Author: Souri Somphanith

Signs of Change: Regional and Generational Variants in British Sign Language

British Sign Language chart

British Sign Language chart

As societies change, so too do its languages. In the English-speaking world, we often make note of changes in language by recognizing the rise of new words, like “selfie,” and the repurposing of familiar words, such as “because.” It may not be a surprise, then, to learn that this “evolution” isn’t limited to the spoken word: sign languages can also change over time. In a recent PLOS ONE study, scientists examined regional variations within British Sign Language (BSL), and found evidence that the language is evolving and moving away from regional variation.

To assist in this undertaking, the authors used data collected and recorded for the British Sign Language Corpus Project. About 250 participants took part in the project, recruited from eight regions in the UK. In addition to hailing from different parts of the country, participants came from various social, familial, and educational backgrounds.

When the first deaf schools were established across the UK in 1760, there was little standardization in signing conventions. Consequently, depending on the school you were attending, schools sometimes taught pupils to use different signs to convey the same concepts or words. The authors posit that this lack of standardization may be the basis for today’s regionalism in BSL.

The participants were given visual stimuli, such as colors or numbers, and then asked to provide the corresponding sign, one that they would normally use in conversation. The researchers also recorded participants engaging in unscripted conversations, a more formal interview, and in the delivery of a personal narrative, all of which were incorporated into the authors’ study and analyzed.

Example of the stimuli shown to participants.

Example of the stimuli shown to participants.

In their analysis, researchers focused on four concepts: UK place names, numbers, colors, and countries. The participants’ responses to the visual stimuli were compared to with their recorded conversation to control for any confounding variables, or unforeseen social pressure to sign in a particular way. The responses were also coded as being either “traditional” or “non-traditional” according to the regional signing conventions.

Results indicated that age may play a role in whether a participant uses traditional or non-traditional signs. Particularly when signing for countries, about half the responses given by younger participants were non-traditional signs. In addition, some participants—young and old—explained that they changed the country sign they used as they grew older. The researchers posit that this may be due to changing definitions of political correctness, in which older, more traditional signs are now perceived to be politically incorrect.

The authors also found that age may also play an important role in the participant’s use of color and number signs. As was the case for signing countries, younger participants were more likely to use non-traditional signs, and older participants more likely to use traditional signs. The researchers noted that younger participants using signs non-traditional to their region seemed to be adopting signing conventions from southern parts of the country, such as London, or from multiple regions. In other cases, younger participants responded by signing the first letter of the word, such as ‘p’ for purple. The authors attribute this generational shift to the participants’ increased exposure to different signing conventions, ushered in by technological developments, such as the Internet, and increased opportunities for travel.

Changing social norms, technologies, and opportunities—these are no strangers to us by now. As the world changes, so too do the ways in which we communicate, verbally and physically.

 

Citation:Stamp R, Schembri A, Fenlon J, Rentelis R, Woll B, et al. (2014) Lexical Variation and Change in British Sign Language. PLoS ONE 9(4): e94053. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094053

Image 1: British Sign Language chart by Cowplopmorris, Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Figure 3 from article

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Infectious Earworms: Dealing with Musical Maladies

earworm - record playing This menace may leap out at you in the subway or find you when you’re tucked away, safe in your bed; it might follow you when you’re driving down the street or running at the gym. Hand sanitizer can’t protect you, and once you’re afflicted, the road to recovery can be a long one. However, this isn’t the Bubonic plague or the common cold—instead, the dreaded earworms!

Derived from the German word ohrwurm, which translates literally to “ear-worm,” an earworm commonly refers to a song, or a snippet of a song, that gets stuck in your head. Earworms can occur spontaneously and play in our heads in a seemingly infinite loop. Think of relentlessly catchy tunes, such as “Who Let the Dogs Out?,” “It’s a Small World,” or any Top 40 staple. An estimated 90% of people fall prey to an earworm at least once a week and most are not bothersome, but some can cause distress or anxiety. And yet, despite the earworm’s ubiquity, very little is known about how we react to this phenomenon. With the assistance of BBC 6 Music, the authors of a recent PLOS ONE study set out to connect the dots between how we feel about and deal with these musical maladies.

Researchers drew upon the results of two existing surveys, each focusing on different aspects of our feelings about earworms. In the first, participants were asked to reflect on whether they felt positively or negatively toward earworms, and whether these feelings affected how they responded to them. The second survey focused on how effective participants felt they were in dealing with songs stuck in their heads. Responses to both surveys were given free form.

