Category Archives: > The Brain: Biology, Research

Characteristics of the brain; new research bearing on brain function

+ Linguists Say Girls are Pioneering Vocal Trends

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Douglas Quenqua in the NY Times reports that linguists are far from calling the “Valley Girl” trend called uptalk and the use of “like” in sentences as markers of immaturity and stupidity.

They are now explaining that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people realize.

Says Penny Eckert, professor of linguisitcs at Stanford

A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute.  But they’re not just using them because they’re girls.  They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.

In December, researchers from Long Island University published a paper in The Journal of Voice.  From an admittedly very small sample — recorded speech from 34 women ages 18 to 25 — they found evidence of a new trend among female college students: a gutteral fluttering of the vocal cords they have called “vocal fry.”

Vocal fry is best described as a raspy or croaking sound injected (usually) at the end of a stentence.  Says Quenqua, it can be heard when Mae West says “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime;” or when Maya Rudolph on Saturday Night Live imitates Maya Angelou.

Nassima Abdelli-Beruh, a speech scientist at Long Island University, says we shouldn’t scoff.  “They use this as a tool to convey something.  You quickly realize that for them it is as a cue.”

And another linguist, Carmen Fought, professor at Pitzer College, says “If women do something like uptalk or vocal fry, it’s immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional or even stupid.  The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.”

“It’s generally pretty well known that if you identify a sound change in progress, then young people will be leading old people, and women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average,” according to Mark Liberman, linguist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Why Women?

Some linguists suggest that women are more sensitive to social interactions and hence more likely to adopt subtle social cues.  Others feel women use language to assert their power in a culture that has asked them — in days gone by — to be sedate and decorous.  A third theory is that young women are simply given more leeway by society to speak flamboyantly.


It is well established that female vocal fads eventually make their way into the general vernacular.  Starting in the 1980s in America (after possibly emigrating from Australia), “uptalk” was common among Valley Girls. 

In the past 20 years, uptalk has traveled up the age range and across the gender boundary, according to David Crystal, a longtime professor of linguistics at Bangor University in Wales.  “I’ve heard grandfathers and grandmothers use it.  I occasionally use it myself.” 

The same can be said for the word “like,” when used in a grammatically superfluous way, or to add cadence to a sentence.  It has found its way into Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, which explains that people use ” like” in a sentence “apparently without meaning or sytactic function, but possibly as emphasis.”

“Like” and uptalk often go hand in hand. There are studies that show uptalk can be used for many purposes, and sometimes to dominate a listener.

Cynthia McLemore, linguist at Penn, found that senior members of a Texas sorority used uptalk to make junior members feel obligated to carry out new tasks. (“We have a rush event this Thursday?  And everyone needs to be there?”)

Vocal fry, also known as “creaky voice,” has some history.  Dr Crystal cited it as far back as 1964, when he noticed it was a way for British men to denote their superior social standing.

In the United States it has been gaining popularity since 2003, when Dr. Fought detected it among the female speakers of a Chicano dialect in California.

Actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow and Reese Witherspoon have used creaky voice when portraying contemporary American characters (“Shallow Hal,” “Legally Blonde”). 

What does it denote? Ikuko Patricia Yuasa, lecturer in linguistics at UC Berkeley, calls it a natural result of a woman lowering her voice to sound more authoritative.

But it can also be used to indicate disinterest, which teenage girls are fond of doing.

According to Dr. Liberman,

It’s a mode of vibration that happens when the vocal cords are relatively lax, when subvocal pressure is low.  So maybe some people use it when they’re relaxed and even bored, not especially aroused or invested in what they are saying.

Dr Eckert says that language changes very fast, however.  Most people — particularly adults — will almost surely make mistakes when they try to divine the meaning of new forms of language used by young women.

“What may sound excessively ‘girly’ to me may sound smart, authoritative and strong to my students.”

For Douglas Quenqua’s article:

Note: Every Tuesday the NY Times has a Science Times insert, chock full of great reports from the world of research as well as little known facts to intrigue any student!

Orton-Gillingham tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards 614-579-6021 or email


+ Generating Ideas “Outside the Box”

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Great article in the Times this morning on creativity:  Suntae Kim, Evan Polman and Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks wanted to know if there is any psychological truth to metaphors such as “think outside the box,” and “on the one hand; on the other hand…”

Researchers had already found that someone holding a warm cup of coffee tends to perceive a stranger as having a “warmer” personality.  Other studies have shown that if a person is holding something heavy, they tend to view things as more serious and important… more “weighty.”

