Even If They Don’t Use It, Babies Remember Their Birth Language (Language / Neuroscience)

When parents adopt a child from another country, they face some choices. One common decision is about how much to acquaint their child with his or her native country and culture. New research demonstrates one more benefit to immersing kids in their birth culture: their brains retain traces of the language they were born around, even if they never use it.

The study, which was published in Royal Society Open Science in 2017, looked at two groups of Dutch adults. Twenty-nine of the participants were born in Korea, some were adopted when they were younger than six months old and some were adopted when they were toddlers. None of the Korean-born participants had spoken Korean since they were adopted. The other 29 participants were native Dutch speakers who didn’t know Korean — the control group. The researchers chose three Korean consonants that were unlike anything in the Dutch language and asked all of the participants to spend a two-week training period trying to pronounce them. The researchers recorded these attempts and played them for native Korean speakers, who gave them a rating.

Over the training period, the adoptees improved their pronunciation significantly more than than the native Dutch speakers. They were also better at reproducing the sounds in the first place. This shows that some vestige of the language they were first exposed to as newborns left an imprint in their brains, making it easier for them to pick it up again later.

One surprising result of this study was in the difference between those who were adopted as infants and those adopted as toddlers: there wasn’t any. You might think that the longer you were around a language, the stronger its imprint would be in your brain, but this research found that this wasn’t the case. In the study press release, language scientist and study author Mirjam Broersma explained, “This means that even in the very early months of life, useful language knowledge is laid down, and what has been retained about the birth language is abstract knowledge about what patterns are possible, not, for instance, words.”

The take-home message: if you’re an adoptive parent or were adopted yourself from another country, start checking out language lessons. You’ll be surprised how quickly that native tongue comes back.

The Gaokao Is The Nearly Impossible Chinese College Entrance Exam (Learning / Culture)

Remember the SAT and the ACT? You probably don’t want to revisit your stressed high school years, but just imagine for a moment that your future relies on completing one grueling 9-hour test. We’re exhausted just thinking about it. The college entrance exams you took would feel like coloring books compared to the Chinese college entrance exam: the gaokao.

The gaokao is like the SAT on super steroids. Many Chinese students have spent their entire lives studying for this monster test that occurs every June. Not only is it a long exam, but it’s also impossibly difficult. Though many students have aced the SAT and ACT, no one has ever gotten a perfect score on the gaokao.

According to Bloomberg, the test “requires a mastery of Chinese history, English grammar, and complex calculus. Students seeking a future in science will be tested on physics, chemistry, and biology. Liberal arts students must show proficiency in political theory, history, and geology.”

Though most questions are multiple choice, it’s almost unfair how hard this 750-point test is. “It’s impossible to get full marks,” Zhang Yi, a Chinese language teacher in a high school in Guangdong province’s Zhuhai, tells Bloomberg. “You may get all the answers right in math, but for Chinese and other liberal arts subjects, students write many things, and that’s highly subjective. Even bad handwriting will cost you points.”

Want a taste? Here are a few sample questions:

Mathematics:

If x+y≥a, x-y≤-1 and the minimum value of z=x+ay is 7, a=?

A. -5

B. -5 or 3

C. 3

D. 5 or -3

Geography:

Between June and August, a cruise ship travels from Fujian province to Venice, passing by Mumbai. Which of the following would it experience on the way?

A. When passing through the South China Sea, the cruise will face continuous rain.

B. When passing through the Arabian Sea, the cruise will sail against winds and currents.

C. When passing through the Red Sea, large stretches of forests will be seen alongside the coast.

D. When passing through the Mediterranean Sea, the cruise will experience several days of rainstorms.

Grammar

It’s a ____ clock, made of brass and dating from the 19th century.

A. charming French small

B. French small charming

C. small French charming

D. charming small French

Essay Prompt

You are free because you may choose how to cross the desert; you are not free because you must cross the desert either way. Write an 800-word essay on this.

