What’s the Word?

As an editor, it’s disheartening when I try to suggest new wording only to find that I can’t think of the word I want to recommend. A thesaurus can be helpful, but often if I move on to something else or focus on things I associate with the word, it will come to me eventually.

My experience with the tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) phenomenon is a common one. As a 2008 bulletin from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute describes, this phenomenon occurs across languages and throughout life, although it becomes more common as we age. We can blame the phenomenon for the times we forget proper names or can only remember the first letter of a word or name.

Researchers posit that the prefrontal cortex (responsible for higher-order thinking and thought organization) and the anterior cingulate cortex (which plays a role in decision making) may be involved in the memory retrieval problem of TOT.

But, suggest researchers Bennett L. Schwartz and Janet Metcalfe in an article published last January, TOT may have a beneficial function, “alerting us to the possibility of remembering when retrieval apparently has failed.” Once you become aware of a problem, you can work to fix it, trying even harder to uncover the hidden word or name (or turning to that trusty thesaurus). The more time spent searching for a word, they suggest, the better we remember it in the future—retrieval can act as a learning tool. This leads the authors to recommend that children with dyslexia (for whom TOTs are more common than children without the disorder) should be encouraged to take the time to retrieve known words, rather than having adults provide them.

A more serious inability to remember words can come as a result of injury or dementia resulting in aphasia, a disorder impacting the ability to speak or understand speech. Anomia, a common symptom of aphasia, makes it difficult to impossible to recall words. As scientists continue to study aphasia recovery, we may begin to know more about the more common and benign TOTs.

–Johanna Goldberg

Brain Oddities: Reading Rainbow

Brain oddities

Yesterday, a coworker showed me an interesting internet phenomenon that I’d seen some years before but had completely forgotten. You may recognize it from when it began circulating via email in 2003 (you know, those chain emails that threatened horrible things if you didn't forward them):

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

I, like most people who read this, found it incredibly interesting, and decided to investigate further. It turns out that, although this passage holds a few grains of truth, there are a few substantial errors.

The first issue with the passage is that, according to an actual language researcher at Cambridge University, while there are several groups at the school studying language, this particular topic was not being investigated at the time of the passage’s release. The second problem is its claim that the middle letters can be in any order without affecting reading comprehension—this is only partially true. Take, for example, the following sentences:

1. Big ccunoil tax ineesacrs tihs yaer hvae seezueqd the inmcoes of mnay pneosenirs

2. A dootcr has aimttded the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blender

You probably found these two sentences much more difficult to read than the first example (if you got stuck, you can check the translations at the bottom of this post). There are several potential reasons why the “Cambridge University” passage is easier to read: firstly, the words in the passage still largely maintain the shape of the correct word; secondly, the distance between where the letters actually belong and where they have been displaced is usually small. For example, the “bridge" in “Cambridge” (“Cmabrigde”) remains largely unchanged, so it’s easy for us to infer the entire word based on our recognition of “bridge.”

Although we usually do not read letter-by-letter, as claimed in the passage, we also do not necessarily process each word as a whole. There are a variety of factors that allow us to read efficiently. As mentioned above, one theory holds that we attend to the shapes of words (that is, letter placement) as part of our visual processing. Additionally, one-, two-, and three-letter words are often skipped entirely, so our reading is not as linear as one might think:

Figure5(Credit: Kevin Larson)

The arrows represent saccades, or short eye movements, analyzed with an eye-tracking device. The eye skips over the small words and, in the case of the last sentence, sometimes doubles back. Another interesting thing to note is that when we read,

Top of letters

Bottom of letters

You probably deciphered the first half of that to say “we focus on the top of the letters,” but you probably couldn’t tell (apart from context) that the second half says “rather than the bottom.” This could either be an efficiency tactic or a by-product of the fact that the top halves of letters appear to be more distinctive than the bottom halves.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find any studies that shed light on the neural underpinnings of reading comprehension tactics. But discovering that reading is a much more complicated process than I thought made me feel marginally better about the shame I endured when stumbling through passages that I was forced to read aloud in grade school. I’m gald thsoe dyas are gnoe.

–Caitlin Schneider

Translation Answers:

1. Big council tax increases this year have squeezed the incomes of many pensioners.

2. A doctor has admitted the manslaughter of a teenage cancer patient who died after a hospital drug blunder.

Source: Larson, Kevin. 2004. The Science of Word Recognition.

We prefer people who sound like us

According to recent research, accents can do more than turn a flower seller into a lady.

At the “Language and the Brain” press conference presented at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting yesterday, Dr. Patricia Bestelmeyer of the University of Glasgow described how accents impact our reactions to others.

While in an fMRI machine, 20 Scottish study participants listened to recordings of Americans, Brits, and Scots. Brain scans showed that the participants processed the recorded Scottish-accented speech faster and with more accuracy than the American and British words. But as they listened to further recordings, brain activity decreased with non-native speech and increased with the familiar accent, indicating that the subjects had a strong attentional bias to their native accent.

