The methods of identifying a killer are as numerous as the methods of killing a person, but how reliable are they really?
In a paper co-written by Noam Chomsky in 2002, its authors claim recursion is the only “uniquely human component of the faculty of language.” Imagine Chomsky’s surprise, then, when linguist Daniel Everett published a paper 3 years later claiming to have found an Amazonian tribe whose language exhibited no sign of recursion, along with various other features appearing to go some way to disproving Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar. Everett’s findings are far from conclusive and difficult to verify, and accordingly, the scholarly debate has been furious.
The Interpreter, John Colapinto
Chomsky, the Pirahã, and turduckens of the Amazon, Daniel Harbour
Angry Words, Tom Bartlett
How Do You Say ‘Disagreement’ in Pirahã?, Jennifer Schuessler
The Rise and Fall of a Venomous Dispute, Geoffrey Pullum
Squabble, Mark Liberman
The internet might be making it easy to spoil the pleasure of a great illusion, but greats like Ricky Jay and Penn and Teller will never be forgotten, and magic might yet have a few tricks to teach: neuroscientists are looking closely at what magic can tell us about the brain, and the CIA hired a magician to write a manual on soldier deception.
Synesthesia is a neurological condition characterised by the stimulation of one sense causing an involuntary reaction from another sense. Although its study went out of fashion in the 19th century, the last decade or so has seen a resurgence in the study of its genetics, how it works, and how its study might be applied to other areas of science.
Synesthesia is most commonly exemplified by letters perceived as having distinct, inherent colors — grapheme-color synesthesia — although the form it can take is limited, in theory, only by the number of possible combinations of different senses. Vladimir Nabokov, as well as his wife and child, famously “suffered” from this type of synesthesia, which he described in an interview in 1962:
V is a kind of pale, transparent pink: I think it’s called, technically, quartz pink: this is one of the closest colors that I can connect with the V. And the N, on the other hand, is a greyish-yellowish oatmeal color. But a funny thing happens: my wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too, but her colors are completely different. There are, perhaps, two or three letters where we coincide, but otherwise the colors are quite different.
It turned out, we discovered one day, that my son, who was a little boy at the time — I think he was 10 or 11 — sees letters in colors, too. Quite naturally he would say, “Oh, this isn’t that color, this is this color,” and so on. Then we asked him to list his colors and we discovered that in one case, one letter which he sees as purple, or perhaps mauve, is pink to me and blue to my wife. This is the letter M. So the combination of pink and blue makes lilac in his case. Which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle.
The earliest scientific study found that grapheme-color synesthetes had persistent, stable visualizations of letter colors, but did not share them with other synesthetes, who might see particular letters and symbols in a different color. For a long time, the research stopped here as cognitivism went out of fashion and behaviorism rose in popularity, but more recent research proving it was a genuine phenomenon has resulted in a resurgence in its popularity.
For some time it was believed that synaesthesia was not a “real” psychological condition and that subjects were merely confabulating - making up - the entire experience, or that they were speaking metaphorically (e.g. “She has a very sharp voice.”). Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen’s “gold standard” test changed this markedly. Baron-Cohen’s test was simple: he recorded subjects’ grapheme-colour associations, and then tested them using the same lists several months or years later. Synaesthetes performed significantly better than control subjects, showing that they could not be confabulating.
A later test by Ramachandran further established the legitimacy of synaesthesia. While Baron-Cohen’s test illustrated the stability of grapheme-colour associations, it did not show that they were necessarily perceptual. In other words, Baron-Cohen’s synaesthetes could have had a photographic memory and simply memorised the associations between the graphemes and colours without actually experiencing them perceptually. Ramachandran’s test employed “pop out”, a phenomenon well known to psychologists. This phenomenon can be easily demonstrated by looking at a field of identical characters and asking subjects to pick out the characters that are anomalous, for example, by dint of having a different colour or shape to the rest. The anomalous characters appear to “pop out” to the subject, allowing for near instantaneous identification.
The cause of synesthesia is still subject to research, but it’s generally believed to be the result of a genetic mutation on the X chromosome, explaining its dominance in woman and high heritability. Some researchers think its heritability could suggest an evolutionary benefit. Sickle cell anemia, for example, can be deadly, but also provides malaria immunity. Does synesthesia provide a similar benefit?
It might if you’re a mathmetician or an artist. One of the peculiarities of some forms of synesthesia is that equations are visualised in 3D space, which might help someone like physicist Richard Feynmann, another famous synesthete, with his work. David Hockney, also a synesthete, once told Robert Burton that when he was designing a piece of art intended to accompany a production of a Maurice Ravel piece, he listened to the relevant section of the score and “the tree painted itself.” It’s also been suggested that savants like Daniel Tammett get their incredible skills from a combination of autism and synesthesia, using it to help visualise complex memory recall tasks like recounting pi, or performing absurd mental arithmetic.
