Music and Language: The Work of Nina Kraus

Nina_Kraus_Dialogue.jpgThis week, we posted a Q&A with auditory neuroscientist Nina Kraus, who received a Dana Foundation grant to further her study of aspects of music and cognition. She and her colleagues at Northwestern University have discovered, among other things, that synchronization ability, like tapping your foot along to a beat, matches the rapid brain activity linked to reading, language, and phonological skills. Understanding children’s rhythmic strengths and bottlenecks could help teachers help them improve language skills.

It’s an interesting connection—and may not seem so obvious at first. Reading involves your eyes, right? So why would learning to read have anything to do with processing sound?

But we learn to speak before we learn to read. We make sound-to-meaning connections there. As we read the letters on the page, we are connecting those images with the letter sounds. That provides the foundation for later literacy. If there are not good sound-to-meaning connections, if language is not strong, it will be more difficult for a child to learn to read. If we could find a way to strengthen the sound-to-meaning connections in the brain—because, as we know, the brain is very malleable—we might be able to help children learn to read more easily.

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Four Stars: Who Are Movie Reviews For?

Watching a recommended movie is risky business. If the stars don’t align in your favor, you might find yourself nurturing a distrust of your source, forever altering conversations with friends and colleagues. Even when Oscar season rolls around, which should reliably provide lists of “good” movies, you might question if everyone sat through the same movie after scanning a few social media feeds. Does data science offer us evidence of something we might be missing?

PascalWallisch1-PhotoCredit(Yadin Goldman)

Pascal Wallisch, Ph.D.. Photo credit: Yadin Goldman

“There is a tremendous diversity in appraisal for any given movie,” said Pascal Wallisch, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor at NYU. “It’s actually quite striking.” Wallisch, seeking to measure the reliability of movie critics, gathered ratings from critics, aggregator sites (think Rotten Tomatoes and The Internet Movie Database (IMDB)) and a multi-year study with 3,000-participants. After determining the correlations of reviews from a pool of over 200 movies, he admits to being astonished—there was not a single film with any hint of a “moderate degree of agreement.”

“The Science of Movies,” presented by Wallisch and organized by Think&Drink NYC’s Gil Avidor, is a stimulating yet relaxed evening talk, suitably tailored to seekers of intelligent nightlife. Wallisch, whose research interests hone in on the intersection of psychology and neuroscience, extolled the virtues of finding your “movie twin,” bemoaned the scarcity of originality (ahem, creativity) in present-day Hollywood, and explained what happens to a brain exposed to a healthy dose of M. Night Shyamalan. Continue reading

Huntington’s Disease on the Mind

On the Mind” is a series that aims to demystify biological disorders and give a platform to patients; at last week’s event at New York’s Caveat, the focus was on Huntington’s disease (HD), a slowly progressive, hereditary neurodegenerative disorder that causes cognitive, psychiatric, and motor problems. The evening’s program had three parts: the scientific story of HD, dance performances inspired by HD, and the personal story of Justin Goldberg, whose father has HD and who is himself at risk for the disease.

Approximately 30,000 people in the US are living with HD and another 200,000 are at risk, with diagnosis usually occurring when a person reaches his or her early 40s and begins to exhibit motor symptoms, said Leora Fox, Ph.D., manager of mission and research programs at the Huntington’s Disease Society of America. Presently, there are no treatments that can slow or stop Huntington’s disease.

Leora Fox discusses brain cell loss in people with HD

Everyone has two copies of the huntingtin gene (one from each parent), she explained, and the existing hypothesis is that the disease is caused by a mutation on the gene that gives instructions to produce a toxic huntingtin protein (“DNA makes RNA makes protein”), which eventually leads to death of brain cells. The logical solution therefore seems to be: “Lower the amount of huntingtin in the brain,” she said.

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Laugh Out Loud Neuroscience

Contrary to popular belief, scientists are just like the rest of us. They complain about their jobs, they like to joke around, and they tend to tell anyone who will listen about their work. Shannon Odell, a neuroscience Ph.D. candidate at Weill Cornell Medicine, writes and stars in “Your Brain On [Blank]” videos, a series that combines comedy and neuroscience to dispel the myth that her brainy teachers and classmates are not fundamentally different from anyone else.

The videos are produced by Inverse, a San Francisco-based digital media company that covers topics such as technology, science, and culture. The company’s website says that Odell’s series has received 75 million hits, including more than 400,000 through Facebook alone.

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Movies On the Brain

In 2018, more than 1.3 billion movie tickets were reportedly sold in the US and Canada, alone, so I think it’s safe to say, people like watching movies. Why not take advantage of their widespread popularity and plan a movie screening or film festival for Brain Awareness Week!

Already a proven and popular activity among Brain Awareness Week partners, screenings can work in a more formal setting for adults, but also as a classroom activity for kids. To make them truly informational, it’s great to follow the movie with a lecture or panel discussion featuring experts on the move topic, or with a classroom discussion between a teacher and students.

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