But the authors asked 102 undergraduates at NYU to complete a task designed to measure innovative thinking.

The type of task was to (for example) generate a word (“tape”) that related to three clue words: “measure,” “worm,” and “video.”

Some students were randomly assigned to do this while sitting inside a 125-cubic-foot box that we made of plastic pipe and cardboard.  The rest got to sit and think outside (and next to) the box.

…We found that those thinking outside the box were significantly more creative: compared with those thinking inside the box, they came up with over  20 percent more creative solutions.

 In another study students were asked to think of original used for particular objects made of Lego blocks; but they had to do it while walking along a fixed rectangular path indicated by duct tape on the floor — marking out an area of about 48 square feet.  Other students were allowed to walk as freely as they wished.

They found striking differences.  Those who walked freely  were better at generating creative uses for the objects — coming up with over 25 percent more original ideas.

Such creativity was assessed in terms of fluency (the number of ideas generated) flexibility (the number of unique categories that described the generated ideas), and originality (as judged by independent raters).

On the one hand…

The researchers found that something similar happens when thinking about a problem “on one hand and then on the other.”

 Forty undergraduates from the University of Michigan were asked to lift and hold a hand outstretched (“as you might when addressing an audience from a stage”) while generating novel uses for a new university complex.

Some were asked to lift just one hand.  others were asked to switch between hands.

Among students who were allowed to switch hands (literally on the one hand, on the other hand) they found a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of uses generated.

The authors feel they are close to finding some sources of creativity.  

By showing that bodily experiences can help create new knowledge, our results further undermine the strict separation between mind and body — another box that has confined our thinking for a long time.

Additionally, the authors say, even though researchers are only starting to grasp how catch-phrases shape how people think, it may now be possible to prescribe some novel suggestions to enhance creativity.  For instance, perhaps if we’re performing a job that requires some “outside the box” thinking — it may be literally a good idea to avoid working in cubicles.

Suntae Kim is a doctoral candidate and Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks is an associate professor, both in management and organizations, at the University of Michigan.  Evan Polman is visiting assistant professor of management and organizations at NYU.

For the entire article, visit,%20Evan%20Polman&st=Search

Orton-Gillingham tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards 614-579-6021 or email

+ Abnormal Auditory Processing Underlies Dyslexia

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From Science Daily, a report indicating that people with dyslexia may be impacted by an abnormality in auditory processing.

Experts have long known that the inability to accurately decode and identify what they read is a result of speech processing problems.  But the basis of that disruption and how it interferes with reading comprehension had not been fully explored.

But now, new reasearch published in the December issue of the journal Neuron suggests that a specific abnormality in the processing of auditory signals accounts for the main symptoms of dyslexia.

Senior study authors are Dr. Anne-Lise Giraud and Frank Ramus of the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, France.

According to Giraud, everyone has been in agreement that for a majority of dyslexic children, the main cause is related to a deficit in the processing of speech sounds.  And also well established is that  there are three main symptoms of this deficit:

  • difficulty paying attention to individual speech sounds,
  • a limited ability to repeat a list of pseudo-words or numbers,
  • and a slow performance when asked to name a series of pictures, colors, or numbers as quickly as possible. 

However, the underlying basis of these symptoms had not been elucidated.

Giraud and her colleagues examined whether an abnormality in the early steps of auditory processing in the brain, called “sampling,” is linked with dyslexia.  They focused on the idea that an anomaly in the initial processing of phonemes — the smallest units of sounds that can be used to make a word — might have a direct impact on the processing of speech.

What they found is that typical brain processing of auditory rhythms associated with phonemes was disrupted in the left auditory cortex of dyslexics.  This deficit correlated with measures of speech sound processing.

Further, they found that dyslexics exhibited an enhanced response to high-frequency rhythms that indirectly interfered with verbal memory.

It is possible that this “oversampling” might result in a distortion of the representation of speech sounds.

Girard says

Our results suggest that the left auditory cortex of dyslexic people may be less responsive to modulation at very specific frequencies, which is potentially detrimental to their verbal short-term memory abilities.  Taken together, our data suggest that the auditory cortex of dyslexic individuals is less fine-tuned to the specific needs of speech processing.

Visit the Science Daily article, which is aggregated and has no byline, to locate citations:

Orton-Gillingham tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards 614-579-6021 or email

+ MIT: Dyslexia Independent of IQ

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A brain imaging study at MIT suggests that reading difficulties are the same regardless of overall intelligence — and that more children could benefit from support in school, according to Emily Finn of the MIT news office .