Sleep Deprivation Eats Your Brain (Neuroscience)

Did you sleep last night? Or did you toss and turn the night away? Or maybe it was school work that kept you up, or cramming for a final. Or maybe you just threw the most epic party the numismatics club had ever seen. Whatever kept you up last night, it didn’t do your brain any favors. Turns out the brain goes full-zombie on itself if it doesn’t get enough sleep.

We’ve already told you sleeping is how your brain tidies up, clipping away unnecessary memories to make room for the next day’s events. But surprisingly, not getting enough sleep doesn’t prevent that trim from occurring. It takes the brakes off it. Astrocytes are the brain cells responsible for that clean-up, and a team of researchers from Italy’s Marche Polytechnic University found that when their mice were deprived of sleep, their astrocytes went into overdrive.

Some mice were given a nightly eight hours of sleep, and some were periodically interrupted to keep them from snoozing too deeply. Some were kept awake for an entire night, and some poor little rodents were forced to stay up five nights straight. The less the mice slept, the more active their astrocytes became. What’s more, the astrocytes in the good-sleep and interrupted-sleep mice stuck to the business of eating brain waste, those in the sleep-deprived category ate parts of working synapses instead. No wonder they say driving without sleep is as bad as driving drunk.

Your brain eating itself is pretty bad news. That kind of damage can lead to some serious problems in the long run. This activity might be a key explanation for diseases like Alzheimer’s, which has already been linked with highly active microglial cells — the same type of cells as astrocytes. As a matter of fact, a lack of sleep is strongly associated with the disease as well. If that’s not a good enough reason to practice good sleep hygiene, we don’t know what is. Here’s a quick primer on healthy sleep habits to help you beat insomnia:

Limit your naps to 30 minutes. Who doesn’t love naps? But they don’t take the place of a good night’s sleep, and might get in the way of one.
Get some exercise. You don’t want to get yourself too energized right before bed. But sometime during the day, try to work up a sweat.
Enjoy natural light. Exposure to sunlight during the day and darkness at night regulates your body clock and gets you sleepy on schedule.
Cut out the screens. Try putting down the phone, stepping away from the computer, and leaving the TV off an hour before bed. It could do wonders.

It May Be Possible To Learn In Your Sleep, But It’s Not What It Sounds Like (Neuroscience)

We spend one-third of our lives asleep. Seems like a horrifyingly huge chunk of time to waste. If only we could throw sleep into a multi-tasking array so we could be productive. At. All. Times. Well, buckle up, because research supports the idea that we can learn in our sleep … kind of.

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Imagine pressing play on your laptop and snoozing the night away while Italian language lessons guided your unknowing brain toward fluency. Rude awakening alert: that’s probably never going to happen. But some weird tiny hint of that scenario could. According to a study published in August 2017 in the journal Nature Communications, you may be able to “learn” in your sleep.

In the study, researchers played white noise while 20 participants (with no previous sleep disorders) slept. Mixed in with the white noises were tiny snippets of acoustic melodies, almost too short to be detected. Then, while the participants were awake, the researchers asked them to pick out the little sequences from the white noise. The participants successfully did it at a rate better than if they had just randomly guessed.

Alright, wake up, people. Your dream of learning Italian while you’re unconscious on your pillow is still a few steps away. Saying that we can learn while dead-asleep is a bit of a stretch; this study showed that the brain can form memories in certain sleep cycles. Not as sexy, sure, but the name of the information game is accuracy. The researchers found that if the sounds were played during REM sleep, the participants could recall them in their wakeful states. A sort of opposite phenomenon, the participants’ brains “un-learned” the sounds in their wakeful state if the noises were played during non-REM sleep. For now, don’t bank on using bedtime as a study session.

