Monday, April 30, 2012

Study: Reasons for suspension and expulsion complex, race still central

An Indiana University study presented on Friday at the American Educational Research Association meeting in Vancouver shows that race continues to be an important factor in determining who receives out-of-school suspension and expulsion, and that racial disparities in school discipline are most likely due more to school characteristics than to the characteristics of behaviors or students. Russ Skiba, professor in counseling and educational psychology at the Indiana University School of Education, led the study, exploring factors affecting disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion for African-American students. Skiba is director of The Equity Project, offering evidence-based information on equity in special education and school discipline, based in the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at IU Bloomington. "For overall rates of suspension and expulsion, the study found that discipline is not just a function of difficult students receiving punishment but is more complex," Skiba said. Type of misbehavior, student characteristics including race and socioeconomic status, and school characteristics, such as the principal's views on school discipline, all predict which students will be suspended or expelled. In particular, the study found race to be a key factor. "It continues to be a powerful predictor of the severity of school punishment, independent of poverty status or the type of behavior students engage in," Skiba said. "In particular, schools with more African-American students are more likely to use more exclusionary forms of discipline such as suspension or expulsion." He said the researchers found that poverty rates and more disruptive behavior didn't account for the racial disparities. Instead, the characteristics of schools themselves, including principal attitudes regarding discipline, are most important in accounting for racial differences. Here are some of the findings: * After controlling for both poverty and the seriousness of behavior, African American students remain 1.5 times more likely than white students to receive an out-of-school suspension. * Students in schools with higher proportions of black students are almost 6 times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension. * Students in schools where a principal supports preventive alternatives to suspension are 30 percent less likely to receive an out-of-school suspension, and more than 50 percent less likely to receive an expulsion. Skiba said the results are consistent with other recent reports, including a report released last month by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights that found national data indicate African-American students are far more likely than peers to be suspended. "It is especially troubling that these results support previous research in showing that schools with higher proportions of African-American students use more punitive procedures, regardless of the socioeconomic level of the schools," Skiba said. "It's no surprise that schools face tough and complex decisions in trying to keep schools safe and orderly," Skiba said, but he added that the results also have important implications for addressing racial differences in discipline. "If we really wish to make a difference in reducing racial and ethnic disparities in suspension and expulsion, these findings suggest that we would do better reflecting upon school policies and practices than focusing on characteristics of students or their behavior." __________________ References: EurekAlert. 2012. "Study: Reasons for suspension and expulsion complex, race still central". EurekAlert. Posted: April 13, 2012. Available online:

Sunday, April 29, 2012

What is contemporary global nomadism and how does it affect materialism?

Is John Lennon's line "imagine no possessions" not as idealistic as it once seemed? According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, globalization has led to a new class of "global nomads" who are less attached to material objects.

"No one has studied contemporary global nomads and their relationship to possessions, and we can learn so much about how deterritorialization affects consumer culture from this unique and growing group of people," write authors Fleura Bardhi (Northeastern University), Giana M. Eckhardt (Suffolk University), and Eric J. Arnould (Bath University). "As possessions are seen as bumps on the road during geographical movement, the nomadic perspective challenges our existing views of possessions as central to consumer identity."

The authors conducted in-depth interviews with "elite global nomads," most of them from the United States, but several from the United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey and Romania. According to the authors, these nomads travel more than 60 percent of the year and tend to work for global institutions like the UN, IMF, World Bank, and global NGOs.

"Global nomads tend to form situational attachments to objects, appreciate objects primarily for their instrumental use-value, and value immaterial or 'light' possessions as well as practices," the authors write. And they need their possessions to be portable, like portable electronics. They also value objects that help them stay connected to networks, like e-books and digital photos. "It is not the object per se that is valued, but rather its accessibility. Thus, possessions are replaceable and are not salient or part of the individual's extended self." Unlike migrants and expatriates who long for a home and relationships they left behind, global nomads are liberated from emotional, social, and physical obligations.

"Globalization theorists argue that global nomadism will become more prevalent in the future, and thus the liquid relationship to possessions that we identify will become an important lens in which to understand the new role of objects in people's lives, as consumers will seek to temporarily access objects rather than own them over long periods of time," the authors conclude.

EurekAlert. 2012. "What is contemporary global nomadism and how does it affect materialism?". EurekAlert. Posted: April 16, 2012. Available online:

Fleura Bardhi, Giana M. Eckhardt, and Eric J. Arnould. "Liquid Relationship to Possessions." Journal of Consumer Research: October 2012. For more information, contact Fleura Bardhi ( or visit

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Children teaching parents about Aboriginal culture: UBC study

In a unique role reversal, children in literacy programs for indigenous families are learning about Aboriginal culture and language and teaching it to their parents - many of whom are missing this knowledge because of Canada's history of residential schools and child welfare removal policies. This reversal is identified in a new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia.

UBC Faculty of Education researchers Jan Hare and graduate student Nicola Friedrich studied the role of family literacy programming for Indigenous children and families taking part in Canada's national Aboriginal early intervention program, Aboriginal Head Start (AHS).

"This study suggests that for families from diverse cultural and linguistic communities, there are multiple pathways to learning," says Hare, who is presenting this research at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting in Vancouver. "Children become knowledge brokers, helping their parents navigate the expectations and norms within their families, schools and communities."

Residential schools were established across Canada from 1850 to 1950.

"The residential school system disrupted the transmission of cultural knowledge and language from parent to child across the generations," says Hare, an associate professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education. "Today, many Aboriginal parents living in urban areas are dislocated from their culture, language and identity."

The AHS program in Canada serves Aboriginal children and families in more than 130 urban and rural communities and nearly 350 First Nations communities.

AHS focuses on health promotion, social support, nutrition, family involvement, school readiness and culture and language. The program was developed as an early intervention strategy to address the learning and developmental needs of young children living in urban, rural and First Nations communities.

Hare, who studied the outcomes of eight AHS programs in central and western Canadian cities, found that children were sharing what they learned about culture and language from AHS with their parents.

"The transmission of knowledge from child to parent is significant," says Hare. "It flips the mainstream model that family literacy programs tend to be based on, where parents teach children."

EurekAlert. 2012. "Children teaching parents about Aboriginal culture: UBC study". EurekAlert. Posted: April 13, 2012. Available online:

Friday, April 27, 2012

Women and Children First? Not Anymore

The idea that women and children should be helped off a sinking ship first died with the Titanic.

The chivalrous code "women and children first" appears to have sunk with the Titanic 100 years ago.

Long believed to be the golden standard of conduct in a shipwreck, the noble edict is in fact "a myth that has been nourished by the Titanic disaster," economist Mikael Elinder of Uppsala University, Sweden, told Discovery News.

Elinder and colleague Oscar Erixson analyzed a database of 18 peace-time shipwrecks over the period 1852–2011 in a new study into survival advantages at sea disasters.

Looking at the fate of over 15,000 people of more than 30 nationalities, the researchers found that more women and children die than men in maritime disasters, while captains and crew have a greater chance of survival than any passengers.

Being a woman was an advantage on only two ships: on the Birkenhead in 1852 and on the Titanic in 1912.

Indeed, it was the sinking of the troopship HMS Birkenhead off the coast of South Africa in 1852 that inspired the tradition of "women and children first."

The story goes that the soldiers' commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton, ordered his men to help get the women and children on board the three lifeboats as the Birkenhead began sinking in shark-infested waters. Not a single woman or child lost their life, thanks to the soldiers who stoically stood on deck as the ship went down.

Going down in maritime history as the Birkenhead Drill -- women and children first -- their sacrifice deeply influenced the behavior on the Titanic.

When the luxury liner sank in the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912, the captain E.J. Smith admonished the men to "Be British," letting women and children leave first.

In the best romantic tradition, he did go down with his ship. Overall, 1,496 of the 2,208 people aboard died as the 46,000-ton vessel plunged to a depth of 12,400 feet.

"Women had a quite remarkable survival advantage over men, 73.3 percent compared to 20.7 percent. First class passengers had ha survival rate of 62 percent, second class 41.8 percent and third class 25.4 percent. Children had a higher survival rate than adults," Elinder and Erixson wrote in a paper titled "Every man for himself!" published by the Research Institute of Industrial Economics.

It was the last time that women benefited from the Birkenhead tradition.

Continuing their investigation, Elinder and Erixson found that women had a lower chance of survival in 11 out of 18 shipwrecks. Women fared worse also in recent times, during the sinking of the Russian river cruise MV Bulgaria in 2011. They had a survival rate of 26.9 percent, opposed to 60.3 percent of men.

Overall, children appear to have the lowest survival rate.

"Women and children first was a very patchy, uneven goal in 19th and 20th century shipwrecks. It had strong class, nationality and ethnicity elements, which meant that 'ladies first' was more often practiced," Lucy Delap, fellow and director of studies in history at the University of Cambridge, UK, told Discovery News.

Delap, who was not involved in the research, noticed that the migrants and pilgrims of low socio-economic status who traveled by ship were very often not given the dignity of being divided into men and women.

"They were simply regarded as mobs, crowds or 'cargo.' You very rarely had women and children of this class and racial background being given precedence in shipwrecks," she said.

Elinder and Erixson also found that the crew and the captain had the best odds of survival on average -- a rule confirmed by the recent Costa Concordia disaster.

"Only seven out of 16 captains went down with their ship," said Elinder

The study dismissed previous theories according to which selfish behavior dominated on fast sinking ships, while socially determined behavioral patterns were more likely to re-emerge on slowly sinking vessels.

"We found that women have a disadvantage independently of whether the ship sinks quickly or slowly," the researchers said.