About 5 to 10 percent of American children are diagnosed as dyslexic.  Historically, the label has been assigned to kids who are bright, even verbally articulate, but who struggle with reading — in short whose high IQs mismatch their low reading scores.  On the other hand, reading troubles in children with low IQs have traditionally been considered a byproduct of their general cognitive limitations, not a reading disorder in particular.

But a new brain-imaging study challenges this understanding of dyslexia.  According to John D.E. Gabrieli, MIT’s Grover Hermann Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Cognitive Neuroscience, who is one of the researchers,

We found that children who are poor readers have the same brain difficulty in processing the sounds of language whether they have a high or low IQ.  Reading difficulty is independent of other cognitive abilities.

Gabrieli  performed the research with Fumiko Hoeft and colleagues at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Charles Hulme at York University in the U.K., and Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, also at MIT.

The study will be published in the journal Psychological Science, and may change how educators diagnose dyslexia, opening up reading support to more children who could benefit from it.


Rhymes are an effective way to probe dyslexics’ reading performance, since dyslexia is thought to entail difficulty connecting written words to sounds.

One hundred thirty-one children, from 7 to 17 years of age, were given a simple reading test and an IQ measure.  Each child was assigned to one of three groups: typical readers with typical IQs’ poor readers with typical IQs, and poor readers with low IQs.

All were shown pairs of words and asked to judge whether the words rhymed.

For some of the pairs, researchers used words that rhyme but don’t share the same final letters — such as “bait” and “gate,” or “night” and “bite.”  In those cases, rhyme could not be inferred simply from spelling.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers observed the activity in the brain regions known to be important for reading.

Results showed that neural activity in the two groups of poor readers was indistinguishable. 

“The brain patterns could not have been more similar, whether the child had a high or low IQ,” says Gabrieli.  Poor readers of all IQ levels showed significantly less brain activity in the six observed areas than typical readers. 

This suggests that reading difficulty is due to the same underlying neural mechanism — regardless of general cognitive ability. 

Currently, according to Gabrieli, many public school systems still require that a child have an otherwise normal IQ in order to receive a diagnosis of dyslexia and then appropriate intervention.  These findings could have an important impact on such an approach.

Essentially, the present thought is that the label “dyslexic” is reserved for children with a reading difficulty that can’t be explained by anything else.

The new study suggests that even children with low IQ scores might benefit from specific dyslexia intervention.

Gabrieli says he hopes the new results will encourage educators to offer reading support to more struggling students.  He stresses the importance of diagnosing dyslexia and other behavioral disorders sooner, rather than later.

Now,  you basically diagnose dyslexia when a child seems miserable in school.  Maybe you could intervene before they ever get that way.

Sole source: online article by Emily Finn

tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email

+ Quality Homework is What Matters — Not Quantity

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In the New York Times, Annie Murphy Paul wrote a piece titled “The Trouble With Homework.” 

Paul says there seem to be two divergent conceptions about homework out there.  One is that our students are burdened with backpacks full of “too much homework.”   The other is that they are glassy-eyed goof-offs all evening long in front of their digital screens engaged in mindless nonsense . 

She feels that neither case is true, and we ought to ask a different question.  Ask instead how effectively do children’s after-school assignments advance learning.

The quantity of students’ homework is a lot less important than its quality.  And evidence suggests that as of now, homework isn’t making the grade.  Although surveys show that the amount of time our children spend on homework has risen over the last three decades, American students are mired in the middle of international rankings: 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math, according to results from the Program for International Student Assessment released last December.

 One-third of parents in a study rated the quality of their children’s homework assignments as fair to poor.  A study coming in the Economics of Education will offer a report in which homework in science, English and history had “little to no impact” on student test scores.

To enrich classroom learning, says Paul, we will be required to  make homework not shorter or longer, but smarter.

In recent years cognitive and neuro-scientists, as well as educational psychologists, have made a series of discoveries about how the human brain learns. 

They’ve founded a new discipline  known as Mind, Brain and Education. 

Mind, Brain and Education is devoted to understanding and improving the ways in which children absorb, retain and apply knowledge. 

Teaching based on these findings have been implemented in some classrooms around the country.  It’s still early, but they have achieved measured success. 

Teachers at Columbia Middle School in St. Louis collaborated with psychologists at Washington University.  They lifted seventh-  and eighth-grade students’ science and social studies test scores by 13 to 25 percent.