Meno’s Paradox Says You Can’t Ever Learn Anything New (Psychology)

We at Uncover Reality are pretty enthusiastic about learning. It’s kind of our thing. So when we learned about Meno’s Paradox, we started freaking out. On the one hand, those of us who already knew about the paradox weren’t learning anything new by reading about it, while those of us who didn’t know about it had no way to say for sure if what we were reading was true. But wait, doesn’t that mean that it’s impossible to ever learn anything at all? Is our entire existence built on a lie?

If you’re not very familiar with the animals of Madagascar, you probably don’t know what a tenrec is. But then again, maybe you do have some expertise in Madagascarian animals. So then let’s say you actually encounter one out in the world. If you’re in the first camp with the rest of us, you still won’t know what a tenrec is after you see it — you’ll just know that you saw something like a hedgehog wearing a yellow hoodie. And if you are already well aware that tenrecs look like Sonic’s banana-colored cousin, then you didn’t learn anything new by seeing one in the wild either.

This is Meno’s Paradox — either you already know something, so you can’t learn it, or you don’t know it, so you can’t verify it. It first popped up in conversation with Socrates, who phrased it like this: “A man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows — since he knows it, there is no need to search — nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.”

Hmm. Seems to make sense. Does that mean we’re out of a job?

Our entire worldview is spiraling into the void, but we have to say: we’re pretty sure humanity has learned at least three things since Socrates’ time. Like sandwiches. We didn’t know what sandwiches were back then, right? So there must be some kind of loophole to the paradox.

Here’s how you can get around it pretty easily. Think of the paradox as a syllogism: a type of philosophical argument where, if all the premises are true, then the conclusion has to be true as well.

Premise 1: If you know what you’re looking for, inquiry is impossible.

Premise 2: If you don’t know what you’re looking for, inquiry is impossible.

Conclusion: Therefore, inquiry is impossible.

So here’s the thing. “What you’re looking for” in this sense can have more than one meaning, and it’s being used in two different senses in the two premises. If “what you’re looking for” means “the answer to your question,” then Premise 1 is true but Premise 2 is false. And if “what you’re looking for” means “the question you need to ask”, then Premise 2 is true but Premise 1 is false.

This is the fallacy of equivocation, wherein the same term is used for two different concepts. If your geologist friend says “I’m a big rock fan,” and you say “You must love KISS,” then you’ve just committed the fallacy of equivocation. So cheer up, Uncover Reality fans. It turns out you can learn all sorts of things after all.

Think Twice Before Using Adderall As A Study Drug (Medicine)

Adderall often gets prescribed to people with ADHD; it can help improve their attention spans, memories, and more. But Adderall also gets abused by people without ADHD, who take it sans prescription in the hopes it will make them “smarter.” Does Adderall even work as a cognitive booster when you don’t medically need it?

© Gettyimages

A new study in Pharmacy looks into exactly this, focusing on roughly college-age people — the population most likely to abuse Adderall. The 13 study participants were between 18 and 24 years old and healthy, which meant they didn’t have any chronic medical issues.

Over the course of the study, each of them spent two sessions under observation. At the start of each 5.5-hour session, they took a pill. In one session, it was a placebo, and in the other, it was 30 milligrams of Adderall — a dose small enough to be safe for anyone, but big enough to have noticeable effects. The study was double-blind, which meant neither the participants nor the researchers knew if a particular pill was a placebo or Adderall.

After the Adderall had plenty of time to kick in, the researchers gave participants six cognitive tests in a random order. In one test, a researcher read the participant a string of numbers and asked them to verbally recall it, both forward and backward. In another test, participants were asked to hit the space bar on a keyboard when any letter except X appeared on a computer screen.

Throughout the sessions, researchers tested each subject’s heart rate and blood pressure every half hour. The researchers also asked them to describe how they felt physically and emotionally. They responded on a scale that ranged from agreement to disagreement, for instance, to statements like “I am high” and “I like the effects I am feeling right now.”