What really seems to matter is the behavior of the captain, who has the power to enforce normative behavior.

"His policy, rather than the moral sentiments of men, determines if women are given preferential treatment in shipwrecks. This suggests an important role for leaders in disasters," the researchers wrote.

Indeed, the "women and children first" order was given for only five times out of 18 sinkings.

Also, women would have been better off if they had avoided British ships. In contrasts with the notion of British men being more gallant than men of other nationalities, women fared worse in shipwrecks involving Union Jack ships.

"Based on our analysis, it becomes evident that the sinking of the Titanic was exceptional in many ways and that what happened on the Titanic seems to have spurred misconceptions about human behavior in disasters," Elinder and Erixson concluded.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2012. "Women and Children First? Not Anymore". Discovery News. Posted: April 13, 2012. Available online:

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Significant Skull Differences Between Closely Linked Groups

In order to accurately identify skulls as male or female, forensic anthropologists need to have a good understanding of how the characteristics of male and female skulls differ between populations. A new study from North Carolina State University shows that these differences can be significant, even between populations that are geographically close to one another.

The researchers looked at the skulls of 27 women and 28 men who died in Lisbon, Portugal, between 1880 and 1975. They also evaluated the skulls of 40 women and 39 men who died between 1895 and 1903 in the rural area of Coimbra, just over 120 miles north of Lisbon.

The researchers found significant variation between female skulls from Lisbon and those from Coimbra. "The differences were in the shape of the skull, not the size," says Dr. Ann Ross, professor of anthropology at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the study. "This indicates that the variation is due to genetic differences, rather than differences of diet or nutrition." The researchers found little difference between the male skulls.

Specifically, the researchers found that the female skulls from Lisbon exhibited greater intraorbital distance than the skulls of Coimbra females. In other words, the women from Lisbon had broader noses and eyes that were spaced further apart.

This difference in craniofacial characteristics may stem from an influx of immigrants into Lisbon, which is a port city, Ross says. However, it may also be a result of preferential mate selection -- meaning Lisbon men were finding mates abroad, or were more attracted to women with those facial features.

"Finding this level of dimorphism between groups in such close proximity to each other highlights the importance of examining human variation if we hope to make informed assessments of skeletal remains," Ross says. "That's true whether you're working in a biohistorical context or engaged in forensic analysis with law enforcement."

Science Daily. 2012. "Significant Skull Differences Between Closely Linked Groups". Science Daily. Posted: April 12, 2012. Available online:

Ashley L. Humphries, Ann H. Ross. Craniofacial Sexual Dimorphism in Two Portuguese Skeletal Samples. Anthropologie, 2012 (accepted)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Excessive Worrying May Have Co-Evolved With Intelligence

Worrying may have evolved along with intelligence as a beneficial trait, according to a recent study by scientists at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and other institutions. Jeremy Coplan, MD, professor of psychiatry at SUNY Downstate, and colleagues found that high intelligence and worry both correlate with brain activity measured by the depletion of the nutrient choline in the subcortical white matter of the brain. According to the researchers, this suggests that intelligence may have co-evolved with worry in humans.

"While excessive worry is generally seen as a negative trait and high intelligence as a positive one, worry may cause our species to avoid dangerous situations, regardless of how remote a possibility they may be," said Dr. Coplan. "In essence, worry may make people 'take no chances,' and such people may have higher survival rates. Thus, like intelligence, worry may confer a benefit upon the species."

In this study of anxiety and intelligence, patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) were compared with healthy volunteers to assess the relationship among intelligence quotient (IQ), worry, and subcortical white matter metabolism of choline. In a control group of normal volunteers, high IQ was associated with a lower degree of worry, but in those diagnosed with GAD, high IQ was associated with a greater degree of worry. The correlation between IQ and worry was significant in both the GAD group and the healthy control group. However, in the former, the correlation was positive and, in the latter, the correlation was negative. Eighteen healthy volunteers (eight males and 10 females) and 26 patients with GAD (12 males and 14 females) served as subjects.

Previous studies have indicated that excessive worry tends to exist both in people with higher intelligence and lower intelligence, and less so in people of moderate intelligence. It has been hypothesized that people with lower intelligence suffer more anxiety because they achieve less success in life.

Science Daily. 2012. "Excessive Worrying May Have Co-Evolved With Intelligence". Science Daily. Posted: April 12, 2012. Available online:

Jeremy D. Coplan, Sarah Hodulik, Sanjay J. Mathew, Xiangling Mao, Patrick R. Hof, Jack M. Gorman, Dikoma C. Shungu. The Relationship between Intelligence and Anxiety: An Association with Subcortical White Matter Metabolism. Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience, 2012; 3 DOI: 10.3389/fnevo.2011.00008

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Rebuffing racial insults: How culture shapes our behavior

The color of our skin or where we come does matter when it comes to how we react to a racist insult. A new study has found that African American women are more likely than Asian American women to directly rebuff racist comments, a difference that may reflect deeply rooted cultural differences.

"Our work shows that racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds are sources of diversity that may explain why different targets of racism behave the way they do," says Elizabeth Lee who conducted the research with co-lead author José Soto while at The Pennsylvania State University. Published online this week in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the study builds on past work that shows distinct differences across people from different cultures in conflict management, communication style, and emotional display rules.

In one experiment, the researchers recruited Asian women and Black women to talk to another college student online using Instant Messenger (IM). The conversation partner was actually a research assistant trained to make either a racist comment, like "Dating [Blacks/Asians] is for tools who let [Blacks/Asians] control them," or a parallel non-racist but still rude comment.

Participants then took part in what seemed like an unrelated taste test study to choose a candy for their conversation partner to eat. The participants could choose from an array of jellybeans that included good tasting (e.g. cherry, lemon) and bad tasting (e.g. earwax, dirt) jellybeans.

The researchers analyzed the conversations to measure how directly the participants responded to the offensive comment. They also took note of the jellybean flavors selected for the conversation partners as a measure of as an indirect way of responding to the conversation partner.

"The results of this study showed that African Americans were more likely to respond more directly when we looked at the transcripts of the IM conversations," says Lee who is now at ISCTE-Lisbon University Institute. "However, this difference in responding style goes away when you look at what kinds of jelly beans they gave the offending conversation partner." For the Asian women, the jelly bean selection served as an indirect method to respond to the racist comment – a sort of quiet revenge.

A second study had a different set of Black and Asian participants imagine having a conversation with a stranger who makes a racist comment. The researchers then asked them about their anticipated response to the comment and their goals for their imagined behavior. "The goals we were interested in were based on the norms that should be sanctioned by either African American or Asian American culture for these kinds of situations," Lee says. The results found that the Asian Americans were more likely to say they would not respond directly, driven by their desire to keep the peace in the interaction.

"Our findings are consistent with Black women's cultural heritage, which celebrates the past accomplishments of other Black confronters of discrimination, as well as Asian women's heritage, which advises finding expedient resolutions in the name of peaceful relations," the researchers write.

One important finding, Lee says is that "responding to racism in what seems like a passive or indirect way does not indicate being any less offended by the racism compared to responding behavior that is more direct and verbal." She hopes that the work will spur researchers, clinicians, policymakers, and educators to consider the importance of racial background when making recommendations for how people should handle interpersonal discrimination.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Rebuffing racial insults: How culture shapes our behavior". EurekAlert. Posted: April 12, 2012. Available online:

Monday, April 23, 2012

Speakers of a tone language show improved pitch perception

People who speak Cantonese, a tonal language, demonstrate enhance musical pitch perception relative to Canadian French and English speakers, according to an Apr. 11 report in the open access journal PLoS ONE.

The researchers, led by Patrick Wong, Li-Hai Tan, and Isabelle Peretz at the University of Montreal also investigated individuals with congenital amusia, a neurogenetic disorder that affects processing of pitch and rhythm in music. Interestingly, Cantonese speaking amusics still showed enhanced pitch perception relative to Canadian amusics. These results, the authors write, argue for a re-conceptualization of communicative disorders within appropriate cultural frameworks.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Speakers of a tone language show improved pitch perception". EurekAlert. Posted: April 11, 2012. Available online:

Wong PCM, Ciocca V, Chan AHD, Ha LYY, Tan L-H, et al. (2012) Effects of Culture on Musical Pitch Perception. PLoS ONE 7(4): e33424. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033424

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fear of threats associated with social circle size

Humans' fear level toward threats is associated with the typical size of our social circles, according to a report published Apr. 11 in the open access journal PLoS ONE.

People fear threats that would kill 100 people more than those that would kill 10 people, but equally fear those that would kill either 100 or 1,000 people, the authors report. Social groups tend to be on the order of about 100 people. The researchers, Mirta Galesic of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany and Rocio Garcia-Retamero of the University of Granada in Spain, also determined that this effect was not due to lack of differentiation between 100 and 1,000.

The authors conclude that the work could have important implications for raising awareness about specific risks to the general public.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Fear of threats associated with social circle size". EurekAlert. Posted: April 11, 2012. Available online:

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Inuit drum history longer than realized

Two deep-frozen settlements, Qeqertasussuk and Qajaa, were among the traces that some of the very first immigrants to western Greenland, 4,500 years ago, left behind at Disko Bay.

Unlike settlements elsewhere in the world, where only stone objects have survived thousands of years hidden in the soil, the deep-frozen remains in the Disko Bay area have also preserved perishable materials such as wood and bones, hair, feathers and skins.

Archaeological excavations at Qeqertasussuk and Qajaa in the 1980s brought countless otherwise unknown tools and objects to light – including harpoons and lances, tools with shafts, kitchen items, even parts of skin clothing.