To make sense of the variety of data each survey provided, the authors coded participant responses and identified key patterns, or themes. Two researchers developed their own codes and themes, compared notes and developed a list, as represented below.

earworm - Finnish study

Survey responses. Participants either chose to “cope” with their earworms or “let it be.”

The figure above represents responses from the first survey, in which participants assigned a negative or positive value to their earworm experiences and described how they engaged with the tune. The majority didn’t enjoy earworms and assigned a negative value to the experience. These responses were clustered by a common theme, which the researchers labelled “Cope,” and were associated with various attempts to get rid of the internal music. A significant number of participants reported using other music to combat their earworms.

Participants in the second survey, which focused on the efficacy of treating earworms, responded in a number of different ways. Those whose way of dealing was effective often fell into one of two themes: “Engage” or “Distract.” Those that engaged with their earworms did so by, for example, replaying the song; those that wanted distraction often utilized other songs. Most opted to engage.

Ultimately, the researchers concluded that our relationships with these musical maladies can be rather complex. Yet, whether you embrace these catchy tunes or try to tune them out, the way we feel about earworms is often connected to how we deal with them.

Want to put in your two cents? You can tell the authors how you deal with earworms at their website, Earwormery. For more on this musical phenomenon, listen to personal anecdotes on Radiolab, read about earworm anatomy at The New Yorker, or dig deeper in the study.

 

Citation: Williamson VJ, Liikkanen LA, Jakubowski K, Stewart L (2014) Sticky Tunes: How Do People React to Involuntary Musical Imagery? PLoS ONE 9(1): e86170. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0086170

 

Images: Record playing by Kenny Louie

Figure 1 from the paper.

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Resolution Inspiration: What Will You Work on in 2014?

Resolutions 2012 - Flickr - Lori Ann

Though we are well into January, there is still time to set resolutions for 2014. What would you like to accomplish in the next twelve months? For some resolution inspiration, here’s a selection of PLOS ONE research articles to get you started:

Restaurant Bwyty sign by Dave GoodmanLearn a Language

Whether for work or pleasure, learning a new language can be a rewarding experience. It can also take a lot of time. Fear not—according to research published last year, you may be able to learn new words in a foreign language while performing other tasks. The key to this method of vocabulary building is exposure. In the study, participants were given a letter and tasked with finding the letter in a written Welsh word. As they looked for the letter, one group informally heard the word and saw an image of what it represented. Afterward, when participants were asked to determine whether a Welsh word matched an image, those who were exposed to corresponding images and audio scored higher than their counterparts in the control group.

 

Sing Along with Me (10 365) by John Liu

Get Vocal

For those of you with musical aspirations, take a nod from this study on vocal synchronization and rhythm. In it the researchers found that when participants read aloud together in real time, their speech patterns synchronized more readily than participants who read aloud with the recording of their partner’s voice. Though the study was primarily concerned with spoken rhythms, the researchers propose that the social component of rhythm, and the shared goal of synchronization, may be pertinent to music too. Musical rhythm, they suggest, may stem from social interaction rather than sexual selection.

 

smile by jessicahtamDe-stress

Under pressure? According to the authors of this next PLOS ONE paper, those who experience chronic stress may suffer from impaired problem-solving skills. To combat the deleterious effects of stress, they suggest performing a “self-affirmation” exercise before tackling a problem. In the study, the researchers asked underperforming and self-reportedly stressed college students to rank a series of values, such as creativity and friends/family, according to order of personal importance. They were then asked to write about why the top value was most important to them, or why one of the bottom values might be important to others. After completing the exercise, the students were given a word association test. Stressed-out students that wrote about their top value and its personal importance outperformed their peers. Talk about the power of positive thinking!

Whether you want to pick up a new language, reduce your stress, or get out and sing more karaoke this year, we hope you are inspired to try out a few resolutions. For even more inspiration, check out other posts in the PLOS Blogs network: Alessandro Demaio’s Translational Global Health and Peter Janiszewski’s post on Obesity Panacea.