The researchers found that compared to the placebo, Adderall had significant effects on participants’ cognitive abilities. However, the effects weren’t all positive. Adderall significantly improved performance on the space bar-task, for instance, suggesting the drug boosts attentiveness even in people who don’t need it. However, it significantly hindered performance on the number-recall task. Even if it makes you attentive in the moment, you won’t necessarily remember what you paid such close attention to.

Adderall also had strong non-cognitive effects. Participants reported feeling high on Adderall and enjoying the sensation. They also experienced positive emotions, higher heart rate, and higher blood pressure on the drug. This is no surprise; Adderall is a stimulant made from amphetamine, which is chemically similar to methamphetamine. It can also be addictive, though not in the same way.

So overall, the study suggests that Adderall made participants feel good and pay attention, but didn’t help them learn in a meaningful long-term way. However, the researchers admit that it’s worth taking these results with a grain of salt. The study only had 13 participants and took place in a lab environment free of distractions, which is not how students study in real life — they study surrounded by gadgets and potential distractions, and many struggle with procrastination. Still, the possibility that a drug sometimes used as a study-aid could actually make it harder to remember what you study is worth considering. Maybe stick with coffee and leave the pharmaceuticals to those who really need them.

Daniel Tammet Is The Autistic Savant Who Can Explain His Thought Process (Psychology)

People with savant syndrome suffer from a mental disability, yet demonstrate extraordinary abilities in one specific area that go far beyond what is considered normal. The rare syndrome exists in people with all sorts of developmental disabilities and even brain damage, but seems to especially affect those on the autism spectrum. As many as one in 10 people with autistic disorder display savant syndrome to varying degrees. One such person is Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant who, since suffering an epileptic fit at age 3, has had extraordinary mathematical and language learning capabilities.

Daniel Tammet can recall 22,514 decimals of pi and perform huge mathematical calculations instantly in his head. He’s also a highly skilled language learner: he is fluent in seven languages, and is even coming up with his own language. Speaking multiple languages is one thing, but to do it at Tammet’s pace is distinctive. He learned Icelandic, for instance, in just seven days.

Though Tammet isn’t unique in his savant abilities, he is unique in his ability to explain his thought process. Usually, savants can’t describe how they can do what they do. Tammet, however, describes seeing numbers as shapes, colors, and textures that come together in his mind’s eye to instantly calculate an answer to a problem. Scientists don’t know how people acquire savant syndrome, but they believe Tammet’s ability to explain what’s going on in his head can help them better understand this amazing condition.

This Is How Elon Musk Can Learn And Master Anything Quickly (Psychology)

Elon Musk has done something that barely seems possible: he’s built four multi-billion-dollar companies, each in a different field. And by the looks of it, he has no intention of slowing down. How does he do it?! Among other intangible factors, his success comes in part from his approach to learning.

Luckily, we have some info on how to be more like Musk based on what he’s shared in interviews and even a Reddit AMA. In 2015, Musk shared this nugget of wisdom on Reddit about how he approaches learning: “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.”

What he describes here is called “first principles thinking.” “I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy,” Musk said in an interview. “The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. […] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reason up from there.”

More than 2,300 years ago, Aristotle mirrored this same mode of thinking. The philosopher said that the first principle is the “first basis from which a thing is known.”

Aiming to master the fundamentals of any given subject facilitates part two of Musk’s learning method: learning transfer. This concept is the action of taking what you learn in one area and applying it to another area. This could mean applying something triangle-related you learned in trigonometry, for example, to a real-world problem like playing pool. This could also mean, in Musk’s case, taking what you understand about software and technology and putting it to work in the aerospace industry.

Making connections across traditional boundaries is what sets Musk and others apart. Keith Holyoak, a UCLA professor of psychology and one of the world’s leading thinkers on analogical reasoning, recommends people ask themselves these questions to hone their skills: “What does this remind me of?” and “Why does it remind me of it?”

Musk’s successful use of learning transfer brings up another key vocab word: expert-generalist. These are the people who seem to know a lot about everything. As 99u explains, expert-generalists “develop an appetite for learning and openness” that makes them “more likely to be able to draw ideas from multiple disciplines.”