This similarity in function is driving much of the current research into synesthesia. Recent neuroimaging advances enable visualization of synesthetes’ brains and are helping scientists see the brain as a bundle interwoven connections, rather than discrete areas serving a single purpose. It’s hoped that this kind of research might be applicable to less understood disorders like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, that are also caused by abnormal brain function.
“We’re trying to understand how a different activity pattern in your brain can change the way you perceive reality,” says Tomson, pointing out that studying disorders such as depression or schizophrenia in people who already have the disorder can be tricky. Not only are the network properties of these illnesses more complex than the relatively simple circuitry involved with synesthesia, but patients are often on medication, which makes it impossible to tell how their brains would function on their own.
“Synesthesia is a perfect model because we have a healthy brain that has some kind of perceptual tweak that changes the relationship between various regions of the brain,” she says
A recent paper by David Eagleman — best known for his work on time perception, but also responsible for a great deal of study into synesthesia — argues synsthesia falls on a spectrum (like autism) as the product of multiple neuronal processes gone awry, causing unusual cognitive pairings. Other studies suggest most people have the capacity for this “sensory crosstalk,” especially when we’re younger and our neural networks have yet to streamline. One study by V.S. Ramachandran helped a young man with Asperger’s communicate his emotions by instructing him to assign a color to them. Eventually, he was able to gauge his feelings about a person by the color of their “halo.”
(Image via The Art Blog)
Online dating is in the spotlight again with a study to be published later this month arguing that the methods of online pairing are unlikely to be as effective as the dating sites would like you to think. The authors’ column in the New York Times’ Sunday Review says that the past 80 years of research into compatibility suggests the most useful factors determining success in a relationship emerge only after two people meet; factors like communication patterns, sexual compatibility, and problem-solving. Arbitrary similarity, therefore, is a relatively poor indicator of future success in a relationship.
This is well-trodden ground: as of 2009 the internet was the third most common way to meet new people and the pros and cons of online dating and algorithms like Match.com’s have been debated endlessly since at least then. Even the New Yorker saw fit to go long on the subject last year.
(Image via Flickr)
The Science of Mysteries
Realising they shared an interest in classic murder mysteries, the science writers Deborah Blum, Jennifer Ouellette, and Ann Finkbeiner have been writing occasional posts on the science in mystery books and publishing them in tandem on their respective blogs. Turns out there’s a surprising amount of science in murder mysteries.
The first series started with Jennifer Oullette on the singing sand from Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands. Singing sand is a real, rare phenomenon that only 30 sand dunes worldwide exhibit that puzzled scientists at first. Sand, as it turns out, is pretty interesting from a physics standpoint. Oullette also wrote about total eclipses, which inspired Jane Langton’s Dark Nantucket Noon and the science of bells and change-ringing, a large component of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Ann Finkbeiner’s first post of the series looked at geology and rivers in relation to Josephine Tey’s mystery To Love and Be Wise, and Deborah Blum wrote about toxicology and Dorothy L. Sayers’ book Strong Poison.
In the most recent series of posts, Jennifer Oullette looks at the physics of music, starting with counterpoint — the musical technique of intertwining two or more voices in musical dialogue — which Lord Wimsey famously noted his preference for in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Deborah Blum follows up her previous poisonous post with a look at Agatha Christie’s obsession with poison, starting with her very first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. And Ann Finkbeiner rounds out the latest series with a post on Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club and post traumatic stress syndrome in the aftermath of World War I.
There have been plenty of high profile crowds in the last year or so, with Anonymous protests, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the London Riots, to mention just a few.
Generally, crowds are well-behaved as long as somebody is in control, or appears to be, but when things get out of control as they did at a Walmart last Black Friday, a crowd can quickly become dangerous. Scientists have been studying crowd control for a long time in an effort to improve the safety of large groups of people, and have come up with an impressive array of tools for controlling them when the need arises. This kind of research is becoming increasingly important as technology enables large gatherings at short notice.
Something that can quickly turn a crowd’s behavior is deindividuation. When you become a part of a large group you lose your sense of individual identity through a sense of anonymity and diffused repsonsibility and take on the social identity of the group. This was evident most recently in the London riots, when the British police found themselves unable to control roaming mobs of youths.
This being 2012, deindividuation in a crowd can also be observed on a daily basis online, as hordes of people spew bile in comment fields across the web, such as in the case of the Korean popstar whose career was ruined by a misinformed lynch mob. Curiously, the utility of comments continues to be debated.
(Image via Harvard Magazine)
The Mystery of Whales
The evolution of whales is fascinating. What was once heralded by creationists as the best evidence against evolution has become, in a span of only 30 years, one of the most convincing proofs of Darwinian evolution.