Dr. Bestelmeyer stressed that this is early research that needs to be replicated—she is now conducting a similar experiment with English participants, and would like to do one using Scottish participants who have had extended exposure to a non-native accent from living in another country, for example.

Still, she drew broader conclusions from her early findings. Dr. Bestelmeyer noted that people attribute more positive traits to their native accent, indicating that we are more likely to hire someone or buy from someone who sounds like us.

Unlike Dr. Bestelmeyer, I did not grow up exposed to dulcet Scottish tones. Am I really more likely to buy from people with the native Rhode Island accents I heard constantly for the first 17 years of my life?

Perhaps: If not, local ads would long ago have stopped using the voices of local business owners. And ads like the one below have been around for as long as I can remember. (Pay special attention to the perfect Rhode Island pronunciation of “idea” eight seconds in.)

–Johanna Goldberg

Using words as both diagnosis and cure

Just as movement needs to be relearned in some cases of stroke, other people need to find a way to recover speech and language.

Researchers from New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center have developed a metric to predict stroke recovery of language based on extent of early impairment. The researchers, led by Ronald Lazar, Ph.D.,
tested patients’ language function one to three days after the stroke,
and again three months later. Using their test scores immediately
following stroke, the researchers could roughly predict how the patient
would score after 90 days. Most patients with mild to moderate aphasia,
or language impairment, who received language therapy were about 70
percent improved when they were tested for the second time.

In the second, not-yet-published study, Swathi Kiran, Ph.D., of Boston University, assessed language recovery of bilingual stroke patients.
She determined that when patients practiced the language in which they
were less fluent, their improvement was greater in both languages than
when they practiced the language with which they were more familiar. If
patients go digging for information, connections in the brain are

The Dana Guide to Brain Health article “Trouble with Speech and Language” offers more information on language and brain function. You can also read a more general essay on “Speech, Language, and Reading.”

–Johanna Goldberg

For autism, Parkinson’s, hope for faster diagnosis

For many brain diseases, diagnosis is no exact science.
Because of the complexity of the brain and of the symptoms that it can cause,
there are often no definitive tests, and neurologists lean on years of
experience, long and painstaking observations, and educated guesses to
determine what exactly is afflicting their patients. Not only is this
frustrating for everyone involved, but in some cases a delayed diagnosis can
make a disease much more difficult or even impossible to treat successfully.

Now, scientists have made progress on faster, more objective
methods to detect at least two serious neurological disorders in which early
and correct diagnosis is vital.

A small pilot study conducted by Timothy
and his colleagues at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia report
has found that a relatively unobtrusive brain-scanning technique may be useful
in detecting autism-spectrum
(ASD). These conditions, characterized by problems in
communication and social interaction, are often diagnosed after a child has
already begun school, when treatments to prevent reading and other learning
disabilities are less effective. They are also not that uncommon: A recent
study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that
almost 1 percent of children in the U.S. have an ASD

For the study,
reported online in the journal Autism
this month, the scientists measured brain responses from 25
children with ASDs and 17 without using magnetoencephalography, in which a helmet
surrounding the head is used to measure the brain’s magnetic field. On average,
the ASD group had a tiny delay—about 11 milliseconds—in brain responses to
sounds. According to the researchers, this may be explained by one
of their previous studies
, which found that people with ASDs have reduced
amounts of white matter, or myelination, a type of insulating material that
speeds up transmission of nerve signals.

In the second study, slated
to appear in the February issue of Lancet
researchers from the Feinstein Institute for Medical
Research, led by David
, used positron emission tomography (PET), which measures blood
flow and chemical changes in the brain, to successfully diagnose whether a person
had Parkinson’s disease, multiple system atrophy, or progressive supranuclear
palsy. These movement disorders often show nearly identical symptoms at the
start but require different types of treatments.

In 167 patients, a computer program analyzing PET results
matched the diagnosis made by experienced specialists more than 80 percent of
the time. The doctors, however, had spent an average of 2.6 years assessing the
patients before coming to their judgments.

It remains to be seen whether the results of their studies
will end up reaching the doctor’s office, as many promising brain-scan findings
have ultimately failed to be precise or accurate enough upon additional testing.
The ASD study, for instance, looked at an extremely small number of people and tested
children with an average age of 10; it’s unknown whether such a delay would
still be detectable in young children or infants, for whom early diagnosis
would offer the most advantages.

The computer program used in the PET work will likewise need
additional testing through large, double-blind studies, according to the study
authors. But if confirmed, the findings could extend beyond better diagnosis,
they say; the research may also spur drug development for movement disorders by
allowing doctors to identify candidates for clinical trials much earlier than
previously possible.

—Aalok Mehta

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