 

Citations:

Bisson M-J, van Heuven WJB, Conklin K, Tunney RJ (2013) Incidental Acquisition of Foreign Language Vocabulary through Brief Multi-Modal Exposure. PLoS ONE 8(4): e60912. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060912

Bowling DL, Herbst CT, Fitch WT (2013) Social Origins of Rhythm? Synchrony and Temporal Regularity in Human Vocalization. PLoS ONE 8(11): e80402. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080402

Creswell JD, Dutcher JM, Klein WMP, Harris PR, Levine JM (2013) Self-Affirmation Improves Problem-Solving under Stress. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62593. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062593

 

Image: Resolutions 2012 by Lori Ann

Restaurant Bwyty sign by Dave Goodman

Sing Along with Me (10/365) by John Liu

Smile by jessicatam

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Robofish: How Color and Tail Wagging Helped Bring a Robot Fish to “Life”

Figure 1

In an age of 3D printing and bionic limbs, distinctions between the manmade and the natural can sometimes blur. Take, for example, the case of the robotic fish depicted above (part A). This little guy is modeled after Notemigonus crysoleucas (image, part B), also known as the golden shiner, and in a recent PLOS ONE study, researchers put it to the test: can a robotic fish influence the behavior of a real fish, and if so, what characteristics enable the robotic fish to do so? According to the researchers at Polytechnic Institute of New York University, answers may depend on the robot fish’s color and the frequency with which it waggles its tail.

To find out more, the authors commissioned the making of two robot fish for this study: one gray and one red. While both physically modeled the golden shiner in many respects, only the gray robot fish was painted to mimic its real-life counterpart. Other than color, the two robots were identical: both consisted of three rigid parts, connected on hinges, and sported silicone tail fins.

pone.0077589 Figure 2

As illustrated above, one robot fish was placed in a water tunnel with a real fish during each trial. The real fish was free to swim in the tunnel while the robot fish “swam,” or waggled its tail fin, in the center of the apparatus. The robotic fish’s tail waggled at various frequencies, ranging from 0 Hz to 4 Hz, as webcams tracked the real fish’s movements. The middle of the tunnel was designated the “focal region” to indicate where fish and robot interaction was likely to occur. The researchers further divided the region behind the fish into four parts, explaining that the robot fish’s tail wagging was likely to affect the water flow, and thus the real fish’s behavior, in this area.

pone.0077589 Figure 4

After reviewing the webcam footage, they found that neither factor (color, tail wagging frequency) working alone had a significant impact on the real fish’s swimming behavior. However, when the gray robot wagged its tail at 3 Hz, the real fish spent a significantly longer time swimming in the center of the tunnel, preferring to spend most of its time swimming right behind the robot. When this happened, the wake created by the robot’s tail wagging could allow the real fish to reduce its energy expenditure while swimming.

What’s so special about wagging your tail fin at 3 Hz, you ask? The researchers ascertained through preliminary research that when golden shiners swim, their tails waggle at 3.32 Hz. In addition, the gray robot’s coloring may have been more attractive to the golden shiner than the red robot’s, as it may have elicited a likeness-related social response in the real shiner. This suggestion is in line with other robot work in comparable fish species.

In other words, the robot fish exerted the most influence—or was the most convincing to the real fish—when its coloring and movements closely corresponded to the coloring and movements of a real fish. Go figure!

If you are interested in learning more, visit our website and see what others had to say.

 

Citation: Polverino G, Phamduy P, Porfiri M (2013) Fish and Robots Swimming Together in a Water Tunnel: Robot Color and Tail-Beat Frequency Influence Fish Behavior. PLoS ONE 8(10): e77589. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0077589

Image 1: Figure 1 from the paper

Image 2: Figure 2 from the paper

Image 3: Figure 4 from the paper

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Trapped in a Fig: The Perils and Payoffs of Pollination

Fresh figs

Pollinating insects are an industrious bunch, working tirelessly as they flit from blossom to blossom. But for insects like the short-lived, fig-pollinating wasp, the job of bringing fruit to fruition can be a dangerous business. According to a recent PLOS ONE study, some wasps can get trapped and die in the fig during pollination, when they enter to deposit their eggs. The researchers find that wasps of a certain size may take this risk into account when deciding which figs to approach.

Choosing which fig to pollinate is not like shopping at the supermarket, where items are placed in convenient, easy-to-reach places. Though the fig tree can produce fruit all year around‒much like the availability of items in a supermarket‒its flower is wrapped inside the fruit and only accessible via a small slit. Only pollinators of a certain size can enter these openings, and as the fruit ages, it may become increasingly difficult to get in and out.

In the study, the researchers sought to determine whether the fruit’s age had any correlation with successful entry, and whether the wasp’s size correlated with successful entry. To do this, they first selected fig trees whose fruit were just mature enough to attract pollinators. Then they selected and collected groups of fig-pollinating wasps and placed them in a sealed enclosure with the figs. After one day, they counted how many wasps were still alive and how many had died. They also checked to see how many wasps had successfully entered figs and how many had gotten stuck. Using the same selection process, the researchers ran an additional experiment using fig fruit of various ages.

