Monday, December 20, 2010

Much on the Mind at 'Brain: The Inside Story'

The interactive exhibit on procedural memory, above, shows how practice makes the difficult task of tracing a shape in a mirror easier. Photos courtesy of AMNH/D. Finnin.

HEAD’S UP: December again already. It’s the gifting season, which means more things to do with less time to do them in. Don’t despair. At VEVLYN’S PEN, we are here to help. For the next week or so — 12 days before Christmas ending on 22 Dec. — each day we will introduce a product/item, brand or nifty shop that we believe is worthy of consideration for those very special gifts.

Gift Idea No. 10:

language acquisition table is doing brisk business.

A woman shyly approaches, looks at the monitor showing images of six different people. Underneath the images is the name of the language each person speaks, i.e., Mandarin, Igbo, Russian and so on. She chooses Spanish; follows the prompts and is now listening to the very friendly onscreen guide/instructor who says in Spanish, “Girl is Pretty.” Now, it is left to her to repeat those words. “Moo cha-cha,” the Luxembourger speaks into the small microphone in a close approximation of what she heard moments ago. She is pleased. The “flatline-like” illustration that appears on the screen after she listens to herself on the recording is very similar to the one that appeared on the screen after the instructor utters the phrase in Spanish.

She now says, “I play the guitar.” Alas, there are too many syllables and intonations for similar success. So involved/intricate/intertwined are the sounds/syllables/intonation associated with “My father’s red car is fast,” they may as well be brain surgery.

Speaking of brain, the language acquisition table is located in “Your Thinking Brain,” one of seven sections in “Brain: The Inside Story” at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The ambitious, heavily interactive exhibit relies on the latest information, newest findings/innovations and uses state-of-the-art technology to illustrate its main thrust – the brain is the human body’s most complex organ and this is how it works. It's on view through 14 Aug. (Visit: and

The language acquisition interactive exhibit demonstrates that accurately pronouncing particular sounds (as exemplified by the unique sounds of different languages) is more difficult if brain connections are not made early in life.

The language acquisition table illustrates what happens in the brain as a new language is learned. Each time the lady from Luxembourg says in Spanish “Girl is Pretty” and the young Australian who blew into town the night before says “Hello, my friend” in Russian, their pronounciation improves. As they repeat the phrases, the brain begins “rewriting itself” to accommodate the new sounds.

These activities happen in the Broca’s area and the Wernicke’s area. The former, located in the front of the brain near the forehead, helps speakers put words together; the latter, residing around the center of the brain, aids in the understanding of languages. Incidentally, the visual cortex is in the back of the brain. It appears, after all, that it is possible to have “eyes in the back of your head.”

A little girl from the United States speaking Mandarin handled “Thank you” and “Rock and roll music” like a mother-tongue speaker. Her mother outted her, however, disclosing that her daughter had been speaking Mandarin since she was around 3 when the family resided in China. That would certainly account for her fluency. But another explanation is that her Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are more flexible, as they typically are in children. Think of them as being more open to change, therefore more adaptable to new environments/paradigms/sounds, etc. This flexibility/openness allowed her to learn Mandarin faster than her parents did, and without an American accent.

Elsewhere in “Brain: The Inside Story (various admission plans:, and also in “Your Thinking Brain” is the star-tracing exercise. Sit down at a table; grab the marker; look into the mirror, and trace the shape of the star. At first, it may be more than a notion, but practice make more perfection as the brain relies on “procedural memory,” which allows humans to get better at certain activities the more they do them.

Puzzling. Who/What is this? The answer appears at the end of this article.

Nearby, is an exercise designed to illustrate that the brain works harder to process competing information. The harder the brain works the slower the brain works. One board. Two columns. In Column A are words that spell a particular color i.e., yellow. The letters that form the words are colored in the corresponding hue i.e., yellow. In Column B, the letters that spell yellow are listed in green. A clock times the results. Invariably, it takes each visitor twice as long to get through Column B. A few are rendered speechless for a few seconds before the brain sends the signals that allow them to pronounce the word.

Other sections in “Brain: The Inside Story” include “Your Emotional Brain” and “Your Sensing Brain.” Hanging in this latter section is a grainy image that looks like a puzzle, especially when viewed through glass. It is a visual representation of how the brain processes pieces of visual information into a coherent whole. “Introductory Theater,” is a good starting place because it imparts basic information that will be helpful in the rest of the exhibit. It’s good theater, too.

In the “21st Century Brain” section visitors not only learn that a computer can be connected to the brain, some – like parents – can decode silent thoughts.

Question: Who/What is pictured in photo above?
Answer: Mona Lisa.

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