How do we acquire our native language? Are the basics of language and grammar innate, as nativists argue? Or, as empiricists propose, is language something we must learn entirely from scratch?
This debate has a long history. To get at an answer, it’s worth setting the theories aside and instead looking at just how much information must be learned in order to speak a language with adult proficiency, argue Francis Mollica at the University of Rochester, US, and Steven Piantadosi at the University of California, Berkeley. If the amount is vast, for instance, this could indicate that it’s impracticable for it all to be learned without sophisticated innate language mechanisms. In their new paper, published in Royal Society Open Science, Mollica and Piantadosi present results suggesting that some language-specific knowledge could be innate – but probably not the kind of syntactic knowledge (the grammatical rules underlying correct word order) that nativists have tended to argue in favour of. Indeed, their work suggests that the long-running focus on whether syntax is learned or innate has been misplaced.
Do students take notes in an optimal fashion, in line with what psychology research identifies as best practice? It’s an important question given that modern surveys suggest that most students’ preferred approach to exam preparation is to memorise their notes. To find out, a team led by Kayla Morehead at Kent State University has quizzed hundreds of university students about their note-taking methods and preferences, and they’ve reported their findings in the journal Memory.
For decades, linguists have debated the extent to which language influences the way we think. While the more extreme theories that language determines what we can and can’t think about have fallen out of favour, there is still considerable evidence that the languages we speak shape the way we see the world in more subtle ways.
For instance, people are better at perceiving the difference between light and dark blue if they have dedicated words for those colours (like in Russian) than if they don’t (like in English). But it turns out it’s not just the words that we use: the way in which a language is structured – its syntax – is also important. In a recent study in Scientific Reports, Federica Amici and colleagues show that the word order of a language predicts how good its speakers are at remembering the first or last parts of a list.
Anyone who has stood in the supermarket aisle trying to remember their shopping list might have wished for a larger brain. But when it comes to memory, bigger isn’t always better. A study published in Neuropsychologia has found that young children whose cerebral cortex is thinner in certain areas also tend to have better working memory.
In the past when scholars have reflected on the psychological impact of dementia they have frequently referred to the loss of the “self” in dramatic and devastating terms, using language such as the “unbecoming of the self” or the “disintegration” of the self. In a new review released as a preprint at PsyArXiv, an international team of psychologists led by Muireann Irish at the University of Sydney challenge this bleak picture which they attribute to the common, but mistaken, assumption “that without memory, there can be no self” (as encapsulated by the line from Hume: “Memory alone… ‘tis to be considered… as the source of personal identity”).
In their review, Irish and her colleagues, including doctoral candidate and lead author Cherie Strikwerda-Brown, present a more optimistic perspective based on their analysis of the research literature on autobiographical memory loss in people with Alzheimer’s Disease, people with Semantic Dementia, and others with Frontotemporal Dementia. “Overall,” they write, “… the self is not entirely lost in dementia, with distinct elements of preservation emerging contingent on life epoch and dementia syndrome”.
A picture is worth a thousand words…. When it comes to conveying a concept, this sentiment cancertainly be true. But it may also be the case for memory. At least that’s the message from Myra Fernandes and colleagues at the University of Waterloo, Canada – writing inCurrent Directions in Psychological Science, they argue that their research programme shows that drawing has a “surprisingly powerful influence” on memory, and as a mnemonic technique, it could be particularly useful for older adults – and even people with dementia.
Listening to a story is known to be cognitively demanding, in part because the listener has to pay close attention to, and remember, plot and character detail in order to understand what’s going on. Attention and memory are both diminished in people living with dementia. Might regularly reading aloud to such people help, then, to train their attention and memory, and function as a treatment? A new study of people with various kinds of dementia, published in Psychology and Neuroscience, suggests that it could.
One eyewitness to a robbery reports that the culprit was a male in his 40s with brown hair, wearing a light-coloured T-shirt. Another describes a blond man in his early 30s wearing a denim shirt. If you’re a police officer investigating the crime, whose memory do you trust?
Identifying which of two apparently credible but conflicting eye-witness statements to trust is a big problem for law enforcement agencies (as is deciding, in the case of a witness who has no incentive to lie, which among their memories are accurate). Now a new paper, reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, provides initial evidence for a new, objectively verifiable method for doing this. This work has, as the researchers write, “potentially far-reaching significance, not the least in the legal context.”
Most of us are healthily deluded by memory biases that inflate our self-esteem. We remember more positive personal events than negative, for instance, and we selectively recall or even edit memories in a way that bolsters our favoured view of ourselves. A pair of psychologists at Lomonosov Moscow University propose that for people with persistent anxiety, this process goes awry. The worrier’s negative self-concept is instead reinforced by the selective recall of previous painful and awkward memories, harming their confidence and fuelling anxiety.
Imagine if it were possible to implant more positive autobiographical memories in these anxious individuals. This could boost their self-esteem, increase their confidence, thus dialling down their anxiety levels. In an intriguing new study published in Memory, Veronika Nourkova and Darya Vaslienko have provided preliminary evidence that such an approach could work, although they found that hypnosis was required to make the memory implantation convincing enough.
Avid photographers celebrate the viewfinder as a means of helping us see the world anew. But psychology research has shown that under some conditions taking a photo of something actually makes it harder to remember. One possible reason is that we give less attention to an experience when we know that it will be safely stored in a photograph. But in a new paper in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, Julia Soares and Benjamin Storm from the University of California show that the photo-taker’s memory will suffer whether they expect to keep the photo or not.