Saturday, August 27, 2016

Slip of the tongue - Is it normal?

Dear Dr. Phil,
I am in tenth grade and an OK student. 
I find that I constantly make stupid mistakes when I speak. My mom says that I don’t do it that much and that everyone misspeaks. I use the wrong word, but it sounds like the right word to me. I am noticing it a lot and don’t want kids at school laughing at me.
Keith, Reno Nevada
Everyone makes word replacement mistakes
Keith, my heart goes out to you. It is hard being in high school. But, rest assured, tripping over your own tongue is simply a part of life. There are two major ways we do it, both normal and often funny. So, before I explain, please let me give you some advice. Allow yourself to laugh at yourself when you trip over your own tongue.
If you flub up on purpose, it is called a joke or a pun. I love puns. I love the way it makes my kids moan with embarrassment when I pun. Also, a good portion of my cartoons are puns. That little play on words that tickles the funny bone. So, when you trip up, go with it.
There are 2 common verbal mistakes that often cause snickering: malaprop and mondegreen.
A malaprop is a mistake we make when we accidentally replace a word or phase with one that sounds similar. Sometimes this turns out to be hilarious. 
Once, when I was a kid watching Archie Bunker in the TV show, "All in the Family", I almost wet my pants. Archie was upset about “Orthodox Jews” but he accidentally called them “Off-the-dock Jews.” This infuriated my mother, which made me laugh even harder. 
My mother disliked puns, seeing them as a form of low class humor. She, and people of her time, called malapropisms, dogberry’s, after the character in William Shakespeare’s play, "Much Ado About Nothing." A line I like from the play is when Constable Dogberry tells Governor Leonato, "Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons", when he meant to say, “apprehended two suspicious persons.” (Act 3, Scene V)
Malapropism gets its name from the the fictional Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Richard Sheridan's play, "The Rivals" (1775).
So, we have to laugh at malapropisms, they are part of the human condition. Take some solace in that they are not unique to you.
Mondegreens are words or phrases that we mishear. It can happen in normal conversation, and is very common when listening to songs.
If I am walking through the mall and someone yells, “Bill” it will get my attention. It sounds close to “Phil” so I might actually hear it as “Phil”. 
The word, mondegeen was coined by Sylvia Write in an essay entitled, "The Death of Lady Mondegreen” in Harper’s Magazine (1954).
Write gives an example of this, using Psalm 23:1-6 to illustrate her point:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Is often heard as:

Surely Good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life…

One Christmas, when my oldest son was only 6, he was upset with his mother and me when we told him that he was messing up the words to Jingle Bells. He was positive the words were, 

Bells on bobtail ring
Making spirits cry

Bells on bobtail ring
Making spirits bright

This cartoon’s wording came from a similar conversation with my kids about “All of the other reindeer” from Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer, written by Johnny Marks.

We can all easily and often mishear or misspeak. 

Got a favorite mishear or misspeak? Leave it in the comment section. Thanks!

Monday, August 15, 2016

What is a preliminary study in psychology, and why do babies twitch while they sleep?

Mark Blumberg, Ph.D., of the University of Iowa, received a 5 million dollar MERIT Award from the National Institutes of Health for his work studying brain activity in young organisms. First, congrats to Dr. Blumberg, and second, I bring this up because of a press release I read this week from the University of Iowa (UI). 

What is preliminary research?
Preliminary research is where all good research starts. It is “pre”, before, more research is done. It is a starting point towards answering a question. But, just a starting point. It is the first few peer reviewed papers of many to come.
Dr. Blumberg said in the UI press release, “You would think that when animals are asleep, they’re not going to have that much brain activity, and then when they wake up, the activity will be really robust, because they’re awake,” he said. “You would think the brain would reflect the behavior. But we’ve seen exactly the opposite.”
With this observation and many questions about early development, Blumberg and his colleagues are looking into why babies twitch while they sleep. He first looked at baby rats, and now is doing observational studies of human babies with support from the Gates Foundation. 
Initially it was thought that babies twitched during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep due to dreaming. But Blumberg speculates that there is a developmental component, that sleep twitching may help the development of the infant’s nervous system. 
For example, infants that are learning to hold their heads up show more neck twitches than infants that have more control over their heads. The thought is that twitches help the growing nervous system test the electrical infrastructure and prepare for the next developmental achievement.  
“Preliminary” leads to press speculation
Further along in the press release we see clinical speculation. I bring this up not to bad mouth this researcher but as a warning to the reader. Often in press releases, and especially in the title of them, the study information is exaggerated into what is hoped to be found in the future. In this case we have this:

Blumberg’s research could be important in understanding neurodevelopment disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia.

The research could also be used to help people who have suffered from strokes or amputations to regain control of their nervous system as their brain restructures itself.

Please note, the research into baby twitching is being done, there is no research being conducted concerning autism, schizophrenia, strokes, or amputations.

I have talked with researchers that are surprised by the speculations made by university or corporate press releases. The writer of the press release, often not a scientist, hopes the press release will get circulated around the world by newspapers and bloggers. The goal of a press release is to get noticed and to shed a little light back on the university or corporation. 

So, keep a critical eye when reading press releases, or articles written based on press releases.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Why we blink is more complicated than we think

The basic explanation about why we blink is to keep our eyes moist and to wash away dirt with our tears. This is interesting but, it seems like people blink much more than we need to keep our eyes damp and clean.

Eye Tear Chart and Flow of Tears Chart

Japanese researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, in 2013, that eye blinks allow the brain to momentarily process visual information. They explain:
The results suggest that eyeblinks are actively involved in the process of attentional disengagement during a cognitive behavior by momentarily activating the default-mode network while deactivating the dorsal attention network.

It seems that by packaging visual input into small data bursts, our brains can quickly transfer this input information to different parts of our brain to analyze it.
Science and magic
Way back in 1896, Joseph Jastrow wrote in Science his laboratory observations of how slight-of-hand experts trick our observations.  In the last 20 years or so, psychologists interested in how we perceive, have looked at how magicians can misdirect an audience, use banter to distract us, or give us mind puzzles to gently confuse us, so we miss visually what is happening right in front of our eyes. 
In April of 2016, in PeerJ, Richard J. Wiseman and Tamami Nakano took this type of eyeblinking/brain research one step further. Their basic question was: How does a magician use, knowingly or not, our eyeblinks to trick us? They wrote:
Given that blinking is associated with the relaxation of attention, these findings suggest that blinking plays an important role in the perception of magic, and that magicians may utilize blinking and the relaxation of attention to hide certain secret actions.

The research showed that the magicians did their slight-of-hand when the audience blinked, thus hiding the secret action. It seems magicians are able to trigger or anticipate when we will blink by using banter, mind puzzles, or boring misdirection. And, isn’t it interesting we as an audience participate and blink when the magician expects us to.
This is a fun and well implemented protocol done in the real world conditions of watching a magic trick.  Psychologists, magicians, as well as law enforcement, may need to look at the implications this has on how we humans perceive our world.  

Please let me know what you think by clicking the “comments” below.