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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment