psycholinguistics


I listened to a lot of TED Talks as I’ve been renovating my trailer. I tend to like them and I’ve learned a lot–what a great resource! I’ve also noticed that listening to most of them is fine–no viewing necessary. Not with this one. It’s my favorite TED Talk of the 50+ I’ve been through so far.

Advertisements

One day in my psycholinguistics class in 2009, I had two ideas that my prof, Dare Baldwin, announced would make good doctoral dissertations. I wrote them down, thinking maybe I would use them. The way my mind works is that I seriously consider doing a Ph.D in every subject I study. A few months later I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to do more research in psycholinguistics, so I wrote myself a note: “Look through notes from Dare’s class and post dissertation ideas for aspiring psycholinguists.”

Well I’m sorry to say that I’ve just looked through those notes and I can’t find the dissertation ideas, and one of them I have completely forgotten. The other I remember the basics of and if you are an aspiring psycholinguist you are welcome to it. Remember, this was in 2009, so check around to see if this research hasn’t been done already.

In Dare’s lecture, she explained that it is something of a mystery how exactly we hear voiced and non-voiced consonants as distinct from each other. If you pay close attention while you say the words “poor” and “bore,” for example, you might be able to notice that the only difference (at least with my accent) is how soon the vowel sound starts after the lips make the consonant. A slight gap between consonant and vowel creates a “p” and a smaller gap makes a “b.”

Using a computer to manipulate that gap, you can test what size of gap produces each consonant, and it turns out it’s a very specific and arbitrary-seeming size. We all hear the transition the same. And to make it even more mysterious, some other animals hear the distinction just like we do. How can this be an important distinction for animals to be able to make?

I believe that this is all due to a psychoacoustic phenomenon called temporal fusion. Any recording engineer knows that if you take two copies of a sound and space them at more than about 30 ms, you will hear both copies, distinct from one another. The second copy will sound like an echo of the first. If you space them at less than about 30 ms, what you instead hear is one, longer, thicker sound.

I bet you that 30 ms is also about the length of gap that starts to distinguish voiced from non-voiced consonants. That is, the length of gap is not arbitrary, but based on human hearing acuity. I will also bet you that other animals that can distinguish between Ps and Bs have temporal fusion that kicks in around 30 ms as well.

There you go. It should be easy and relatively cheap to test. If no one else has thought of it since 2009, it’s yours. If I remember the second idea, I’ll post it too.

Going though my undergraduate degree in psychology, I was often surprised about information that was well known by the field that should have hit the headlines but never made a dent. In the end it was one of my reasons for going into therapy instead of experimental psychology. At one point I asked my social psychology teacher for an example of basic social psych research that had had a real impact on mainstream society. He could not give me one. I know that basic research is done to find stuff out, not to directly help people, and I support that. I also know that psychology is a baby science, and tackling a very complex set of phenomena, and doing a pretty good job. Still, I was disappointed. It is too bad, because a lot of useful and sometimes very important stuff has been discovered by experimental psychologists, and it is mostly just ignored.

Here are a few things I came across in my classes and reading that I thought should have been mainstream headlines. If you are interested in references, leave a comment and I will get them to you.

It Is Important to Talk to Your Baby, Even in the Womb: Your baby can hear and recognize your voice in your womb, is already learning your language, and wants to hear your voice.

It Is Important to Sleep With Your Baby: Babies are not born fully self-regulating. One way this shows up is that babies do not breath out enough carbon dioxide–sleeping with parents provides them with a pool of carbon dioxide that keeps the baby breathing deeply enough. Another benefit is that their 90 minute hunger cycle (waking and nursing each 90 minutes) helps establish their 90 minute REM sleep cycle, which they are not born with, and also keeps them from getting into deep, delta wave sleep, which is dangerous for babies because they can stop breathing.

Don’t Worry Too Much About Your Decisions: Your brain has mechanisms to ensure that you will think you made the right decision, regardless of what you decide. This can be undermined, however, by thinking of reasons for your decision before you make it. In many cases, your coming-up-with-reasons ability can get in the way of your decision-making ability. As long as you get all the relevant information, you may have a better chance making a good decision without deliberation.

It Works to Ask People to Watch Your Stuff: People who you do not specifically ask to watch your stuff will do nothing while your stuff is stolen. People who you do ask, will go to great lengths to keep your stuff from being stolen.

The Normal Are Not Detectably Sane: The methods of this study were not well laid out, so I do not know how strong this evidence is, but it was quite clever. Normal people got admitted into mental hospitals by saying they had heard a voice say the words “empty,” “hollow,” and “thud.” Other than that they behaved as usual. None were discovered to be sane by the staff, no matter how long they stayed hospitalized.

I just posted the last two papers of my undergraduate career: my honors thesis, “Differentiating the Effects of Social and Personal Power,” and my research project for Psycholinguistics, “The Relationship between Clarity of Enunciation and Idea Density.” They are under ‘writing,’ which is under ‘out’ in my sidebar.

I don’t recommend reading them unless you are a researching these topics (in which case, I do recommend reading them). If you’re not used to scholarly writing, just read the abstracts–the first paragraphs. They tell you everything you need to know. It’s kind of funny that I just worked really hard for over a year on something that almost no one will be interested in reading. It was an astounding amount of work, comparable to making a record, from songwriting and rehearsing to mastering. And a lot more work than some records. This was not a punk record.

Well, since I just said not to read it after I’ve been posting about it for months, I guess I should at least summarize it. Here we go:

Social power is power over other people. Any kind of power. There is a lot of research on what having social power does to you, and it’s mostly bad: more stereotyping, less perspective taking, seeing others as a means to your ends etc. It’s the kind of stuff that might keep powerful people in power. Reading this stuff is pretty alarming for a feminist like me. It’s way more complicated than that, of course, but you’re getting the super short version here.

Personal power is power over yourself. There hasn’t been much research on its effects, just enough to suggest that it’s what people really want when they are struggling for power over each other, the real goal is self-governance.

I tried to test whether personal power has similar or different effects on perspective taking than social power. I was not able to do that, for complicated reasons. I was, however, able to find evidence that people consider personal power a broader category than social power. That is, you can sink to greater depths and rise to higher heights of personal power than you can social power. Second, I found that without a salient reminder of personal power, people did not make a distinction between social and personal power. That’s pretty interesting, because if people are out there trying to claw their way up the hierarchy, it may just be because they haven’t made the distinction between what they probably really want–personal power–and what they are working for–social power.

That may seem intuitive and like “why would you want to spend a year finding evidence for something so obvious?” but for a scientist, coming across something that seems obvious that hasn’t been tested is a gold mine. All kinds of obvious things have turned out to not be true. That’s one cool thing about psychology–it’s a baby science, so those unlooked-at areas are all over the place. There is only one other scientist that I’m aware of that’s looking into this subject too, Marius Van Dijke, in the Netherlands. Luckily, he’s got resources and will likely have much more traction on it than I could as an undergrad with one year to work and a $100 budget.

I just read about two studies that found that humanities lecturers use more filled pauses–time saying ‘uh,’ ‘um,’ etc–than science lecturers, and that it’s probably because the humanities have more synonyms to draw upon. In science, it is very useful in conversation to have very precise, technical definitions of each word that everyone agrees upon. Empathy, for example, cannot mean or connote compassion in psychological discourse, and if it does, you run into problems.

Maybe that’s why the people in my social cognition lab (can) talk so fast. They all understand precisely each word, so ideas can come and go very rapidly. Still too rapidly for me to understand, sometimes.