Thursday, 24 May 2012

Consistent Exerise and Cognition

A recent study investigated the effects of regular exercise on cognitive function. In an experimental condition, students took part in a regular exercise program for four weeks before completing cognitive and affective tests.

The researchers found that indeed, a mere 30 minutes of physical exercise once a day for the period preceding the tests was enough to produce measurable benefits to both cognition and perceived levels of anxiety. For this to work, though, exercise needs to be regular; exercising only on the day of the test did not produce the same benefits. The key is regularity rather than intensity.

When I started swimming (semi-)regularly last year I was better able to recall new French vocabulary I was learning at the time. The study assessed novel object recognition memory (NOR). This involved showing participants a set of objects before the 4-week block and afterwards. Those who completed the physical exercise showed improved performance in recognising which objects they had seen 4 weeks earlier.

Other studies have provided evidence of positive benefits to attention, decision-making, and mental health. The question is whether exercise benefits other kinds of memory. Object recognition can be applied to words. Written words are objects with a particular shape and character, so it stands to reason that improved object recognition would translate to written word recognition. 

My question is whether exercise can help us process and store words on a deeper level to the extent that we are able to actively recall them without the prompt of a visual object.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Problem with Psychiatry

I came across a very erudite article by Ronald W. Pies, MD (Psychiatric Times Vol 29, No.3 March 1, 2012). In it, he explores the foundations of public dissent at the current state of psychiatry practice in America. I wanted to share his reasoning:


I think the first point is the epicentre of the problem, which is carried off in shockwaves through the media. At the heart of this issue is classification and diagnosis, enter the DSM. Dr. Pies proposes some radical changes to DSM-5, the latest edition due to be published next year.

Click here to read the article (you may need to register [it's free]).

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Chomsky's view on language - broken down

So while rummaging around in my room, I found some dusty old notes from L359 Phonological Development, a 3rd year module of my Bachelors. I used a dictaphone that year, so my notes are really top notch. I found something about Nativism and Chomsky's argument broken down into nicely digestable chunks. I've colour-coded this version for extra clarity.

“It seems plain that language acquisition is based on the child’s discovery of what from a formal point of view is a deep and abstract theory – a generative grammar of his language – many of the concepts and principles which are only remotely related to experience by long and intricate chains of unconscious quasi-inferential steps. A consideration of the character of the grammar that is acquired, the degenerate quality and narrowly limited extent of the available data, the striking uniformity of the resulting grammars, and their independence of intelligence, motivation, and emotional state, over wide ranges of variation, leave little hope that much of the structure of the language can be learned by an organism initially uninformed as to its general character.”

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: MIT Press.

  • the character of the grammar that is acquired: the astounding complexity of language
  • the degenerate quality and narrowly limited extent of the available data: speech input from adults consists of interruptions, mistakes, false-starts, and so on; the fact that infants only hear a finite number of utterances during development, yet are later able to produce an infinite amount of utterances
  • the striking uniformity of the resulting grammars: the idea that all English speakers will agree when a sentence is ‘correct’ or not (although people do disagree on subtle grammaticality-judgement tasks)
  • and their independence of intelligence, motivation, and emotional state, over wide ranges of variation: language must be considered a disparate faculty since it bears no relation to intelligence, motivation, etc.
  • uninformed as to its general character: Chomsky argues that considering the four points above, it is very unlikely that humans could master such a complex system in such adverse circumstances without being ‘predisposed’ to learning it from birth. In other words, infants must be prepared in advance to learn language and have access to some kind of innate structure or representational system.
Chomsky's theory is formidable and necessarily posits a Universal Grammar - the claim that Czech, Japanese, Hebrew, Swahili, Hindi, English, Swedish, Portuguese, and all other languages share a common underlying structure. There's a good deal of evidence for this.
However, Emergentism, the arch nemesis of Nativism, claims on the other hand that in fact we are not born being predisposed to linguistic structure but that instead we possess extremely powerful learning mechanisms. Improving technology and investigative techniques have allowed researchers to explore this idea more thoroughly, and I intend to cover it at a later date. It's really a very interesting topic because it incorporates attentional as well as cognitive processes.