Sid Mosdell

While not every wasp attempted to enter a fig during the experiment, those that did make the attempt met with various challenges based on their size and the age of the fruit. The researchers found that wasps attempting to enter older figs tended to take longer to reach the flower than wasps that tried  with younger figs. Their findings also indicated that the proportion of wasps that got trapped in the opening increased with fig age. In other words, the older the fruit was, the more likely a wasp would get stuck. The proportion of wasps that reached the flower decreased with fig age.

After measuring the size of the wasps’ heads, the researchers noted that wasps who couldn’t penetrate the fruit tended to have wider heads than other wasps. Wasps who made the attempt but got stuck and those that made it to the flower tended to have narrower heads than others.

The researchers hypothesize that the relationship between fig fruit age, wasp size, and successful entry indicates that a particular partnership has formed between this fruit and its pollinator. The small opening in the fruit may act as a sort of filter or barrier to encourage wasps to pollinate younger, more fertile fruit. Attempts to enter older fig fruit may reduce the number of wasp offspring and may even lead to death!

The next time you bite into a fig bar or wish for figgy pudding, take a moment to appreciate the intricate relationship between the wasp and this fruit. To learn more about this research, buzz over to the full study.

 

Citation: Liu C, Yang D-R, Compton SG, Peng Y-Q (2013) Larger Fig Wasps Are More Careful About Which Figs to Enter – With Good Reason. PLoS ONE 8(9): e74117. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0074117

Image: Fresh figs by David Blaikie.

Image: Common Wasp by Sid Mosdell.

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A Way with Words: Data Mining Uncloaks Authors’ Stylistic Flair

First_Folio_-_Folger_Shakespeare_Library_-_DSC09660

As any writer or wordsmith knows, searching for the right word can be a painful struggle. Here’s comforting news: word choice may be the key to understanding your stylistic flair.

New research in the field of text mining suggests that distinct writing styles are discernible by word selection and frequency. Even the use of common words, such as “you” and “say,” can help distinguish one writer from another. To learn more about style, the authors of a recent PLOS ONE paper turned to the famed lord of language, William Shakespeare.

The researchers assembled a pool of 168 plays written during the 16th and 17th centuries. After accounting for duplicates, 55,055 unique words were identified and then cross-referenced against the work of four writers from that time period: William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, and John Fletcher. The researchers counted how often these writers used words from the pool and ranked words by their frequency. Lists of twenty of the most-used and least-used words were then compiled for each writer and considered “markers” of their individual styles.

Fletcher, for one, frequently used the word “ye” in his plays, so a relatively high frequency of “ye” would be a strong marker of Fletcher’s particular writing style. Similarly, Middleton often used “that” in the demonstrative sense, and Jonson favored the word “or.” Shakespeare himself used “thou” the most frequently, and the word “all” the least.

In addition to looking at individual word use, the researchers analyzed specific works where the writer’s style changed significantly, such as in Middleton’s political satire “A Game at Chess,” which was notably different from his other works. They also compared word choice between writers. Their findings indicate that, unlike his contemporaries, Shakespeare’s style was marked more by his underuse of words rather than his overuse. Take, for example, Shakespeare’s use of “ye.” Unlike Fletcher, who used this word liberally, “ye” is one of Shakespeare’s least frequently used words.

Such analyses, the researchers suggest, may help with authorship controversies and disputes, but they can also address other concerns. In a post in The Conversation, the authors of this paper suggest that the mathematical method used to identify words as markers of style may also be helpful to identify biomarkers in medical research. In fact, the research team currently uses these methods to study cancer and the selection of therapeutic combinations, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease.

 

Citation: Marsden J, Budden D, Craig H, Moscato P (2013) Language Individuation and Marker Words: Shakespeare and His Maxwell’s Demon. PLoS ONE 8(6): e66813. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0066813

Image: First Folio – Folger Shakespeare Library – DSC09660, Wikimedia Commons

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Crisis in the Late Bronze Age Triggered by Environmental Change

Keuninck_(Coninck)_Kerstiaen_de_-_Fire_of_Troy_

What does it take to topple a civilization, or a whole group of them? Over three thousand years ago, agriculture and trade-based societies flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean. Yet something fishy happened circa 1200 BC that brought these cultural and commercial centers to their knees—something that has left historians in the dark.

