Mother tongue

10/08/2010

Updating Magic Universe

It really is your mother tongue

Amid all the politically correct attempts to minimize the differences between the sexes, and ignore their contrasting roles in child rearing, how refreshing to see knock-down evidence pointing the other way! In results released today, researchers in Japan proclaim the special role of mothers in evolution’s most distinctive task for Homo sapiens – encouraging babies to chat.

The tale is quickly told because the RIKEN Brain Science Institute (located near Tokyo) has provided helpful diagrams. I’ve re-written the captions.

Special brain activity in mothers with babies at the babbling, pre-verbal stage appears in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) when they hear maternal baby-talk, technically known as infant-directed speech (IDS). The highest activity, denoted in red, is in the key language areas of the left hemisphere, Broca’s and Wernicke’s. Other women show a slightly raised response, but men don’t, whether they are fathers or not.

The fact that the special maternal brain activity switches on when it’s needed, and off again when it isn’t, reveals an astonishing evolutionary program.

The most amusing technical detail is that the investigators wanted to image the brains of mothers actually interacting with their babies, but they couldn’t. It was impossible for the mothers to keep their heads still. Listening passively to playbacks of baby-talk had to do instead. The experimental subjects were 35 first-time parents with pre-verbal infants, 30 men and women without any parenting experience, 16 mothers with toddlers who spoke two-word utterances and 18 mothers with children in elementary school.

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Wisdom of Kilgore Trout

25/06/2010

Predictions Revisited, Updating Magic Universe, and Climate Change: News & Comments

The Wisdom of Kilgore Trout

While checking a reference for yesterday’s posting I came across an epigram concerning human behaviour that I declared, back in 1983, should rank with Einstein’s E=mc2 in physics. I quoted it in 1984 and After, but it really ought to be written on every blackboard in the world.

Who said so? None other than Kilgore Trout, the imaginary science fiction writer invented by the real-life science fiction writer, Kurt Vonnegut. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut re-caps a Trout story called Plague on Wheels.

A space traveller called Kago told the Earthlings about the self-reproducing automobiles on a dying planet named Lingo-Three.

Kago did not know that human beings could be as easily felled by a single idea as by cholera or the bubonic plague. There was no immunity to cuckoo ideas on Earth.” Within a century of Kago’s arrival the Earth was dying too, littered with the shells of automobiles.

Getting an interview with Vonnegut was never easy, but when I managed it my key question was whether Kilgore Trout’s epigram expressed his own opinion. He said, Yes it did.

Before this accidental prompt, I wasn’t going to bother to comment on a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, no less. Anderegg et al. claim that scientists convinced about man-made global warming are cleverer and better respected, as well as much more numerous, than scientists who are unconvinced.

Now I’ll say that it’s scary but not surprising that the National Academy of Sciences should permit a division of experts into an ingroup and an outgroup, and an evaluation of them by arbitrary tests that have nothing whatever to do with the inherent substance or merit of their research. Unsurprising because it accords with Kilgore Trout’s insight into human behaviour, which has been well verified in psychological experiments.

Alec Nisbett of BBC-TV filmed one experiment called Klee-Kandinsky, executed for real with unsuspecting schoolboys, for our documentary “The Human Conspiracy” (1975).  I also summarize the experiment in Magic Universe, in the story “Altruism and aggression: looking for the origins of those human alternatives”.

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