But as yet, these findings have not been applied to homework.  Mind, Brain and Education methods  are simple to understand and easy to carry out, but they can seem unfamiliar and even counterintuitive.

After-school assignments are ripe, says Paul, for the kind of improvements offered by this new science.

Some Examples of Research-Based Approaches 

One example: “spaced repetition.”  This is a research-based technique that has already had a positive impact on learning. 

Instead of instructors concentrating on single blocks of information, as many homework assignments currently do (Civil War one evening, Reconstruction the next), learners encounter the same material in briefer sessions spread over a longer period of time.

With this approach, students would be re-exposed to Civil War and Reconstruction information all throughout the semester.

Spaced repetition has produced impressive results. 

Eighth-grade history students who relied on a spaced approach to learning had nearly double the retention rate of students who studied the same material in a consolidated unit, reported researchers from the University of California-San Diego in 2007. 

The reason the method works so well goes back to the brain: when we first acquire memories, they are volatile, subject to change or likely to disappear. 

Exposing ourselves to information repeatedly over time fixes it more permanently in our minds, by strengthening the representation of the information that is embedded in our neural networks.

A second learning technique is known as “retrieval practice.”  This employs a familiar tool: the test.  But in a new way: not to assess what students know, but to reinforce it.

While we often imagine “memory” to be something like a storage tank, and a “test” as a kind of dipstick to measure the level of information in there, in fact, the brain doesn’t work that way.

Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting.  So teasting doesn’t just measure, it changes learning too.  The usual methods, re-reading, taking notes and making outlines, doesn’t have this effect.

One experiment found that language learners who used the retrieval practice strategy remembered 80 percent of the vocabulary words they studied, while those using standard methods remembered only about a third of them.

Students who used retrieval practice to learn science retained about 50 percent more of the material than students who studied in traditional ways.  (Purdue, 2011.)

Students — and parents — may groan at the prospect of more tests, but the self-quizzing involved in retrieval practice need not provoke any anxiety.  It’s simply an effective way to focus less on the input of knowledge (passively over textbooks and notes) and more on its output (calling up that same information from one’s own brain).

 Another misconception: we think that if information feels easy to absorb, we’ve learned it well.  But the opposite it true.  What we work hard to remember, we are better able to recall it.  The extra effort signals to the brain that this is important information.

There is a name for this phenomenon: “cognitive disfluency,” and it is so effective in learning that psychologists have devised all manner of “desirable difficulties” to introduce into the learning proces. 

For example, they might sprinkle a passage with punctuation mistakes, deliberately leave out letters, shrink font size until it’s tiny, or wiggle a document while it’s being copied so the words come out blurry.

While teachers are not likely to send home smudged or error-filled worksheets, they may introduce another kind of desirable difficulty called “interleaving.”  This can readily be applied to homework.

An “interleaved” assignment mixes up different kinds of situations or problems to be practices, instead of grouping them by type.  When students can’t tell in advance what kind of knowledge or problem-solving strategy will be called for to answer a particular question, their brains must work harder to come up with the solution.  The result is that students learn material more thoroughly.

An example of interleaving happened in the world of sports, and it illustrates why the tactic is so effective.  Researchers at Cal Tech conducted a study of baseball players practicing hitting.  When different kinds of pitches were interleaved, batters improved their performance later in which they didn’t know the type of pitch in advance (as happens in real world games).   

Interleaving produces the same sort of improvement in academic learning.  A study published last year in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology asked fourth-graders to work on solving four types of math problems and then to take a test evaluating how well they had learned. 

The scores of those whose practice problems were mixed up were more than double the scores of those students who had practiced one kind of problem at a time.

According to Paul, the application of these kinds of research-based strategies to homework has not as yet been used to its best advantage.  We have the opportunity to raise student achievement by applying them.  The science is out there.  Our assignment, she says, is to make it happen.

Sole source: Annie Murphy Paul’s article in the New York Times on September 10, 2011.Read the article at

Paul is the author of “Origins,” and is at work on a new book about the science of learning.

tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email

+ Free Parent Seminars at Marburn Academy

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Every year, Marburn Academy, the premier school in Columbus Ohio for bright children with learning differences, offers free seminars for parents in the community.

Marburn Academy was founded with a dual mission.  The first goal was to provide the finest day school program possible for bright but learning-challenged students, along with related diagnostic services.

The second goal was to serve as a resource to the community at large, by providing valuable, free  informational seminars to parents regarding the latest research on the brain and the diagnosis and treatment of learning differences. 