Finds like this have gradually helped archaeologists draw a detailed picture of the people of the Saqqaq culture – the first inhabitants of western Greenland.

Now an extra dimension has been added because of the two pieces of frozen wood found among so many other wooden items from the two settlements that are now kept at museums in Nuuk and Qasigiannguit.

The soul of a culture

Archaeologists recognised the two pieces of frozen wood as parts of drums – used in drum songs and dances, which express the soul of the Inuit culture. Until Greenland was Christianised, the drum was the indispensable tool of the angakoq – the Inuit shaman – at séances.

The drum’s wooden hoop

Several fragments from drum hoops were found at the two settlements, but two pieces of wood – one from each settlement – were particularly interesting.

They are bent strips 20-24 cm long, about 2 cm wide and 12-13 mm thick; both have a quite deep lengthwise groove.

Comparisons with other ethnographic objects show that wooden strips with this shape formed the round or oval hoop of a drum.

From other ancient drums we know that the drum’s hoop was often made up of several pieces of wood that were tied together, and the joint was perhaps reinforced by a tooth or a piece of bone.

The drumhead, of skin, would be stretched over the hoop and kept in place by a skin strap that runs in the groove and is tightened around the skin drumhead and hoop. The result is a flat drum, which the angakog would hold using a handle.

The piece of wood from Qeqertasussuk is made of spruce. Its ends are cut at an angle, and these surfaces have marks showing it was tied to other pieces of wood. This indicates that the Saqqaq drum hoop was made of several pieces.

Size and sound

What do these small pieces of wood tell us about the size of the Saqqaq drum?

As their curvature has been affected by the 4,500 years they spent in deep-frozen soil, we must instead compare their width and thickness with other ancient drums known from ethnographic studies.

Some of the drums that the Danish polar explorer and anthropologist Knud Rasmussen collected from the Inuit in Canada during his Fifth Thule Expedition (1921-24) have a hoop that matches the Saqqaq drum in terms of height, thickness and cross-section.

This indicates that the drums from which the two pieces of deep-frozen wood from the settlements of Qeqertasussuk and Qajaa derived had a diameter of not less than 60-75 cm – rather larger than those known from Greenland’s history.

From a recent reconstruction carried out by Martin Appelt, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark, in collaboration with the Greenland National Museum and Archives, we know that the drums gave a loud, deep sound when they were struck.

Adds years to the history of the Inuit drum

The discovery of drums belonging to the Saqqaq people must mean that the whole of the rich Inuit culture centring on drum songs and dances – and, perhaps, Shamanism – was brought to Greenland by the very first settlers, who came from Canada.

These Greenland drum fragments add several thousand years to the known history of Inuit drums. But tracing the first Inuit drums westwards is not easy.

Inuit came from Canada

The oldest preserved drum remains in Canada are about 1,000 years old and come from the Late Dorset culture. These remains are wood and derive from the hoops of three small, round drums about 25-30 cm in diameter.

The were found on Bylot Island in Nunavut, which comprises a major portion of northern Canada, and most of the Canadian Arctic archipelago, in the eastern Arctic area of the country.

A little piece of wood from the same time period, used for reinforcing a drum hoop, was found in Igloolik further to the southwest.

As all Inuit migration to Greenland took place from Canada, there is little doubt that the history of the drum is as long in Canada as it is in Greenland.

Even older in Alaska

Tracing the history of the Inuit drum is made difficult because wooden items have not been preserved at the many Canadian settlements from the Pre-Dorset culture, a Paleo-Eskimo culture that lived in the eastern Arctic from 2500 to 500 BC. This was contemporaneous with another Paleo-Eskimo culture, the Saqqaq culture, in southern Greenland, from around 2500 to around 800 BC.

Even further west, in Alaska, the first certain traces of drums are rather earlier than those in Canada – about 2,000 years old.

On St Lawrence Island, which lies in the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia, handles and hoops from drums have been excavated from permafrost layers at settlements from the Old Bering Sea culture.

No answers without wooden remains

All subsequent cultures in Alaska had drums, but the situation is similar to that in Canada: wooden objects have not been preserved in the oldest Alaskan settlements, which date from the Denbigh culture about 5,500 years ago.

This means we cannot prove that the first Inuit used drums – but the finds from Greenland make it very probable.

Nor can we trace the history of the Inuit drum back to Siberia – from where the first Inuit migrated eastwards over the new land bridge to Alaska that appeared in the Ice Age.

Only stone objects from this period have been found along the harsh coast of the Chukotka (or Chukchi) peninsula. But we can hope that future archaeological excavations find as well-preserved permafrost settlements in Siberia as those at Disko Bay.

The drum fragment found at Qeqertasussuk is already on display at the museum at Qasigiannguit, while the fragment from Qajaa is on display at the permanent exhibition of Greenland National Museum and Archives in Nuuk.

Grønnow, Bjarne. trans. Michael de Laine. 2012. "Inuit drum history longer than realized". Past Horizons. Posted: Available online:

Friday, April 20, 2012

Niceness is in Your DNA, Scientists Find

Many times, two siblings raised by the same parents, and subject to similar environmental influences, can turn out to be polar opposites: one kind and generous, the other mean-spirited. A new study reveals that the latter might simply have been dealt the wrong hormone receptor genes.

Oxytocin and vasopressin, two hormones that inspire feelings of love and generosity when they flood our brains, bind to neurons by attaching to molecules called receptors, which can come in different forms. The new research, led by psychologist Michel Poulin of the University of Buffalo, suggests that if you have the genes that give you certain versions of those hormone receptors, you're more likely to be a nice person than if you have the genes for one of the other versions. However, the researchers found that the genes work in concert with a person's upbringing and life experiences to determine how sociable — or anti-social — he or she becomes.

As detailed in a new article in the journal Psychological Science, hundreds of people were surveyed about their attitudes toward civic duty, their charitable activities and their worldview. They were asked, for example, whether people have an obligation to report crimes, sit on juries or pay taxes, whether they themselves engage in charitable activities such as giving blood or volunteering, and whether people — and the world as a whole — are basically good, or are threatening and dangerous. Of those surveyed, 711 people provided a sample of their saliva for DNA analysis, which showed which version of the oxytocin and vasopressin receptors they had.

Study participants who saw the world as a threatening place, and the people in it as inherently bad, were nonetheless nice, dutiful and charitable as long as they had the versions of the receptor genes associated with niceness. These "nicer" versions of the genes, Poulin said, "allow you to overcome feelings of the world being threatening and help other people in spite of those fears."

With the other types of receptor genes, however, a negative worldview resulted in anti-social behavior.

"The fact that the genes predicted behavior only in combination with people's experiences and feelings about the world isn't surprising," Poulin said in a press release, "because most connections between DNA and social behavior are complex." [Is Free Will an Illusion? Scientists, Philosophers Forced to Differ]

For oxytocin, the difference between having the "nicer" hormone receptor and the "less nice" receptor lies in a single DNA base pair located on the third chromosome. If you inherit two guanine base pairs — one from each parent — giving you a genotype represented by the letters GG, your cells build the "nicer" receptor. If you inherit an adenine base pair from either one or both parents, and have a genotype represented by either AA or AG, you land the "less nice" oxytocin receptor.

The percentage of people with each genotype varies greatly between ethnicities. "In European-American samples — so, white people in the U.S. — what you see is that the GG genotype represents about half of people, or a small majority. That's the population we studied in this paper," Poulin told Life's Little Mysteries. "Other research … indicates that the rates of GG or the so-called 'nice' genotype are much lower in East Asian populations. This is sparking an interesting discussion among psychologists about the roots of pro-social behavior. We know East Asian cultures are much more communal than other cultures. How do we explain that distinction?"

It could be that other genes, or other cultural factors, play a more significant role in molding communal behavior among East Asian people than their oxytocin receptors, Poulin said. "These are early days in figuring out the association between genes and pro-social behavior."

But the evidence is converging to point to a greater influence of genes on niceness than was previous assumed. For example, another study performed last year by scientists at the University of Edinburgh showed that identical twins, who share 100 percent of their genes, had much more similar attitudes toward civic duty and charitable activities than did fraternal twins, who had parallel upbringings but who share only 50 percent of their genes. With the new study, Poulin and his colleagues have identified the genes that they say "may lie at the core of the caregiving behavioral system."

"We aren't saying we've found the niceness gene," he said. "But we have found a gene that makes a contribution. What I find so interesting is the fact that it only makes a contribution in the presence of certain feelings people have about the world around them."

Having the "nicer" genes may benefit you, as well as those around you. According to the scientists, "Some research has indicated that behavior aimed at helping other people is a better predictor of health and well-being than are social engagement or received social support." In other words, helping others makes you healthier — even more so than being helped yourself.

Wolchover, Natalie. 2012. "Niceness is in Your DNA, Scientists Find". Live Science. Posted: April 9, 2012. Available online:

Thursday, April 19, 2012

'Welsh is a wonderful gift': speakers of the language relish new support

With language commissioner promising to act against suppression of Welsh, there could be a resurgence in the tongue

Abi Pierce takes time out from her work at the Affordable Household Goods stall at Wrexham Butchers' Market to wax lyrical about the Welsh language: "I see it as a wonderful gift, something to be cherished and developed."

It's not easy being a Welsh speaker, she admits. "I'm not always comfortable speaking it," the 17-year-old says. "Some people take it as a bit of a joke, they think it's a dying language and not worth saving."

Which is why she is buoyed up by the bold attitude of the newly minted Welsh language commissioner, who is promising not only to act as an advocate for the tongue but to take action against those who do not give Welsh speakers such as Abi the freedom to express themselves.

