Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What (a window into the brain of) the mouse can teach us about learning pronunciation

Trigger warning: If you are especially attached to your mouse, you may want to skip over the third, italicized paragraph below . . . 

Fascinating research by Funamizu, Kuhn and Doya of Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, "Neural substrate of dynamic Bayesian inference in the cerebral cortex", originally published in Nature Neuroscience, summarized by Science Daily as, "Finding your way around in an uncertain world". (Full citation below.)

Basically, the study looked at how the (mouse's) brain uses movement of the mouse's body in creating meaning and thought. Reading the research methodology is not for the faint of heart. Here is a piece of the Science Daily summary describing it:

The team performed surgeries in which a small hole was made in the skulls of mice and a glass cover slip was implanted onto each of their brains over the parietal cortex. Additionally, a small metal headplate was attached in order to keep the head still under a microscope. The cover slip acted as a window through which researchers could record the activities of hundreds of neurons using a calcium-sensitive fluorescent protein that was specifically expressed in neurons in the cerebral cortex . . . The research team built a virtual reality system in which a mouse can be made to believe it was walking around freely, but in reality, it was fixed under a microscope. This system included an air-floated Styrofoam ball on which the mouse can walk and a sound system that can emit sounds to simulate movement towards or past a sound source.(ScienceDaily, September 16, 2016).

Got that? They then observed how the mice "navigate" the virtual space under different conditions, including almost complete reliance on body movement, rather than with access to any visual or auditory stimulus. The surprising finding (at least to me) was the extent to which kinesthetic memory or engagement took over, directing the mice to the "reward." There is much more to the work, of course, but this "window" into the functioning of the cerebral cortex is really consistent with a wide range of studies that point to "body-based" meaning creation and control.

So, what is the possible relevance of that to pronunciation teaching? (I never thought you'd ask!) Our work in haptic pronunciation teaching, for example, is based on the assumption, in effect, that "gesture comes first" (before sound and visual phonemes/graphemes) in instruction. (Based on Lessac's principle of "Train the body first" in voice and stage movement work.) For the most part today, pronunciation methodologists and theorists still see the role of gesture in teaching as being secondary, at best, an optional "reinforcer" of word-sound associations or a vehicle for "loosening up" learners and their bodies and emotional states-- or even just having fun!

What the "mice" study suggests is that sound, movement and vision are more integrated and interdependent in the brain than we generally acknowledge--or at least that movement is more central to meaning creation and retrieval. There are a number of body and movement-based theories that support that observation. In other words, the use of gesture in instruction deserves much more attention than it is currently getting. Much more than just a gesture . . .

Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University - OIST. "Finding your way around in an uncertain world." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 September 2016. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Remembering new pronunciation (or anything) . . . in a flash!

Here is another for your "So THAT's why it works" file, from neuroscience. (Hat tip: Robert Murphy.)

The phenomenon, explored by Morris and researchers at Edinburgh reported by Neuroscience News, is called: flashbulb memory. (See full citation below.) Working with mice, they found, basically, that a vivid, striking event can cause the release of dopamine by the locus coeruleus, which, in turn " . . . carries dopamine to the hippocampus . . . " which affects how effectively memories are stored.

So, if you (and your mouse) are about to learn something new--or just did, it will be remembered more efficiently if it is "bookended" by a "flashbulb" event . Talk about counter-intuitive! I have done dozens of posts over the years on how attention figures into learning. (In our haptic work, for example, we often note that we need the attention of the learner for only 3 seconds to anchor a new sound.) In the Neuroscience news summary it is noted that "Our research suggests that a skillful teacher may be able to take advantage of these little surprises to help pupils learn and remember.” Really? How so? They don't speculate--for good reason. How might you adopt that insight?

My first thought was to go find one of those camera flash attachments and try it out next week. But wait. There may be more to this, more than just dopamine.

About 35 years ago, I was very much interested in clinical hypnosis, in part as a way to better understand unconscious communication and learning in the classroom. One basic feature some models of trance work was that you had to be very careful to distract the learner (or client) immediately after a significant suggestion has been provided or "uploaded".

The explanation was that that would keep the conscious mind of the learner from deconstructing and dismissing or undermining the suggestion or metaphor, not letting it be absorbed in toto, in effect. That could be accomplished in any number of ways, such as switching topics abruptly, showing a picture or doing something more physical or kinaesthetic, such as standing up or a gesture of some kind.

In other words, the principle, of selectively partitioning off classroom experience makes sense. Rather than thinking in terms of always integrating the entire class period and lesson so that learners are metacognitively "on top of it all", so that they constantly know why they are learning what and consciously (metaphorically) attempting to file everything away for later use, think: switch-flash-divert-surprise.

I knew that my distinct tendency toward ADHD-like excessive multi-tasking was really a good thing! If you have a good "Flash dance" technique that you can share w/us, please do!

Keep in touch!

Full citation:
University of Edinburgh. (2016, September 8). How New Experiences Boost Memory Formation. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved September 8, 2016 from http://neurosciencenews.com/experience-memory-neuroscience-4991/

Friday, September 2, 2016

Haptic (10-year pronunciation teaching) birthday party!

We are planning a couple of parties next month, celebrating 10 years of haptic pronunciation teaching. If you are a haptician in the Vancouver or Kamloops areas of British Columbia, please join us. (More specifics on that soon!) Should you not be (either in the area or a haptician by practice) you'll still be invited to join us "virtually" in celebrating! That will include:
  • New video released describing the history and development of  Essential Haptic-integrated English Pronunciation (EHIEP).
  • Birthday webinar/party  (We'll post a series of "success stories" before that happens. If you have one you'd like to contribute, please pass that on to me.)
  • Release of new student self-study course.
  • Recognition of "shrewdnesses, pandemoniums and zeals" of hapticians worldwide! (Each local group needs to choose its respective collective noun, based on which best describes their collective "personality", of course.) 
  • v3.0
  • We are also working on setting up a new professional organization or "shrewdness" of Hapticians or reviving the earlier International Association of Haptic-integrated Pronunciation Teaching Researchers and Instructors (IAHPTRI) from a few years ago. (If you belonged back then, we'll be in touch.) 
It has been an amazing "haptic" decade. It all began with the discovery that kinaesthetic, gesture work in pronunciation teaching could be considerably enhanced with just a "touch of touch!"

Keep in touch!