Author Archives: Jamie Lucas

Speak Now

Language is such a complex means of communication. It is also strange, beautiful, and capable of expressing so many perceptions in such creative ways. I am an avid reader and have an inherent appreciation for the descriptive and the poetic ways in which our thoughts, feelings, and experiances can be communicated. Every year my desk calendar features a word of the day and there always seem to be more words to learn. For example, did you know that there is a word for flirtatious conversation that leads nowhere? There is, it’s sphallolalia. Or that moment of hesitation just before you introduce someone because you’ve forgotten their name? The word for that is tartle. I also marvel at the way many languages have words for things that the English language does not describe, such as the German words kummerspeck and fremdschamen. The former is a word to describe the excess weight that one gains from emotional over-eating, and the latter literally means the horror that you feel when you notice that someone is completely oblivious to how embarrassing they are in a moment. The creativity of language is wonderful! Which is why when researching topics for this weeks blog I was shocked to find a language that uses only about 100 words in total.

Toki Pona is the world’s smallest language. According to Roc Morin in his article for The Atlantic, the simplicity of the language creates a more profound form of communication (How to Say Almost Anything in 100 Words, 2015). Toki Pona contains 14 phonemes and 120 root words and is designed to shape the thought processes of it’s speakers in a Zen-like fashion. This is a miniscule Number of parts to work with considering there are a quarter of a million words in the Oxford English Dictionary and even Koko the gorilla has a 1000 different words that she can sign.

Apparently Toki Pona is now utilized by thousands of people around the world from Belgium to Australia, to China, but was constructed fairly recently and was first published in 2001 by linguist Sonja Lang from Toronto. Her aim, it seems, in creating this language was to minimalize and simplify the spoken word to its most efficient and reductive form. The result of this carefully crafted language is that it is subjective to what an item or concept means to the speaker. It is a language of neologisms in a sense. In order to speak Toki Pona, one must determine what the word they wish to say means from their subjective point of view and construct a phrase. Morin uses the concept of a car to illustrate this. The speaker must determine what exactly a car is. Lang says: “You might say that a car is a space that’s used for movement,” she proposed. “That would be tomo tawa. If you’re struck by a car though, it might be a hard object that’s hitting me. That’s kiwen utala.”(2015).lead_960

To create the Toki Pona, Lang used a sort of top- down method of reducing language to it’s most basic elements and figuring out what would be needed to express most anything with as few flourishes as possible. There are no words for thank you or please. There are no words for vague concepts like the color pink. As I was reading this article, I wondered what would be the point of creating a new language in such way and why you would want it to be so limited. But as I read on I realized that it was just another miraculous invention of expression. It’s the linguistic version of Modern furniture. It has clean lines and clear artistry. It can also be learned in 30 minutes or less!

Morin, R. (2015, July 15). How to Say (Almost) Everything in a Hundred-Word Language. Retrieved November 21, 2015, from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/07/toki-pona-smallest-language/398363/

Pay Attention!

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Sometimes when I sit down to study for a test I feel as though I’m looking at the material for the first time. Honestly, I’ll start reading through a chapter and think…did I forget to read this part before? But I have read it before. Every now and then a piece of information that I do remember will surface to verify that I did in fact read this mysteriously forgotten chapter. (Re)Reading chapter 4 of our textbook covering “Attention” got me thinking about how we learn and what we pay attention to. If I sit down every night to study for an hour or two, how is it possible a few weeks later that there are entire chunks of information that I just don’t retain…or even recall?

I didn’t have to dig very far to find some research on the subject. Annie Murphy Paul, A fellow at the New America Foundation has spent a good deal of time researching what we pay attention to and how we learn. In her article for Slate magazine she discusses her findings. In short, her findings are that students from high school through graduate level programs are multitaskers, and therefore our attention is divided and our ability to learn and apply information suffers. According to her research, which involves observers seated in classrooms and dorm rooms all over the country and well as numerous surveys completed by the students themselves, and even spyware in the classrooms (hello big brother!). The use of spyware was a little shocking, however the professors in the participating classes obtained permission from all students for the study. The results were even more shocking. The spyware study showed that 42% of students in college classrooms participating in the study had non-course related windows open and active during class (Murphy Paul, 2013 p.2) The observational studies showed that 58% of 2nd and 3rd year law students were engaging in non- class related activities during lectures (2013, p.2).

These numbers were surprising to me but then again…not so surprising. The biggest culprits stealing our attention from studying are texting, email, Facebook, and other social media. I took note this week as I went online to participate in my classes, get assignments, and do my reading of just how many times I interrupted my own studying. I checked my phone, my email, answered text messages, got side tracked by stray thoughts that led to random Google searches. I read all of my assignments, completed all my homework, aced my quizzes, and turned everything in on time so despite my “multitasking” I did just fine. But it still didn’t explain why I probably won’t remember most of the information in a few weeks when it’s time to study for the final.