In her first speech as commissioner, Meri Huws spoke of her vision of a Wales where speakers had the confidence to use the language and trust in the law to rectify any prejudice. Her initial focus will be to make sure that the Welsh government and public bodies fulfil their obligations to offer services both in English and Welsh.

Strikingly, Huws signalled she would step in if employees in small businesses were denied the freedom to speak Welsh at work. She gave the scenario of two hairdressers who were speaking Welsh together and a third insisting they speak English because he or she could not understand.

"In that situation the third colleague has interfered with the other two's freedom to use the Welsh language," said Huws. The Welsh speakers could complain to the commissioner and she could investigate.

Abi is impressed. "Anything that can be done to make Welsh speakers more comfortable and more confident has to be a good thing. Especially in a place like Wrexham, which is not a Welsh-speaking heartland, we do need someone that is going to help us fight for the language."

The legislation that introduced the post of commissioner – and makes Welsh an official language – is the Welsh Language (Wales) 2011 Measure, the first piece of law relating to the language drafted and passed in Wales since the Act of Union in 1536.

There is a possibility that Huws could be the first of a wave of language commissioners. Scotland and Northern Ireland are watching how she operates with a view to replicating her role. Some believe there could be an argument to bring in commissioners in England to champion minority languages.

In Wales, many believe the language is in crisis. Efforts have been made to teach Welsh in schools and more younger people such as Abi relish speaking the language but there continues to be a net loss of fluent speakers.

Nigel Ruck, who works for a public body but is today on a day off and enjoying a pint at Wrexham's new Welsh cultural centre Saith Seren (Seven Stars), has learned Welsh since moving from the south to a language heartland in the north. "I felt guilty I couldn't speak Welsh. Learning was a revelation and I find it very empowering," he says. But he wonders if it is better to encourage rather than coerce.

Meirion Prys Jones, the head of the now defunct Welsh language board (which has been replaced by the commissioner), raised a similar point in a BBC interview: "You can have as much legislation as you want, you can have as much policy as you want, but unless you get in amongst the people and persuade them that the language is useful to them, there's no hope, I think."

The standards that organisations will have to meet will be shaped in the coming months during a period of public consultation. The commissioner will be able to fine bodies that do not comply with standards up to £5,000. Her powers relating to, for example, the hairdressers she mentioned are more limited though she could investigate complaints, write a report and release it to the media.

The tenor of the commissioner's remarks is causing alarm bells to ring in business and industry.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in Wales believes that more language legislation could put more of a burden on its members.

Iestyn Davies, head of external affairs, said the FSB was "fully supportive" of Wales's development as a bilingual country. "But I believe the best way to encourage the language is through voluntary codes. People should be encouraged to use Welsh because they want to, not because they are coerced."

Over in the People's Market (Wrexham has a rich variety of indoor markets) Nyeem Aslam is less diplomatic than the FSB. "I think this commissioner is talking nonsense. They always seem to be coming up with new rules to make it harder for businesses." Aslam runs the Welsh Shop in the market, selling rugby shirts and T-shirts bearing patriotic slogans such as "Every morning I wake up, I thank the Lord I'm Welsh" but believes that in towns such as Wrexham, the Welsh language is irrelevant. "I don't speak it and don't do any business in Welsh."

Huws' role is not unique. Canada has language commissioners to protect its bilingualism and, as in Wales, immigration is seen as one of its major challenges. The Republic of Ireland also has a commissioner and is reviewing how its language laws are working on the ground.

Bethan Williams, chair of the pressure group Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society), said legislation was necessary to make sure Welsh was a "central part of everyday life".

She wants the commissioner to tackle big business, to force supermarkets to provide services in Welsh rather than just sticking up a few "tokenistic" signs in Welsh and to ensure banks offer online services in Welsh.

Professor Colin Williams, a language policy expert at Cardiff University's School of Welsh, said there could be an argument for language commissioners in the UK for other tongues such as Urdu or Gujarati. "These minority languages aren't temporary, they are permanent."

Williams said the new law was important for the language but also because it showed that Wales, which only gained primary law-making powers last year, could frame its own legislation.

"The new language measure was a test case of the ability of the national assembly to produce primary legislation. It was proof that legislation distinct for Wales could be fashioned in Wales and implemented by Welsh public servants. It is a symbolic sign."

Welsh in numbers

• Until the mid-1800s, more than 80% of people in Wales could speak Welsh.

• Factors such as the industrial revolution, which brought mass immigration, led to a steep decline in the number of Welsh speakers.

• According to the Welsh government, there are now 580,000 people in Wales who can speak the language – about 21% of the population.

• Language use surveys carried out between 2004 and 2006 suggested that 56% of all fluent Welsh speakers, in every age group, lived in four counties: Anglesey, Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire.

• The 2001 census revealed that 40.8% of Welsh children aged between 5 and 15 could speak Welsh.

• There is a net loss of 2,000-3,000 fluent Welsh speakers every year as a result of outmigration, death, etc.

• A Federation of Small Businesses survey in 2009 found that 28% of those surveyed were able to deal with customers or each other in Welsh, and 12% were using bilingual signs or literature.


Morris, Steven. 2012. "'Welsh is a wonderful gift': speakers of the language relish new support". The Guardian. Posted: April 8, 2012. Available online:

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Ancient Egyptian cotton: A secret revealed

Studying 1,600-year-old cotton from the banks of the Nile has allowed scientists to find what they believe is the first evidence that punctuated evolution has occurred in a major crop group within what can be seen as the relatively short history of plant domestication.

The findings offer remarkable insight into the dynamics of agriculture in the ancient world and could even help today’s domestic crops face challenges such as climate change and drought.

Researchers, led by Dr Robin Allaby from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick, examined the remains of ancient cotton at Qasr Ibrim in Egypt’s Upper Nile using high throughput sequencing technologies. The site of Qasr Ibrim, is located about 40 kilometres from Abu Simbel and 70 kilometres from the modern Sudanese border on the east bank of what is now Lake Nasser it was occupied for more than 3,000 years, only being abandoned in the mid 19th century.

A native crop

Using this latest generation of DNA sequencing technology the team were also able to confirm that seeds recovered from the site – dating to around 400 CE - were of the G. herbaceum, variety which is native to Africa, rather than G. arboreum, which is native to the Indian subcontinent.

This is the first time such technology has been used on ancient plants and also the first time the technique has been applied to archaeological samples in such hot conditions.

For archaeologists, the results shed light on agricultural development in the ancient world as there has long been uncertainty as to whether ancient Egyptians had imported domesticated cotton from the Indian subcontinent, as had happened with other crops, or whether they were growing a native African variety which had been domesticated locally.

The findings that the Qasr Ibrim seeds were of the G. herbaceum variety, native to Africa, rather than G.arboreum, which is native to the Indian subcontinent, represents the first molecular-based identification of archaeobotanical cotton to a species level.

Dr Allaby said the findings confirm there was an indigenous domestication of cotton in Africa which was separate from the domestication of cotton in India.

“The presence of cotton textiles on Egyptian and Nubian sites has been well documented but there has always been uncertainty among archaeologists as to the origin of these. It’s not possible to identify some cotton varieties just by looking at them, so we were asked to delve into the DNA.

He concluded, “We identified the African variety – G. herbaceum, which suggest that domesticated cotton was not a cultural import – it was a technology that had grown up independently.”

The results showed that even over the relatively short timescale of a millennia and a half, the Egyptian cotton showed evidence of significant genomic reorganisation when the ancient and the modern variety were compared.

Comparing cotton

The researchers also studied South American samples from sites in Peru and Brazil aged between 800 and nearly 4,000 years old.

However investigation at a genetic level of the closely-related G.Barbadense from the sites in South America showed a genomic stability between the two samples, even when separated by more than 2,000 miles in distance between the Peru and Brazil samples and 3,000 years in time.

This divergent picture points towards what is termed punctuated evolution – long periods of evolutionary stability interspersed by bursts of rapid change – having occurred within the cotton family.

Dr Allaby said: “We think of evolution as a very slow process, but as we analyse more genome information we can see that there’s been a huge amount of large-scale proactive change during recent history. ”

“Our results for the cotton from Egypt indicate that there has been the potential for more adaptive evolution going on in domesticated plant species than was appreciated up until now.

More importantly for todays agricultural stresses, Dr Allaby continued, “Plants that are local to their particular area will develop genes which allow them to better tolerate the stresses they find in the environment around them. It’s possible that cotton at the Qasr Ibrim site has adapted in response to extreme environmental stress, such as not enough water.”

Past Horizons. 2012. "Ancient Egyptian cotton: A secret revealed". Past Horizons. . Posted: April 5, 2012. Available online:


S. A. Palmer, A. J. Clapham, P. Rose, F. O. Freitas, B. D. Owen, D. Beresford-Jones, J. D. Moore, J. L. Kitchen, R. G. Allaby. Archaeogenomic Evidence of Punctuated Genome Evolution in Gossypium. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 2012; DOI: 10.1093/molbev/mss070

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Commentary: Meet Google's search anthropologist

On a hot August evening in late 2009, a Palo Alto entrepreneur working in her home office landed on Google's befuddling advanced search menu.

"Oh, I hate this," she said, before immediately clicking away.

It was far from a ringing endorsement of the Mountain View company's product design. But it wasn't exactly a surprise for Dan Russell, Google's search scientist who at that moment was staring over the woman's shoulder, taking notes and video.

Russell had noticed that about 85 percent of people acted the same way when they reached the page, and he'd set out to understand why by observing and talking to users. Call it search anthropology.

It's a little known function within an online giant famously focused on data. But about four years after forming, Google came to realize it needed human insights to infuse that information with context and meaning.