Correspondence from that time attributes the decline, at least partially, to invasions from a band of raiders, referred to as Sea Peoples. Other scholars studying this period point to natural disasters, such as earthquakes or drought. Research recently published in PLOS ONE reveals a more insidious culprit: Climate change may have fueled drought, the invasions, and eventually the collapse of these civilizations in what historians call the Late Bronze Age crisis.

To explore the environmental factors behind this crisis, the researchers took continuous core samples from modern-day Cyprus, at what is now called Larnaca Salt Lake, or Hala Sultan Tekke.

fickleandfreckled

Core samples were analyzed for their pollen content and tested for the presence of dinoflagellates (pictured), a type of marine plankton. The researchers then studied the abundance and variety of plants represented by the ancient pollen and plotted fluctuations in the proportions of both between 1500 BC and 1500 AD. With similar data from nearby Syria, they reconstructed likely climate conditions in the region during the Late Bronze Age.

They found the abundance of marine plankton beginning in about 1500 BC, suggesting the region was gradually becoming drier, as the lake lost its connection to the sea.  The pollen record reveals a shift towards plants that could handle drier weather, indicating a decrease in rainfall. Dwindling rain, the researchers suggest, may have made it difficult to maintain agricultural production and led to food shortages. These shortages might also have caused people to travel, migrate, or raid in search of more food.  This drought lasted three hundred years and coincides with the Sea People invasions.

It takes a lot to topple civilizations, and climate change has played its part in ending those in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age. This evidence adds to the growing body of literature documenting the effects of climate change. This latest research adds a compelling chapter to the story of climate change, from which everyone can learn.

 

Citation: Kaniewski D, Van Campo E, Guiot J, Le Burel S, Otto T, et al. (2013) Environmental Roots of the Late Bronze Age Crisis. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71004. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071004

Images:

Keuninck (Coninck) Kerstiaen de – Fire of Troy, from Wikimedia

DINOFLAGELLATE, by fickleandfreckled

Updated to correct the timeframe for declining marine plankton.

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In the deep, bioluminescent bacteria bloom bright

Biolumplate

Imagine swimming to the bottom of the sea, the water growing impossibly deep and dark the farther you travel. At these depths, beyond the reach of the sun, live strange new sources of light. Fish, jellyfish, and even bacteria light up these midnight waters.

According to new research in PLOS ONE, the light of this deep-sea bioluminescence waxes and wanes with seasonal changes on earth’s surface. In the Mediterranean winter, cold winds cause surface water to cool. As the surface cools, it becomes denser than the water beneath it, and begins to sink. Convection can also cause this layer to expand, potentially extending it to the Mediterranean Sea’s basin floor. When these phenomena occur side by side, as they can in the northwestern part of the Mediterranean Sea, carbon matter from the surface circulates into deeper waters. Think of it as Nature’s way of stirring the pot.

This wintry stir spreads a wave of changing temperatures, water composition and organic matter into the depths of the ocean, which correlates with a burst of bioluminescence activity. Over the course of two and a half years, the researchers recorded two water stirring incidents, followed by periods of bioluminescent activity. In each instance, winter stirring resulted in bioluminescent blooms lasting several weeks in the following spring or summer.

That being said, this phenomenon is likely to change in the coming years. According to the researchers, as climate change continues to affect the sea, convection activity which helps stir the waters and introduce much-needed carbon to the deep sea may decrease by the end of the 21st century. In the meantime, it is important to document deep-sea activity to better understand any actual or forecasted changes.

 

Citation: Tamburini C, Canals M, Durrieu de Madron X, Houpert L, Lefèvre D, et al. (2013) Deep-Sea Bioluminescence Blooms after Dense Water Formation at the Ocean Surface. PLoS ONE 8(7): e67523. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0067523

Image: Biolumplate, from Wikimedia Commons.

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Summertime Fun in the Sun

99-Bar Harbor

We are well into the summer months so discard those winter doldrums and get active! To help you get in the mood, we’ve assembled a variety of outdoorsy studies from around the world:

With the advent of digital cameras and camera phones, we have all become amateur photographers. Picturesque peaks and beautiful beaches can be captured with the press of a button, tagged, and shared with others instantly via social media. Researchers, like the ones in a recent PLOS ONE study, can now use this user-generated data—these geo-tagged photographs—to find striking vistas and examine how they correlate with environmental factors, such as soil carbon and farming. These researchers used photos of Cornwall, England, uploaded to Panaramio and plotted them on a map to see where users were taking pictures. Photographs that were clustered together indicated that the area was valued for its aesthetic or visual beauty. As you might think, most clusters were found in beaches and sparsely populated coastal towns. Their findings also suggest that agricultural areas were negatively correlated with aesthetic value.

