Kids, Language & Brains


From the Mouths of Children

Always popular in what is now the Czech Republic, puppetry has gained international status through the work of such puppeteer-animators as Jan Svankmajer whose legacy is apparent in the films of Tim Burton and others. According to Joseph Brandesky, Ohio State professor and specialist in Czech and Russian theatre, Czechs used puppetry, beginning in the Renaissance, to entertain as well as to preserve and extend their national culture and language, especially when they faced oppression by occupying powers.  Whether these occupiers were Hapsburgs, Germans or Soviets, they underestimated the relevance and potency of puppet theatre, not seeing it as on a par with its counterparts in the "legitimate" theatre.   For a good while the Nazis failed to recognize the subversive nature of the puppet theatre in Czechoslovakia, seeing it as too childlike and in a foreign language to be taken seriously.  Once they did figure it out, however, they arrested puppeteers as well as some puppets.  This rich history of puppet theatre was co-curated at Ohio State by Nina Malikova of the Czech Republic.  Entitled "Strings Attached:  The Living Tradition of Czech Puppets," this show was a collaboration between Ohio's Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio State University and the Arts and Theatre Institute of Prague.  Kevin Nance, Wall Street Journal, 3/12-3/13/2013.


The Newest Brain Map

The brain may look like a featureless expanse of folds and bulges, but it's actually carved up into invisible, specialized territories.  And with the very recent publication of a new map of the brain, nearly 100 previously unknown regions have been identified.  It's a step towards understanding why we're we, said David Kleinfeld, a neuroscientist at UC/San Diego who was not involved in the research.   Using advanced scanners and computers running artificial intelligence programs that "learned" to identify the brain's hidden regions from vast amounts of data, neuroscientists pursuing this far more sophisticated and broader effort hardly consider it to be the final word. Matthew F. Glasser of Washington University's School of Medicine and lead author of the new research calls it version 1.0.  Knowing the data and the eyes on it will get better, Glasser and his colleagues hope the new map will help science progress. Working from the 1907 Korbinian Brodmann hand-drawn standard which identified 52 brain regions, Glasser and his colleagues set out to create a new standard, drawing on data collected by the Human Connectome Project and its 1,200 volunteers studied by powerful new scanners. Looking at both the activity and the anatomy of the brain, these scientists found great differences from one region to the next.  We have 112 different types of information we can tap into, said David C. Van Essen, a principal investigator with the Human Connectome Project at Washington U.  By using these variables and focusing initially on the cortex of 210 brains, computers were able to recognize discrete regions of the cortex, and as a result, could pinpoint these regions in new brains with 96.6 percent accuracy.  With this knowledge, researchers realized that only a small number of features were required to map the brain, meaning this method could map an individual's brain in a little over an hour of scanning.  The new map includes 83 familiar regions, such as Broca's area, but it also includes 97 that were unknown--or just forgotten, such as region 55b which was discovered in the 1950's and then neglected.  It's now recognized as part of the language network of the brain. According to Dr. Van Essen, we shouldn't expect miracles and easy answers but we're positioned to accelerate progress. Carl Zimmer, Brain in the News, September 2016.


Try Dating Your Earliest Memory

The question is why can't we remember all the way back?  Most of us don't have any memories from the first three to four years of our lives--in fact, we tend to remember very little of life before the age of seven.  Thinking back can be confusing, too, as it's difficult to say whether our memories are "real" or merely "recollections" based on shared stories or photos. It's not that babies don't have developed memories, either.  Babies as young as six months form short-term memories that last for minutes and long-term memories that last weeks, if not months. Because memory capabilities of young children are not yet adult-like, they will continue to mature until adolescence.  Developmental changes in basic memory processes are therefore a promising theory to account for childhood amnesia. But there's another factor and that is language and the role it plays.  From the ages of one to six, children progress from the one-word stage of speaking to becoming fluent in their native language(s), so there are major changes in their verbal ability that overlap with the childhood amnesia period.  Verbalization is something of a predictor of how well children will remember an event months or years later. With the age of 26 months serving as a sort of dividing line, preverbal memories seem to get lost if not translated into language.  Yet the real answer here seems to be focused on the use of narrative and the development of narrative skills.  Parents who reminisce with young children about past events, are implicitly teaching them narrative skills and the kinds of events important to remember and how to talk about them in a way so others can understand. These narratives are strongly marked culturally.  Children in cultures that promote autonomous self-concepts, such as Western Europe and America, tend to remember events where they were rewarded for something they'd accomplished individually, while children in cultures that value relatedness (Asia, Africa) tend to remember something their class or group accomplished together.  The paradox here is these earliest years are easiest to forget, but they are responsible for shaping us into the adults we become.  Jeanne Shinskey, Brain in the News, September 2016.


Can’t Quite Draw? Can’t Quite Write? Become a Cartoonist

Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, is responsible for the career advice of the title. Victor Navasky is a kindred spirit whose book The Art of Controversy is reviewed by R.Jay Magill, Jr., author and caricaturist.  Magill found his own path early on when he realized caricature could mix an adult's moral anger with a child's penchant for fun. He recognized the magical power of line, physical exaggeration and penetrating satire and how these elements could be pressed into service to induce laughter, pain and moral insight.  While Magill sees Navasky's book initially as an historical tour of the field of political cartoonists, it was the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy that set off Navasky's deeply held support of the First Amendment and inspired him to write it.  According to Magill, Navasky started seriously thinking about the power of cartoons to offend even the deepest moral sentiments.  Visual language is still language, Navasky insists, and as such should never go unprotected by the law.  Magill notes that Navasky's tour falls short of embracing the post-9/11 cartoonists who provided a critical take on American society and also challenged the form of political cartooning itself.  Thanks to technology, today's political cartoonists have jumped mediums. Fast is funny.  Parody is now less like a slow poison and more like a laser blast to the face.  The truism, a picture is worth a thousand words, has been absorbed and expanded to something like 24 frames/second.  Still, while lambasting moral and political hypocrisy may have changed forms over the ages, figures worthy of the poison pen, rest assured, will roam the earth forever.  Wall Street Journal, 4/13-14, 2013, C16.


By the Wine-Dark Sea

English novelist Lawrence Durrell loved Greece and wrote from Greece and about Greece with great insight and appreciation:  Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder--the discovery of yourself.   In David Mason's review of Christopher Bakken's 2013 cookbook, Honey, Olives, Octopus, he can't help waxing ecstatic about the Greeks, who even today, despite severe economic woes, not to mention the current migrant crisis, always manage to bring something unique to the table. Besides being a college professor in the US and a family man, Bakken is a poet and translator as well as an appreciator of Greek food, what Mason describes as the food of poverty, wonderful to eat and labor intensive to prepare. The literary history of the language is as old and rich as any; and the people, despite their tribulations, celebrate life and death with fervor.  According to Mason, Greeks talk the world into being.  Language is life.  Even the land never stops talking. Nothing in Greece exists only in the present tense, but is always there to be read historically and mythologically.  Mason concludes his paen to Greece and Christopher Bakken's cookbook this way:  The aesthetics of food, like the poetics of work, are among the things that lend life its character, that remove it from the daily grind and lift it toward reality like an imagined sphere. One of Bakken's friends imagined that sphere following a climb to Mount Olympus in a howling storm, later sharing his take in conversation with his friend:  We live in a sphere, not on a line, and we must find a way to fill it.  Only fools worry about what's coming. We are here, after all, swirling back wine in our glasses like a couple of emperors.   Wall Street Journal, 4/13-14, 2013, C15.