowd, etc.) are more complicated than the bullet points that recommend them, they nevertheless can be gambles worth taking; challenging the status quo and pushing our boundaries brings us one step closer to understanding the “sweet spot”—that perfect balance of hard-earned achievement and personal security.

This sweet spot may be more difficult to assess for the overly-risky person lacking degrees of self-control, but that does not necessarily have to exclude them. Self-awareness and the support of close friends help to identify one’s tendencies (healthy or not), which ultimately, can provide a more accurate reading of risk—the decisions worth making, and the ones best avoided.

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Children Ponder Life’s Big Questions, Judge Scientists’ Responses

Children will judge scientists' explanations to the question "What is Color?" for The Flame Challenge.

One of the most fascinating displays of meaning-making is that of a child, contemplating the mysteries of the universe.  A young mind, wild with wonder and unbound by inhibition, often reveals truths about our world that as adults, we have a hard time accessing.

One contest, in the spirit of championing science, has the pleasure of gathering hundreds of questions from 11-year-olds around the world. The Flame Challenge, spearheaded by actor Alan Alda, reviews childrens’ deepest questions and chooses the most popular and prominent one. Scientists from all over then compete to answer the question, in a way that’s informative and enlightening to an 11-year-old. The best part: Winners are picked by the students and honored at the World Science Festival. This year’s question:

What is color?

According to the project’s website:

“It’s a fundamental question that spans the sciences. It can be answered from the perspective of physics, chemistry, psychology, even from a geological or oceanographic perspective…Many different questions were asked about color, including ‘Is my blue their blue?’ ‘Does everyone see color the same?’ and, even one of the most classic childhood questions, ‘Why is the sky blue?’”

One of my questions as a child was “When exactly do we grow?” Because I knew, that even if I didn’t understand the science behind the answer, I wanted to feel, to witness, my limbs elongating, my chest swelling (yes, it’s true), before my eyes.

This is the third time around for the contest. Previous questions included: What is a flame? and What is time?

For those scientists out there who hope to explain this year’s question, keep in mind a former judge’s sage advice: “Remember, we are 11, not seven.”

And with that, and an inquisitive two-and-a-half year old, I have a great deal to look forward to in the coming years.

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