Google began conducting user research studies and hiring human-computer inter- actions experts, snagging Russell from IBM in 2005. His main role is studying Web searchers in their natural environment, at home or work.

"One of the things we can get from data is the behaviors," he said. "But in many cases we don't know why the behaviors are the way they are."

For instance, just knowing people were fleeing from advanced search didn't tell Google how to fix it.

Legal terms and boxes

But the Palo Alto entrepreneur explained that the page's legal terms and bevy of search boxes, which all seemed to demand filling in, were confusing and off-putting. Russell heard similar responses from others.

When he showed a highlight reel of their visceral reactions to a roomful of Google engineers, it finally hit home that the company needed to simplify the user interface. After it did, the bounce rate - or the percentage of people who instantly clicked away - dropped almost 50 percent.

Russell is part of a small team at Google focusing on the human side of the equation for search. In addition to regularly observing searchers, they conduct user surveys, pay people in cafes to try out new products, and invite people to Google to run though exercises and eye-movement studies.

Russell's roots are in computer science. He earned his master's and Ph.D. in the field from the University of Rochester, then went to work at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, Apple and IBM, before landing at Google.

At Xerox PARC, he focused on artificial intelligence. After developing what he thought was a sophisticated tool for simplifying programming for high-end copiers, he was disappointed to find that nobody - even prominent AI researchers - could figure out how to use his creation.

Russell realized that the most powerful technology in the world is next to useless if people don't understand how to use it. From then on, most of his work has focused on the science of user experiences.

Dates to 1920s

In the U.S., the use of what is known as applied anthropology or sometimes industrial ethnography dates back to at least the 1920s.

Applied anthropology isn't exactly a common practice in the business world today, though it tends to be more popular at tech companies. In addition to Google, Microsoft, Intel and IBM also apply these techniques, said Stephen Barley, co-director of the Center for Work, Technology and Organization at Stanford.

In recent months, Google has overhauled the design of many of its major services - knowing full well that such an endeavor would annoy some users. In fact, people complain so routinely about changes that there's an industry phrase for it: "You moved my cheese!"

The trick is distinguishing the hard-wired aversion to change from legitimate complaints that the company is making things worse. For most changes, traffic patterns tend to return to normal after a few weeks, after users figure out where their favorite features ended up.

But at least one change made around the end of last year seems to have had a lasting impact. Google peeled the "advanced search" button off the main page to make it clean and simple, qualities users always request. Usage numbers declined, however, and stayed down.

During a trip to the San Francisco Public Library in March, it was clear why. Russell spent about an hour observing and talking to librarian Patrick Shea.

He asked about typical patron inquiries and the search tools Shea employs to help them. Then he ran him through some tests, asking how he'd use Google to find vague queries like: "A book about oranges by a Scottish author."

Where is it?

At one point when Shea was stumped, Russell suggested he try advanced search. But Shea couldn't find it. Google hadn't just moved his cheese, they'd hidden it.

Russell has heard from a number of other librarians who can't seem to find it anymore. But when asked, he said that doesn't necessarily mean Google is going to put it back.

Google has hundreds of millions of users, each with different needs and levels of search competence. Every change for one subset - like those who occasionally use advanced search - comes at a cost for others - like the vast majority of people who never use it and don't want it cluttering up the main page.

Striking the right balance requires listening to the data - and, of course, to the users themselves.

Temple, James. 2012. "Commentary: Meet Google's search anthropologist". Posted: April 5, 2012. Available online:

Monday, April 16, 2012

Entering a Dangerous Epoch — The Anthropocene

The global environmental change community has gathered in London and online this week to forge a more effective voice on sustainability.

According to scientists studying global environmental change, the Earth is moving out of the Holocene — the period of remarkably stable climate that began roughly 12,000 years ago — into the Anthropocene, an era in which a single species, humans, are driving the Earth’s systems.

“Can we return to the nice, steady Holocene stage where we know humanity can survive or will we be able to transition to a new, much hotter state?” asked Will Steffen, executive director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, on the first day of the Planet Under Pressure Conference in London. “We are at the cusp of some big changes. Can we turn the ship around or are we going to an uncertain future on a much hotter planet?”

The Holocene has been an era with a “nice, steady” climate, but from 1950 to 2000 scientists have graphed steep increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is driving average global temperatures higher. When the Planet Under Pressure moderator asked for a show of hands from an audience that included 2,000 scientists, decision-makers, and others knowledgeable about global change, most were pessimistic about the future. (She didn’t poll the additional 2,000 people attending the conference online.)

But pessimism was mixed with hope, if only because of the gathering itself. Eleanor Ostrom, 2009 Nobel laureate in Economics, opened the Planet Under Pressure proceedings arguing that the conference can move the world forward to address global environmental problems, “because we have scientists from all across the sciences — biophysical and social — as well as humanities and from over 100 countries.” Three years of planning preceded the conference, intended to gather and generate science and knowledge “to navigate the Anthropocene.” The conference steering committee selected parallel sessions (about a dozen in each time slot over four days) that offer a mix of social and biophysical research, a focus on solutions to complex problems, and a broad geographic range.

As Steffen outlined in a series of slides, it’s an uphill push. Not only is CO2 in the atmosphere cutting a sharp upward curve, but average global temperatures have continued to rise, though not as steeply in the last decade. Although greenhouse gas emissions dropped during the recent recession, global emissions have fully returned to previous and rising levels.

Oceans absorb 80-90 percent of the additional heat, so the oceans too are heating. Not only are scientists worrying about carbon, they have found that the nitrogen cycle has changed even more dramatically than the carbon cycle, pouring nitrogen from fertilizer into rivers and oceans causing algae blooms and even dead zones in the ocean, and contributing to air pollution as well as global warming.

But to know whether we can return to a more stable climate, we need to know where the tipping points are and whether we have reached them. Tipping points are thresholds — if we overstep them, we move into a different condition. The Anthropocene is likely to be an era with uncomfortably warmer temperatures and extremes: draughts, coastal flooding, increased storms, loss of biodiversity.

In short, humans are creating conditions that make it difficult if not impossible for many species to adapt. “Arctic sea ice is the tipping point we’ve already lost,” Steffen explained. “The Arctic Ocean will be ice-free sometime this century.” We don’t know yet where the tipping point is for loss of the ice sheets on Greenland or the Antarctic. Steffen called them “great refrigerators slowing down the warming of the planet.” He explained that the overall ice balance on the Greenland ice sheet has been dropping from the 1990s and could reach the tipping point within the next few decades. The Antarctic ice sheet appears stable, but the west Antarctic appears to be losing mass over the last decade.

Scientists also worry about where the tipping points might be for retention of the Amazon forest and permafrost in the high latitudes. Loss of either of these will magnify the effects of global warming. Most models of the Amazon rainforest predict loss of rainfall in the coming century and with drying out of the rainforest, fires increase adding to CO2 in the atmosphere.

As for permafrost, the colder high latitudes are warming much more quickly than the temperate mid-latitudes, and as permafrost there melts, methane that has been locked in the frozen soil could be released. A 2010 paper by Catherine M. Luke and Peter M. Cox explains how further heating from microbial respiration in the soils could lead to a tipping point where the heat produced would build up faster than it can be dissipated, producing a “compost bomb.”

From the vantage point of Diana Liverman, professor of geography and development at the University of Arizona, there are some reasons for optimism. In her plenary talk, she highlighted areas of progress in slowing global climate change: “Population growth, often thought of as a key threat, is now slowing as fertility rates drop.” Energy use, while still growing, has become less carbon intensive per capita. Forests are expanding in China, south Vietnam and elsewhere in places where gross domestic product is growing (although some forest destruction has been displaced to neighboring Laos and Cambodia).

While the results of more geographically focused case studies suggest that climate impacts may be reversible, these locally positive results become lost in the global averages.

Can we reverse the loss of sea ice or avoid the tipping points on ice sheets or the Amazonian rainforest? Action to reverse the trend should have started a decade or two ago, according to Steffen, but the clock hasn’t expired. “This is the critical decade.”

For its part, the global-change research community is attempting to forge a more effective scientific voice to speak on these matters.

The organizers of Planet Under Pressure have already forwarded nine policy briefs (on topics including water, energy, food security, global health, human well-being, and governance and institutions) to government ministers who will attend the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in mid-June. They will also launch Future Earth, an umbrella organization for research on global sustainability to better connect the social and biophysical sciences into global change research, to unify the major existing global change research bodies, to work with major science funders and to link this research community with business, nongovernmental organizations, and civil society.

Osherenko, Gail. 2012. "Entering a Dangerous Epoch — The Anthropocene". Miller-McCune. Posted: March 27, 2012. Available online:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Genetic study unravels ancient links between African and European populations

Large numbers of people moved between Africa and Europe during recent and well-documented time periods such as the Roman Empire, the Arab conquest, and the slave trade, and genetic evidence of these migrations lives on in Europeans today. But were there more ancient migrations? In a study published online today in Genome Research, researchers present the first genetic evidence for prehistoric gene flow between Africa and Europe, dating back as far as 11,000 years ago.

To trace the evolution and ancestry of humans, scientists study the DNA sequence of the mitochondria, a specialized cellular structure that produces energy for the cell and carries genetic information that is separate from the rest of the genome that resides in the nucleus. While the nuclear genome is a mix of genetic information from both mother and father, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed directly from mother to child without any contribution of DNA from the father. But not everyone's mtDNA is exactly alike: over long periods of time, small changes in the mtDNA sequence have arisen in different populations. Geneticists can use these changes as markers that indicate the movements and migrations of humans in the past, and classify them into specific "haplogroups."