When looking for your next vacation destination, find somewhere picturesque with clean water. In the US, researchers have studied the effect that water quality may have on recreational activities in the Puget Sound. To do so, they used data from the Washington State Parks to determine how many people entered, camped, or moored in the Puget Sound, starting from the late 1980s to the present day. They then plotted this against fluctuations in Enterococcus, a type of bacteria associated with urinary tract infections and meningitis, in the water. Their findings indicate that an increase of Enterococcus corresponded to a recorded decrease in visitation rates.

Feel like getting involved in the scientific process? You can spend your summer taking part in the citizen science movement and enjoy the great outdoors at the same time. Your contributions may help someone with their research! For example, take this recent PLOS ONE study that uses observational data collected by a Turkish ornithological society. The researchers took recorded sightings of 29 songbird species and combined it with climate data (rainfall and temperature) to develop a model predicting how songbirds may be affected by climate change. The model helped them predict the birds’ distribution in 2020, 2050, and 2080.

Fun can also be found closer to home. For those of you with little ones, there is research to indicate that children’s sedentary behavior can be reduced using a few simple methods. The researchers of this study suggest decreasing the amount of time parents watch TV on the weekend, and instead recommend participating in boys’ sports and encouraging girls to play outside. Their suggestions are based on data collected from participants’ accelerometers over the course of a year. Learn more about this study here.

Citations:

Casalegno S, Inger R, DeSilvey C, Gaston KJ (2013) Spatial Covariance between Aesthetic Value & Other Ecosystem Services. PLoS ONE 8(6): e68437. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068437

Kreitler J, Papenfus M, Byrd K, Labiosa W (2013) Interacting Coastal Based Ecosystem Services: Recreation and Water Quality in Puget Sound, WA. PLoS ONE 8(2): e56670. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056670

Abolafya M, Onmuş O, Şekercioğlu ÇH, Bilgin R (2013) Using Citizen Science Data to Model the Distributions of Common Songbirds of Turkey Under Different Global Climatic Change Scenarios. PLoS ONE 8(7): e68037. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068037

Atkin AJ, Corder K, Ekelund U, Wijndaele K, Griffin SJ, et al. (2013) Determinants of Change in Children’s Sedentary Time. PLoS ONE 8(6): e67627. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0067627

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enterococcus

Image:  99-Bar Harbor by Robert & Pam.

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Sleep May Solve Grammar Gremlins

Beinecke Library

Do you know when to use who versus whom? Affect versus effect? If you’re stumped, first crack open your textbook, but then make sure to get a good night’s sleep – it could help! According to newly published research, sleep plays an important part in learning grammar, and perhaps other complex rules as well.

In their study the researchers used an invented grammar to develop sets of letter sequences. They also assessed each sequence for its “associative chunk strength,” or memorable letter clusters. Sequences with lots of these “chunks” could be easy to memorize, which the authors differentiate from learning, or rule acquisition. Participants were then shown these sequences and asked to recreate them from memory. They were not told that the letter sequences were constructed according to a set of grammatical rules.

The participants then waited 15 minutes, 12 hours, or 24 hours before being tested to see whether they had retained or learned the rules. Participants in the 12 hour group that started in the evening and those in the 24 hour group slept between experimental phases. When the testing began, participants were told that grammatical rules were in use and asked to judge whether letter sequences were grammatical.

Participants that slept between stages, i.e. those in the 12 hour and 24 hour groups, performed significantly better than those who did not sleep prior to the test. Specifically, those who slept between tests were better able to discern grammatical from not-grammatical letter sequences. The same was true for letter sequences with fewer chunks of memorable letter clusters. Their results also indicate that the length of the waiting period, whether it was 15 minutes or hours, did not significantly affect the participants’ performance.

Students, the next time you think you can forgo a good night’s sleep, think again! Sleep may just help you learn those tricky grammatical rules.

Citation: Nieuwenhuis ILC, Folia V, Forkstam C, Jensen O, Petersson KM (2013) Sleep Promotes the Extraction of Grammatical Rules. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65046. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065046

Image: Childrens talk, English & Latin by Beinecke Library.

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