Memory loss man, presented in the form of secondary particles of the brain

Memory loss man, presented in the form of secondary particles of the brain

According to Murphy Paul, there are five good reasons why this information will likely not be retained for the long term. First, while seemingly mindless activities, things like texting and Facebook are complex tasks that use the same part of the brain that we use in class – the prefrontal cortex (2013, p. 2). Second, the repeated dropping and picking up of “various mental threads” fatigues our minds making it harder to retain information (2013, p.2). Third the act of dividing our attention during the encoding process makes it more difficult to remember information accurately or at all (2013, p.2). Fourth, research using brain scans shows that different areas of our brain light up when we are learning a piece of information undistracted than when we are multitasking – this suggests that while multitasking we may be storing the information in a different and possibly less useful way (2013, p. 3). Finally, all of the research shows a negative correlation with media multitasking and grades suggesting that “Engaging in Facebook use or texting while trying to complete schoolwork may tax students’ capacity for cognitive processing and preclude deeper learning,” (2013, p.3).

So, while it may be possible, even beneficial to be able to multitask in some areas of life – at work, at home, etc., it’s clear that media multitasking while studying is bad news for students. To be honest, I had no idea I was doing it as much as I do before I really took the time to notice it. For most of us, our phones are rarely more than a few inches from where we study and most of the work is done on laptops so hoping from one thing to the next and back again can happen in a blink. Now that I am aware of how many disadvantages there are to dividing my attention I think I will definitely be making the effort to focus on one thing at a time. Especially before finals!

 

 

Resources:

Murphy Paul, A. (2013, May 3). You’ll Never Learn! Students can’t resist multitasking, and it’s impairing their memory. Retrieved October 16, 2015, from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/05/multitasking_while_studying_divided_attention_and_technological_gadgets.html

 

The Tree With the Lights In It

Thinking about how we perceive the world is endlessly fascinating because there are so many things that feel so concrete and obvious to us in our daily lives that often we take for granted how open for interpretation the same perceptual experiences may be for others. While reading this weeks assignments, a essay that I read years ago in a collection by one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, illustrates perfectly how it is not only physiology that shapes the world for us, but our experiences in the world. In the essay Ms. Dillard talks about the experience of people who are blind from birth learning to see after undergoing corrective surgery.

In the essay, Seeing, from the collection Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard talks about her walks in the woods and how she tries to “interpret” the environment through the eyes of people who have influenced or inspired her (Dillard, pp 20-24). She tries “seeing the wind” by the motion of the plant life as described by Stewart Edward White, she observes a “green” tree frog pointed out to her by a guide which is actually the color of “hickory bark” and looks to be part of the tree, she notes that you don’t actually see fog, but the clear spaces between the fog (pp 20-24). These experiences get the author, and the reader, thinking about perception, which leads to her the exploration of people learning to see for the first time.

Seeing explains that for those of us born with sight, we don’t begin life with seeing eyes, but with the ability to perceive visually and we learn to see by our experiences. We don’t remember the experience of learning to see because it begins almost as soon as we are born and by the time we are old enough to articulate it, the experience of seeing is simply natural to us. Adults who are learning to see however are in a position to describe the experience and we can note how perception changes with our experience. For example Dillard discusses how the blind with no history of sight have little to no concept of space. Size, distance, and form are “meaningless symbols” to someone who can’t experience them visually (p 27). They cannot conceptualize what is meant by the phrase “behind you” for example. To illustrate, Dillard cites Space and Sight by Dr. Maruis Von Senden in his work with the blind pre-surgery as being able to identify a variety objects by touching, but post surgery they confuse things like “depth” for “roundness” (pp 27-28). Post-surgery patients often have difficulty gauging distance as well – reaching to grab for objects with more than a foot between the object and their hand.

In another instance, a newly sighted girl looks at family photos and asks why someone put dark marks all over them. The dark marks are shadows that with practice and experience she will be able to identify, but with brand new sight it looks as though someone has placed the dark marks on top of the picture underneath (p. 28). The human hand to another subject’s eye appears to be “something bright and then holes” (p. 31). This difficulty in identifying objects reflects the way we use Physical and Semantic Regularities in order to help us perceive what is around us (Goldstein, pp 63-65). What I found most interesting was the fact that colors are easily perceived and learned, but focusing them into the shapes that sighted people are so familiar with can be difficult and overwhelming. Dillard reports that for a long time many newly sighted people view the world as “color patches” and gradations of light (p. 31). This is best illustrated by the description of one newly sighted person experiencing a tree for the first time and describing it as the most beautiful thing in the world- ethereal, glowing, and colorful, but without knowing it to be a tree until touching it. She referred to it there after as the “tree with lights in it” because of the way the sun shown through the branches appearing to light it from within. You can read a bit of this experience from the essay in the link below:

http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/497653-when-her-doctor-took-her-bandages-off-and-led-her

In it’s vivid description of these experiences of the newly sighted, Annie Dillard captures the complexity of how we perceive the world and the many different ways that it can be perceived. For a girl who has never seen a tree or a man to discover with astonishment that they are really nothing alike visually illustrates the way in which out physiology and experiences influence our perception and why perception can be hugely varied based on the experiences and physiology of the observer. For me reading about the initial observations of the newly sighted lends a sense of wonder and beauty to this complexity. Who wouldn’t want to witness a tree with lights in it?

 

 

Resources:

Dillard, A. (2007). Seeing. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (pp. 16-36). New York, NY: HarperPerennial.

Goldstein, B. (2011). Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research and everyday experience (3rd ed.). Wadsworth, Inc. Pg.63-65