In this study, an international team of researchers performed the largest analysis of complete mtDNA genomes belonging to haplogroup L (a lineage of sub-Saharan Africa origin) in Europe to date, aiming to untangle the history of genetic links between the two contents. By comparing the sequences of mtDNA genomes from various regions of Europe with mitochondrial genomes from around the world, they made a very surprising observation regarding when sub-Saharan lineages appeared in Europe.

"It was very surprising to find that more than 35 percent of the sub-Saharan lineages in Europe arrived during a period that ranged from more than 11,000 years ago to the Roman Empire times," said Dr. Antonio Salas of the University of Santiago de Compostela and senior author of the study. The other 65% of European haplogroup L lineages arrived in more recent times.

The authors explain that these contacts likely connected sub-Saharan Africa to Europe not only via North Africa, but also directly by coastal routes. Salas said that it still remains unknown why there was genetic flow between the Africa and Europe in prehistoric times, but one possible scenario is that some bidirectional flow was promoted when the last glaciation pushed some Europeans southward, until the glacier receded and populations returned north.

In addition to tracing the genetic links of Africa and Europe back to prehistoric times, Salas expects that their work will also help those individuals who want to learn more about their own ancestry. "There is a growing interest in direct-to-consumer genetic testing, including those aimed to serve a public interested in reconstructing their ancestry," Salas said. "Studies like the one presented here will help to unravel inferences made in these studies."

Scientists from the University of Santiago de Compostela (Galicia, Spain), the University of Perugia (Perugia, Italy), the University of Pavia (Pavia, Italy), the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (Salt Lake City, UT), the University of Oxford (Oxford, UK), and the National Institute of Toxicology and Forensic Science (Sevilla, Spain) contributed to this study.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Genetic study unravels ancient links between African and European populations". EurekAlert. Posted: March 26, 2012. Available online:

Saturday, April 14, 2012

18th-Century Bone Telescopes Discovered in Amsterdam

Five telescopes made of bone and dating to the 18th century have been discovered in Amsterdam, with two of the scopes found in the equivalent of toilets.

At the time, called the Enlightenment, the telescopes would have been considered luxury items and were likely used to gaze at objects on land or sea, rather than to look at the stars. They were created during a period when Amsterdam was a flourishing center for trade, one that attracted talented craftsmen.

Ranging in length from roughly 3 to 5 inches (80 to 140 millimeters), the telescopes were made using cattle metatarsal bone. "This particular bone of cow, the metatarsal bone, is actually quite straight and round," Marloes Rijkelijkhuizen, of the Amsterdam Archaeological Centre at the University of Amsterdam, told LiveScience."It's a nice shape to make these telescopes from, it's straight and (has a) very round narrow cavity."

Each telescope would have had a pair of lenses — like the system used by Galileo — a convex objective and a concave ocular, to magnify objects. (Two of the telescopes have at least one lens intact.) The longest of the telescopes, which had both lenses intact, is made of two parts put together with a screw thread, and was equipped with a bone insertion that has a small hole and likely functioned as an aperture stop.

With a magnification of about 3, the bone telescopes may have been used as opera glasses, held up by their wealthy owners to get a better view of the stage. Another idea is that someone going to sea, perhaps as a ship passenger, toted these with them.

The telescopes were excavated at different times over the past 40 years by the Office for Monuments and Archaeology in Amsterdam. Details of the findings hadn't been published until now, and, in the case of two of them, were unidentified until several years ago when Rijkelijkhuizen, then a master's degree student, started work on her thesis. She was looking at organic artifacts found in Amsterdam when she came across bone artifacts that would later turn out to be telescopes.

"At first I didn't recognize them either," Rijkelijkhuizensaid. Her analysis of the five telescopes is now published in the most recent edition of the Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries.

Found in a toilet

When Rijkelijkhuizenlooked over the excavation reports she found that two of the telescopes had been discovered in cesspits – the 18th-century equivalent of a toilet. It's not clear where the other three telescopes would have been originally deposited in the 18th century.

"It's a toilet but it is also like a dump for trash," she said. Why luxury items like these would have been put in toilets is a mystery; perhaps they broke and their owners, despite the cost of producing them, threw them away. Another idea is that their owners lost them.

Rijkelijkhuizen said it's not the first time she's uncovered unusual objects in pits like these. "We find all different kinds of objects in a cesspit, like false teeth, and we think 'why?'"

However it happened, it was fortunate for the archaeologists. "Because it was a toilet, and it's a very wet environment, all the objects in it are usually very well preserved," she said.

Ushering in the Enlightenment

The 18th century was a time of great change with new ideas, both scientific and political, being discussed. The telescope, with its ability to let people gaze at the stars, and see objects from a great distance, played a significant role in these changes. It had been invented only a century earlier.

"The telescope (and later the microscope), were thus two major devices that helped usher in the enlightenment," writes Geoff Andersen, an astronomer and author, in his book"The Telescope: Its History, Technology and Future" (Princeton University Press, 2007).

"Suddenly, anyone could experience things beyond the range of the unaided human senses, and start questioning conventional wisdom about the universe in which we live."

Although these newly discovered bone telescopes were not the most powerful telescopes of their day, for their owners it would have given them the ability to peer out farther into the horizon.

Jarus, Owen. 2012. "18th-Century Bone Telescopes Discovered in Amsterdam". Live Science. Posted: March 26, 2012. Available online:

Friday, April 13, 2012

Ancient civilizations reveal ways to manage fisheries for sustainability

In the search for sustainability of the ocean's fisheries, solutions can be found in a surprising place: the ancient past.

In a study published on March 23 in the journal Fish and Fisheries, a team of marine scientists reconstructed fisheries yields over seven centuries of human habitation in Hawaii and the Florida Keys, the largest coral reef ecosystems in the United States, and evaluated the management strategies associated with periods of sustainability. The results surprised them.

"Before European contact, Native Hawaiians were catching fish at rates that far exceed what reefs currently provide society," said John "Jack" N. Kittinger, co-author and an early career fellow at the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University. "These results show us that fisheries can be both highly productive and sustainable, if they're managed effectively." In contrast, historical fisheries in Florida were characterized by boom and bust, with serial depletions of highly valuable species for export markets. Today many species that were the target of 19th and early 20th century fisheries in Florida - including green turtles, sawfish, conch and groupers - have severely reduced populations or are in danger of extinction.

"Seven hundred years of history clearly demonstrate that management matters," said Loren McClenachan, co-author and assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College. "Ancient Hawaiian societies used sophisticated tools similar to innovative conservation strategies used today, like marine protected areas and restrictions on harvest of vulnerable species like sharks." The difference, the authors explained, was in the way fisheries governance systems were structured. Regulations were developed locally with the buy-in of community members, but they were also effectively enforced with methods that now would be considered draconian. "Today, no management system comes close to achieving this balance, and as a result, resource depletion and collapse is common," said McClenachan.

The authors were able to characterize historical catch rates in Florida and Hawaii through an extensive review of archival sources, including species-specific catch records from the 1800s and archaeological reconstructions of human population densities and per-capita fish consumption back to the 1300s. Such information is relatively rare in coral reef areas. They then characterized management regimes associated with periods of high sustained yields using a variety of sources, including published work of Native Hawaiian scholars. This work revealed that sustainable fisheries existed during periods in which regulations were strict and socially enforced in ways that were often class and gender based. For example, many vulnerable species—like sharks and marine turtles—were reserved exclusively for high priests and chiefs.

Ancient Hawaiian societies depended entirely on local resources and needed creative ways to avoid resource collapse. For example, fishpond aquaculture was used to sequester nutrients and reduce pollution on reefs. In contrast, much of today's aquaculture requires large inputs of wild caught fish and antibiotics, often resulting in increased pollution. "Ancient Hawaiian society effectively practiced what we now call ecosystem-based management, which is something that modern society often struggles to achieve," says McClenachan. "Incorporating some of these ancient techniques into today's policy may be the key to sustaining our fisheries."

The authors of the study, entitled "Multicentury trends and the sustainability of coral reef fisheries in Hawai'i and Florida," point to the U.S. National Ocean Policy as an example of emerging attempts to manage ocean ecosystems more holistically, and local fisheries co-management as a modern way of including community members in designing effective fishing regulations. However, the authors caution that effective enforcement needs to go hand in hand with the development of local governance. "The ancient Hawaiians punished transgressors with corporal punishment," observed Kittinger. "Clearly, we don't recommend this, but it's easy to see there's room to tighten up today's enforcement efforts."

EurekAlert. 2012. "Ancient civilizations reveal ways to manage fisheries for sustainability". EurekAlert. Posted: March 23, 2012. Available online:

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Linguistic Myths and Adventures in Etymology

The folk wisdom built up around common English expressions is often wrong, but it can be fun ferreting out the real origins.

The alarm went off. What does that mean? Recently, a friend who is learning English couldn’t quite figure it out. Isn’t the alarm going on, not off, he asked.

Comprehending such phrases is often one of the more difficult steps in learning a language. These idiomatic expressions are collections of words that mean something different than each word’s dictionary definition. For example, “that barking dog next door is driving me up the wall,” if taken literally, could mean that the neighbor’s poodle has recently earned a driver’s license and is using a car to accelerate up the wall dividing our houses. “Woof, woof” could equal “Vroom, vroom.”

But how well do native speakers know their own language? Let’s have fun with our critical thinking skills and apply a little skepticism to some widely believed verbal urban legends.

David Wilton, author of Word Myths and webmaster at, coined the concept of “linguistic urban legends,” which tend to be false tales, yet which spring from some grain of truth. These expressions, Wilton claims, “arise mysteriously and spread widely.”