It began in the 1800s, with the discovery of a fossilized Basilosaurus. It was unquestionably a mammal, but it also shared features of marine reptiles. Only one creature’s bones matched its inner ear: whales. Yet the Basilosaurus also had legs, and even knees and toes. This prompted a thought experiment by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species. He posited that black bears, often seen by explorers swimming with its mouth wide open to catch insects, could have adapted through natural selection until eventually becoming a whale. He was widely ridiculed by creationists, who argued that mammals that adapted to aquatic life would be incapable of surviving, and the mystery stood for over a century.
It would be the 1970s before progress was made, when Philip Gingerich unwittingly took up the case — he was researching the rise of mammals at the beginning of the Eocene epoch and found pelvic bones jokingly attributed to “walking whales” in what turned out to be dry riverbeds. Further research led by Gingerich and other paleontologists over the next 30 years helped scientists fill in the full, surprising evolutionary story of whales. In the end, Darwin wasn’t far off.
- Another evolutionary mystery surrounding whales is how fin whales, which eat by swallowing up to 160% of their body weight in water and filtering krill and small invertebrates out of it, got so big. Turns out it has a lot to do with parachutes.
- Tall tales abound — from the days of the Bible — of men being swallowed whole by whales and surviving, but is it even possible?
- Oh, and whale poop is great for the ocean.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is currently undergoing an update and one specific section causing some controversy is an appendix on culture-bound syndromes: mental illnesses that, in theory, occur only within a specific society.
One of the more well-documented culture-bound syndromes is Hyperstartle Syndrome, widely observed in Malaysia, where its sufferers are referred to as latahs. When startled a latah can go into a prolonged state of surprise, with uncontrollable physical tics, blurting out offensive phrases, and later remembering nothing. Another is known as “Amok” (and the orgin of the phrase “running amok”), where a person goes into a sudden and sometimes homicidal rage. Another, Koro, results in its sufferers believing their genitals are receding into their bodies or have been stolen.
These illnesses are controversial because they question the nature of the West’s notion of mental illness, which is largely based on a biological model — that is, it assumes mental orders arise from neurological disorder, and should be universal. Even in the West this model’s shortcomings can be observed in disorders like anorexia nervosa, suffered almost exclusively by Western women. Culture-bound syndromes suggest a person’s environment can breed mental illnesses specific to their culture, that can’t necessarily be treated with medication.
The current version of the DSM lists 25 known culture-bound syndromes, but some scholars believe as many as 175 could exist. If the critics get their way, the next version, expected in 2013, may not list any of them.
In Inside Darwin’s Tumor, Carl Zimmer revisits evolution in cancer to explain how recent advances in genome sequencing technology have enabled scientists to study cancer in a way they’ve never been able to before. They’ve found that cancer cells evolve in the same way free-living organisms do to become more aggressive and dangerous.
Thanks to a lot of help from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, India is reporting its first full year without a new case of Polio. The battle to eradicate Polio worldwide is now in its endgame, with success hinging on making sure the vaccine itself doesn’t keep the disease going. While the eradication of Polio is going well, India’s problems with Tuberculosis continue: last week news broke that at least 12 cases of completely drug-resistant TB have been discovered. Meanwhile, illicit chemists in New Delhi are creating drug addicts and contributing to the spread of HIV.
(Image via Grantland/US Presswire)
The NFL’s Concussion Problem
More than a dozen lawsuits filed on behalf of over 120 NFL football players will reach the courts this year. The suits claim the NFL deliberately concealed information on the neurological effects of repeated strikes to the head. This is an issue that’s been affecting the league since as far back as 1994, when the NFL formed the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee to investigate the dangers of concussion. It’s been largely an embarrassment for the NFL, but some good has come out of it.
Ann McKee, who heads the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy in Massachusetts has been studying the brains of deceased athletes since 2003, when she discovered an early case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain of a deceased boxer who had been mistakenly diagnosed with dementia. Since then she’s examined the brains of 15 dead athletes, many of which Nathan Stiles; all but one showed signs of CTE. A further 400 players have pledged their brains to the Center upon their death. The earliest evidence of CTE McKee has found so far was in an 18-year-old college football player. An NFL-funded survey shows the incidence of memory-related diseases like CTE in players between 30 and 49 to be nineteen times above the national average.
The problem is not, as most think, the big hits players endure but the repeated little hits, which explains the high incidence of CTE in linesmen, who could be struck in the head 1,000 times in an average season. Nor is improved helmet technology likely to help, since the damage occurs inside the skull. The consensus seems to be that the players must simply be willing to take the risk; it’s impossible to play the sport without using your head.
The lawsuits will play out in the coming months, and the NFL will probably try to have them dismissed, but should a judge allow the cases to proceed, the significant evidence should cast a sympathetic light for the players involved.
The Independent is reporting that Chinese scientists have yet again shown that internet dependency alters the brain, but are things like internet and video game addiction real? Vaughan Bell says probably not; it’s the result of “a perfect storm of pop medicine, pseudo-neuroscience, and misplaced sympathy.” The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders also says no, and it has no plan to include the media-friendly addictions in the next version, although it will suggest more research in the area.