That old phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” definitely doesn’t apply here. As evidenced by Musk and other expert-generalists, you can very much be a jack of all trades and still be master of a few. Know how to learn (by starting at the “roots of the tree”) and apply that gained knowledge wherever and whenever you can. When in doubt, just ask: What would Elon do?

Your Mind Wanders Half The Time You’re Awake (Neuroscience)

Try this: Clear your mind. Think of absolutely nothing. Take the next minute or so to try it; we’ll wait. Done? Great. What went through your head? If it was something like, “Why is this article telling me what to do? Don’t forget to swing by the grocery store later. I’m hungry. Can a ghost and a zombie come from the same person?” then good news: You’re completely normal. Mind-wandering is your brain’s default mode. That doesn’t mean you need to accept it, though — learning to focus your mind has a lot of benefits.

When we say mind-wandering is the brain’s default mode, that’s not a metaphor. The part of the brain that starts its engines the minute you stop trying to think is called the default mode network, or just the default network. The discovery of this network happened by accident: Neuroscientists in the mid-20th century noticed that brain activity in certain areas spiked when their subjects were asked to rest, even though that rest was included as the scientific control for experiments looking into other brain regions. The brain was supposed to be quiet, but for some reason, it started chattering.

It wasn’t until the 1970s when someone actually looked into this odd activity spike. The Swedish brain physiologist David Ingvar took scans of the brain’s blood flow during rest and noticed that this spike happened in specific areas, most noticeably in the frontal lobe — the center of memory, learning, and cognition. In the early 2000s, a group of researchers used more advanced imaging to identify the responsible regions even more specifically and named this web of brain areas the “default mode network.”

In essence, the default mode network makes up the parts of the brain that take a break when we’re paying attention, but jump into action when we’re not focusing on anything. It’s what leads you to daydream about the future, obsess over your fears, and reminisce about the past. It’s the jingle that pops in your head and the random fact you suddenly remember. In fact, memory is a big one: a 2012 study suggests that greater mind wandering is associated with a higher capacity for working (short-term) memory.

A wandering mind is perfectly, utterly normal. But that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.

Studies have shown that wandering minds aren’t as happy as focused minds, but which direction that goes is in question. A 2010 study in the journal Science found that mind wandering leads to negative moods, but not the opposite; a 2017 study found that fantasizing about the future specifically can lead to depressive symptoms over time. Other studies, however, found that the opposite is true: a bad mood leads to a wandering mind, not vice versa. If the former is true, it could mean mind wandering is making you miserable; if the latter is true, it could mean that it’s just a way to cope when you’re feeling blue.

Of course, there are other, more obvious drawbacks to a wandering mind. When you’re not focused, your thinking suffers: Your reading comprehension, memory, and overall cognitive control decrease. When you need to think creatively, daydreaming can be a powerful tool, but when you need to get down to business, focus is best.

So how do you sharpen your focus? That’s where meditation comes in. For a 2012 study, neuroscientist Wendy Hasenkamp and her team had people sit in an MRI brain scanner while they performed “focused attention meditation” — the kind where you focus your attention on one thing, like the sensation of breathing — and had them push a button every time they noticed their minds wandering. The scans showed that, sure enough, the brain’s default mode network activated during mind wandering. But when the meditators noticed it, it only took 12 seconds for them to redirect their attention and let the attention-focused executive brain network take over. Experienced meditators did this even more quickly.

“This might explain how it feels easier to ‘drop’ thoughts as you become more experienced in meditation — and thus better able to focus,” Hasenkamp writes in Greater Good Magazine. “Thoughts become less sticky because your brain gets re-wired to be better at recognizing and disengaging from mind-wandering.” This makes sense; meditation makes you practice focusing your attention, and practice makes perfect. The next time your mind wanders, realize that it’s just your brain’s default. Then redirect your attention to the task at hand.