OK? Consider OK. Stories of its origin range all over the map: a Haitian rum port called Aux Cayes, a Choctaw word, okeh, meaning “indeed,” or President Martin van Buren’s nickname of Old Kinderhook. Writer (and noted skeptic) H.L. Mencken got into the act in 1921 when he debunked the popular belief floating around in 1828 that OK was short-hand for “all correct” because of Andrew Jackson’s abbreviations on documents and his misspelling as “oll korrect.”

That last one about Jackson is close but no cigar. It is now generally accepted that the original use of OK came about in 1839 as part of newspaper fads to humorously abbreviate phrases, including funny misspellings from supposedly illiterate characters. So some would use GTDHD for “give the devil his due” for a more literal acronym, and OK for a misspelled “oll korrect.” By now, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were LOL or ROTFL over this silly 19th-century fad! OMG, who’d do that these days?

Or maybe you’re too posh to play along this way. Another widely held linguistic urban legend claims “posh” was an abbreviation for “port out, starboard home” stamped on tickets to designate the shadier and more luxurious sides of the ship when traveling between England and India. Yet, no tickets have been uncovered with “POSH” stamped on them, and evidence exists from the late 19th century of the use of the word posh in a similar way as it is used today. While its exact source is unknown, posh may derive from a Romani or an Urdu word, referring variously to money, a dandy, well-dressed, affluent. Phrases like “port out, starboard home” to define the word posh are sometimes called “backronyms” as we work backwards from the letters to an invented phrase and end up creating what appears to be an original acronym.

Lacking historical perspective can lead us to overlook that there may be nothing new under the sun. Not only were humorous abbreviations used centuries before Twitter, but another computer-related word may not be as new as you think. Let’s hope that your choice of platform to read this article is not infected with a bug. While it is generally believed that an actual insect jammed some relay switches in an earlier version of the computer and the word spread throughout the industry, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the word to Thomas Edison in 1889 using it metaphorically to indicate a difficulty with his new phonograph invention and blaming the glitch on some imaginary bug.

Successfully finding the source of many of our idiomatic expressions sometimes has a snowball’s chance in hell. Many are passed along orally, and no written record exists. Yet, sometimes, good critical thinking and skeptical analysis can uncover the linguistic rumor.

One famous example is the alleged multiple words for snow that Eskimos use. Noted anthropologist and linguist Franz Boas, discussed the Inuit’s four — only four — words for snow in 1911.

However, by 1940, thanks to Benjamin Lee Whorf of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis fame, the original point of Boas’ linguistic observation got transformed into the idea that Eskimos actually see snow in multiple ways and categorize the world differently. Whorf, in one of his writings, increased Boas’ examples to at least seven, according to research in 1989 by linguist Geoffrey Pullum. Pullum argues that “the myth of the multiple words for snow is based on almost nothing at all. It is a kind of accidentally developed hoax….”

This seemingly provocative notion of many words and perceptions of the Eskimos’ world, well, snowballed. Anthropologist Laura Martin provided many examples in her 1986 published research about the Eskimo snow hoax, such as the Lanford Wilson play, The Fifth of July, which said there were 50 Eskimo words for snow, a New York Times editorial in 1984 that claimed there were 100 types of snow, and a Cleveland television station that reported the existence of 200 words while discussing the local snow storm.

Discovering the meanings behind our idiomatic expressions, linguistic hoaxes, and proverbs illustrates the fun side of skeptical thinking. So join in and when that alarm comes on (or goes off), wake up and smell the coffee.

Nardi, Peter M. 2012. "Linguistic Myths and Adventures in Etymology". Miller-McCune. Posted: March 22, 2012. Available online:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Skulls on Stakes in Sweden date to the Mesolithic

Archaeological excavations in 2009–2011 at Kanaljorden in the town of Motala, Östergötland in central Sweden unearthed a unique Mesolithic site with ceremonial depositions of human crania in a former lake.

The human skulls have been part of a complex ceremony that involved their display on stakes and deposition in water.

The skulls have now been C14 dated to 6212-5717 cal BC and two dates on worked wood have also been obtained (5972-5675 cal BC), making them 7-8000 year old.

The rituals were conducted on a massive (14 x 14 m) stone-built construction on the bottom of a shallow lake (nowadays a peat fen). Some human crania were found as more or less intact “skulls” while others were found as isolated fragments, for example a frontal lobe or a temporal bone. Based on the more intact skulls eleven individuals have been identified, both men and women, ranging in age between infants and middle age. Two of the skulls had wooden stakes inserted into the cranium. In both cases the stakes were inserted from the base to the top of the skull. As well as this a temporal bone of a women was found placed inside the skull of another woman.

Besides human skulls the find material also includes a small number of post-cranial human bones and bones from animals, as well as artefacts of stone, wood, bone and antler.

The skull depositions at Kanaljorden are clearly ritual in character. The next step is to find out if the human bones are relics from dearly departed that were handled in a complex secondary burial ritual, or perhaps trophies of defeated enemies. The archaeologists hope that the ongoing laboratory analysis will give clues to whether the bones are remains of locals or people from further afield and if they represent a family group.

The excavations were conducted by Stiftelsen Kulturmiljövård in advance of the construction of a new railway. The investigations of the wetland are scheduled to resume in 2012 or 2013.

Past Horizons. 2012. "Skulls on Stakes in Sweden date to the Mesolithic". Past Horizons. Posted: March 22, 2012. Available online:

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Study reveals words' Darwinian struggle for survival

Scientific analysis of language usage in literature over the last 200 years suggests that words are competing – and now losing – in a battle to survive

Words are competing daily in an almost Darwinian struggle for survival, according to new research from scientists in which they analysed more than 10 million words used over the last 200 years.

Drawing their material from Google's huge book-digitisation project, the international team of academics tracked the usage of every word recorded in English, Spanish and Hebrew over the 209-year period between 1800 and 2008. The scientists, who include Boston University's Joel Tenenbaum and IMT Lucca Institute for Advanced Studies' Alexander Petersen, said their study shows that "words are competing actors in a system of finite resources", and just as financial firms battle for market share, so words compete to be used by writers or speakers, and to then grab the attention of readers or listeners.

There has been a "drastic increase in the death rate of words" in the modern print era, the academics discovered. They attributed it to the growing use of automatic spellcheckers, and stricter editing procedures, wiping out misspellings and errors. "Most changes to the vocabulary in the last 10 to 20 years are due to the extinction of misspelled words and nonsensical print errors, and to the decreased birth rate of new misspelled variations and genuinely new words," the scientists write in their just-published study. "The words that are dying are those words with low relative use. We confirm by visual inspection that the lists of dying words contain mostly misspelled and nonsensical words."

But it is not only "defective" words that die: sometimes words are driven to extinction by aggressive competitors. The word "Roentgenogram", for example, deriving from the discoverer of the x-ray, William Röntgen, was widely used for several decades in the 20th century, but, challenged by "x-ray" and "radiogram", has now fallen out of use entirely. X-ray had beaten off its synonyms by 1980, speculate the academics, owing to its "efficient short word length" and since the English language is generally used for scientific publication. "Each of the words is competing to be a monopoly on who gets to be the name," Tenenbaum told the American Physical Society.

The phrase "the great war", meanwhile, used for a period to describe the first world war, fell out of use around 1939 when another war of equal proportions hit the world.

Language is "drastically" affected by the occurrence of major events such as wars, the scientists discovered, with word growth "significantly" increasing in the English, French, German and Russian languages during the second world war. "This can be understood as manifesting from the unification of public consciousness that creates fertile breeding ground for new topics and ideas," the academics write. "During war, people may be more likely to have their attention drawn to global issues." That increase was not seen in the Spanish language during the same period, they found, which they attributed to the smaller roles played by Spain and Latin America during the war. The Hebrew language, meanwhile, saw a boom shortly after the Balfour declaration of 1917, an event which effectively paved the way for the establishment of the state of Israel. By 1920, the birth rate of Hebrew words increased by a factor of five, as a language previously used mainly for religious writing became a modern spoken language.

"Analogous to recessions and booms in a global economy, the marketplace for words waxes and wanes with a global pulse as historical events unfold," they write. "And in analogy to financial regulations meant to limit risk and market domination, standardisation technologies such as the dictionary and spellcheckers serve as powerful arbiters in determining the characteristic properties of word evolution."

Flood, Alison. 2012. "Study reveals words' Darwinian struggle for survival". The Guardian. Posted: March 21, 2012. Available online:

Monday, April 9, 2012

Brain's involvement in processing depends on language's graphic symbols

Division of labor between the 2 sides of the brain during the reading of different languages: Brain processing involvement in the decoding of Arabic was different to the involvement in reading English; makes learning Arabic more challenging

Readers whose mother tongue is Arabic have more challenges reading in Arabic than native Hebrew or English speakers have reading their native languages, because the two halves of the brain divide the labor differently when the brain processes Arabic than when it processes Hebrew or English. That is the result of a new study conducted by two University of Haifa researchers, Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim of the Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities and the Learning Disabilities Department, and Prof. Zohar Eviatar of the Department of Psychology.

"It emerges that the contribution of the two halves of the brain to processing written language depends on the graphic and linguistic structure of these languages," noted Dr. Ibrahim.

The two halves of the brain, called hemispheres, govern different types of activities: The right hemisphere specializes more in processing spatial tasks and the holistic (pattern) processing of messages, while the left hemisphere is responsible for processing verbal messages and local processing of messages.