This year upcoming seminars in 2011 are

  • Tuesday September 13, 2011 at 7:00 pm — “When Children Struggle With Reading: Is It Dyslexia?”  Many of us were told that dyslexia means a child reverses letters and words; some were told that the letters “move around on the page.”  Learn the truth about the most common reading problems experienced by children and why many of our schools aren’t addressing the situation properly.
  • Tuesday October 4th, 2011 at 7:00 pm — “Solving Reading Problems.”  If you are the parent of a child who struggles with reading, you will want to know about the most effective approaches to teaching reading.
  • Tuesday October 18, 2011 at 7:00 pm — “Understanding the Problems of ADHD Children (Part I of a series).  We parents can’t be effective advocates and coaches for our ADHD children unless we truly understand the reasons for their reactions and behaviors.
  • Tuesday November 15, 2011 at 7:00 pm — “Improving Self-Management Skills for ADHD Students (Part II of a series).  In this presentation, Oremus builds on the information of the previous seminar, discussing techniques for teaching self-management at home and at school.
  • Tuesday December 13, 2011 at 7:00 pm — “How to Get High School to Work for ADHD Students (and How to get ADHD Students to Work in High School).”  Hear about how the social and academic demands of high school — and the reality of being a student with ADHD — requires thoughtful and unique management plans and how to set them in motion.
  • To see the schedule for the entire year, go to    

These Community Parent Seminars are presented each school year and are free to central Ohio parents, whether or not their child is a student at Marburn.  (The fee for professionals is $40 per seminar.)

The presenter is Marburn Headmaster Earl B. Oremus. a nationally recognized leader in developing methods for helping nontraditional learners acquire academic and social skills.  Oremus has been at the helm of the Academy for the past 23 years.

All seminars are held at Marburn and begin at 7:00 pm.  Reservations are required: please contact or phone 614-433-0822.

tutoring in Columbus OH: Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email

+ Japanese Language and Dyslexic Readers

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In the Wall Street Journal, Linda Himelstein writes that brain-imaging studies are identifying possible reasons to explain why some dyslexics have an easier time with languages like Japanese and Chinese. 

English and other alphabetic languages require a separate letter for each sound in a single word.  Certain dyslexic students have seemed able to learn these languages, in which characters represent complete words or ideas.

Education experts say this brain research could point the way to improved teaching techniques.

According to Maryanne Wolf, professor of child development and director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, “There are very real differences in the brain’s reading circuit for an alphabet as opposed to a language like Chinese.  [Dyslexics] think visually.  They analyze patterns.”

Dyslexics tend to rely on memorization, which is a skill needed in mastering character-based languages, according to Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity in New Haven Connecticut.  Since language characters are more like pictures than letters, they can be easier for many dyslexics to reproduce.

People with dyslexia have difficulty splitting words into component sounds.

Dyslexia is the most common of all learning disabilities.  It is a neurologically based disorder that causes difficulties in language-related tasks, and occurs regardless of a person’s intelligence or level of education.  A Connecticut Longitudinal Study, which concluded in the early 2000s, suggests that as many as one in five people have some degree of dyslexia.

Another study compared how good readers and dyslexic readers learn language.  Using brain-imaging technology, they found that when people with dyslexia read in English, they rely on the same region in the brain as do readers of kanji, a character-based language in Japan.

In contrast, a different region of the brain is used by good English readers as well as by children reading kana, another Japanese language but a language in which each character represents a sound, just like English.

It should be noted that people are not suggesting that studying Chinese or Japanese will help dyslexics learn to read English.  There is no getting around the fact that reading English well demands the ability to identify and blend sounds.

But improved understanding of the way dyslexics absorb character-based languages can help with the building of curricula.

According to Dr. Wolf, understanding the different ways in which dyslexics’ brains are wired has helped her adapt teaching programs for their needs.

Repetition is important to help dyslexic kids memorize visual patterns of words and letters.  Says Wolf, dyslexics may need 10 times as much exposure to the language patterns as do traditional learners.

In dyslexics some essential connections between the right and left sides of the brain are weaker or slower than typical learners.  Wolf contends that simulating these connections by engaging kids in a wide range of simultaneous exercises, including teaching letters, sounds, words and their meanings is a fruitful way to proceed.

Future research will be aimed at enabling teachers to tailor their approaches to each dyslexic learner.  She expects new interventions will occur earlier and be more personalized as a result of this latest research.

For Linda Himelstein’s complete article in the Wall street Journal visit  .

tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards  614-579-6021  or email