In order to examine the interaction between the two hemispheres while reading Hebrew, English and Arabic, two experiments were conducted with subjects divided into three groups: those with Arabic as their mother tongue, those with English as their mother tongue and those with Hebrew as their mother tongue. Each group was tested in their native language.

In the first experiment, words and pseudowords (strings of letters that have no literal meaning) were presented on a screen, and the subjects were asked to figure out whether the stimulus was a real word; their response time, accuracy, and sensitivity were measured with every key pressed.

In the second experiment, the subjects were presented with various words on the right or the left side of the screen, which directs the information to be processed by the opposite hemisphere (i.e., when the proper or nonsense word is screened on the right side of the screen, it will be processed by the left side of the brain, and vice versa, a stage called "unilateral"). The various words were then shown on both sides of the screen, while under the target word there was a symbol that indicated that this was the word that they should treat, while the other stimulus appeared on the other side of the screen in order to distract the brain processing (this stage is called "bilateral").

A comparison of both experiments establishes the degree of interaction between the two hemispheres during the brain's processing of the language being checked.

The results show that for readers of Hebrew and English, both hemispheres of the brain are independently involved in the task of reading, such that neither side is dependent on the other. By contrast, for the Arabic readers, it emerged that the right hemisphere was not able to function independently in the reading assignments without using the resources of the left hemisphere.

According to Dr. Ibrahim, the significance of the findings is that despite the similarities between Arabic and Hebrew, when reading the former the right brain can't function independently and the cognitive burden becomes especially heavy, making it more difficult to read the language, even for those whose mother tongue is Arabic.

"This proves that the Arabic language doesn't behave like other languages when it comes to anything connected with decoding its graphic symbols," said Dr. Ibrahim.

"The study's results show once again that on the word reading level the structural shape of Arabic orthography, that is, the graphic contours of the written language, activates the cognitive system differently. Thus, the question is again raised as to whether in the modern world those who speak certain languages have an advantage over those who speak other languages; and the role of pedagogy in improving reading skills among regular readers and those having difficulty is brought once again to the fore."

EurekAlert. 2012. "Brain's involvement in processing depends on language's graphic symbols". EurekAlert. Posted: March 21, 2012. Available online:

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Madagascar Founded By Women

The discovery negates a prior theory about how the island was first found.

Madagascar was first settled and founded by approximately 30 women, mostly of Indonesian descent, who may have sailed off course in a wayward vessel 1200 years ago.

The discovery negates a prior theory that a large, planned settlement process took place on the island of Madagascar, located off the east coast of Africa. Traditionally it was thought to have been settled by Indonesian traders moving along the coasts of the Indian Ocean.

Most native Madagascar people today, called Malagasy, can trace their ancestry back to the founding 30 mothers, according to an extensive new DNA study published in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society B,. Researchers focused on mitochondrial DNA, passed down from mothers to their offspring. Scientists assume some men were with the women.

“I’m afraid this wasn’t a settlement by Amazon seafarers!” lead author Murray Cox told Discovery News. “We propose settlement by a very small group of Indonesian women, around 30, but we also presume from the genetics that there were at least some Indonesian men with them. At this stage, we don’t know how many.”

Cox, a senior lecturer at Massey University’s Institute of Molecular BioSciences, and his colleagues analyzed genetic samples from 2745 individuals hailing from 12 Indonesian archipelago island groups. They then compared the results with genetic information from 266 individuals from three Malagasy ethnic groups: Mikea hunter-gatherers, semi-nomadic Vezo fishermen and the dominant Andriana Merina ethnic group.

Many Malagasy carry a gene tied to Indonesia. The DNA detective work indicates just 30 Indonesian women founded the Malagasy population, with a much smaller biological contribution from Africa. The women may have mated with their male Indonesian travel companions, or with men from Africa.

“The small number of Indonesian women is consistent with a single boatload of voyagers,” Cox said, adding that “typical Indonesian trading ships in the mid first millennium A.D. could hold around 500 people. “

The distance between Indonesia and Madagascar is close to 5000 miles, so the women and their travel mates must have had quite a journey, especially if it was unintended.

“The small founder population of Indonesian women makes this scenario fairly unlikely,” Cox said. “Instead, our new evidence favors a small movement of people, and perhaps even an unplanned crossing of the Indian Ocean.”

Scant archaeological evidence, consisting of a few bones marked by stone tools and an increased rate of forest fires, suggests people may have first visited, but not settled, Madagascar around 2000 years ago. Even that is very recent in terms of overall human history.

Madagascar was one of the last places on earth to have been settled, with remote islands like New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island being in the short group of places that were settled later -- about 900 years ago.

“Our best argument is that these islands were just extremely difficult to get to,” Cox said.

Matthew Hurles, a senior group leader at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, has also studied the genetic heritage of Madagascar’s native people. He and his team also noted the Indonesian connection.

"Malagasy peoples are a roughly 50:50 mix of two ancestral groups: Indonesians and East Africans,” Hurles said. “It is important to realize that these lineages have intermingled over intervening centuries since settlement, so modern Malagasy have ancestry in both Indonesia and Africa."

Cox concluded, “It is worth emphasizing that Madagascar wasn’t a ‘sealed box’ after its initial settlement. There are notable later contributions by Africans, Arabs and Europeans. All of these contributions show up in the DNA of Malagasy today.”

Viegas, Jennifer. 2012. "Madagascar Founded By Women ". Discovery News. Posted: March 20, 2012. Available online:

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Are Some Brains Better at Learning Languages?

People who learn many languages may have different brains from the rest of us.

In his spare time, an otherwise ordinary 16-year old boy from New York taught himself Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Swahili, and a dozen other languages, the New York Times reported last week.

And even though it's not entirely clear how close to fluent Timothy Doner is in any of his studied languages, the high school sophomore -- along with other polyglots like him -- are certainly different from most Americans, who speak one or maybe two languages.

That raises the question: Is there something unique about certain brains, which allows some people to speak and understand so many more languages than the rest of us?

The answer, experts say, seems to be yes, no and it's complicated. For some people, genes may prime the brain to be good at language learning, according to some new research. And studies are just starting to pinpoint a few brain regions that are extra-large or extra-efficient in people who excel at languages.

For others, though, it's more a matter of being determined and motivated enough to put in the hours and hard work necessary to learn new ways of communicating.

"Kids do well in what they like," said Michael Paradis, a neurolinguist at McGill University in Montreal, who compared language learning to piano, sports or anything else that requires discipline. "Kids who love math do well in math. He loves languages and is doing well in languages."

"This is just an extreme case of a general principle," he added. "If you practice and have a great deal of motivation for a particular domain, you're going to be able to improve in that domain beyond normal limits."

Very young children are remarkably good at learning multiple languages simultaneously. They can develop native-sounding accents in each tongue. And into adulthood, all reinforced languages hold their own in the brain without interfering with the others -- unlike later learners who may have trouble remembering a second language when they begin to learn a third.

With age, though, it not only becomes tougher to learn new languages, there may even be developmental stages beyond which certain nuances of language simply become inaccessible. By the age of 9 to 12 months, for example, babies begin to lose the ability to distinguish between sounds that are not used in their native language, said Loraine Obler, a neurolinguist at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.

After about age 4, most people will never gain a truly deep grasp on a second language's morphology, which refers to the rules that govern how words are formed from linguistic units. After age 7 or so, the brain begins to pay more attention to what it's learning, Paradis said, which affects the type of memory kids use to pick up languages.

And beyond puberty, it becomes unlikely that someone will be able to speak a new language without a foreign accent, though Doner is unique in how impressive his accent sounds, which may reflect a late-to-mature brain. (There seems to be no cut-off point for learning vocabulary).

For more than a century, scientists have known that there are key areas on the exterior cortex of the brain's left hemisphere, known as Broca's area and Wernicke's area, that are critical for learning to speak and understanding speech, Obler said. There are also many other areas throughout the brain that process language.

Genes, neurotransmitters and brain regions involved in long-term memory play roles as well, Paradis said. And a number of different structures probably come into play when people speak a second language compared to when they speak their first.

That would explain why brain damage from Parkinson's, Alzheimer's or other disorders that affect specific areas of the brain can knock out just a native language -- or just a language that was learned later in life, leaving the other one intact. Aging can also bring out an accent that was once unnoticeable.

Only in the last few years have scientists begun to zero in on brain regions that seem to matter most in helping polyglots develop their impressive skills.

In a 2008 study in the journal Cerebral Cortex, for example, researchers found better language learning abilities in college students with a larger Heschl's gyrus, an area on the left side of the brain that processes pitch. But that finding only applies to learning tonal languages like Mandarin, said study author Patrick Wong, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

In another study, published last year in the Journal of Neuroscience, Wong's group found that good language learners had stronger connectivity in the white matter of the auditory cortex, which is part of the language network. And in studies currently in press, the team will announce better efficiency in connections between neurons as well as a genetic component to the whole system.

And it's not just polyglots who are providing clues, Obler added. In her research on people who struggle with new languages, she has found parallels with dyslexia.

Yet, even as research reveals biological clues in the brains of polyglots or their opposites, we are probably not completely fated to either excel or fail at languages. Our biology may simply determine which strategy we should use to learn new dialects.

"You're not doomed just because your Heschl's gyrus is small," Wong said. "The goal in our research program is to find predictors. And once we find predictors, we can put people into the right kind of training program."

But the field of neurolinguistics is still new. So for now, the process of language learning in the brain remains full of secrets.

As Obler said, someone once "wanted to know how to make the brains of merely normal learners as good as excellent learners. I said, 'I'm not going to be able to answer that for decades.'"


Sohn, Emily. 2012. "Are Some Brains Better at Learning Languages?". Discovery News. Posted: March 19, 2012. Available online: