Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On Language Learning

Here a couple of extracts from chapter 4 of my new book 'Embracing the Wide Sky':

"A recent finding by researchers at the University College London Centre for Human Communication demonstrates that, given the right stimulus, the adult brain can indeed be retrained to accurately acquire the sounds of a second language...In one study Japanese subjects were retrained to hear the difference between r’s and l’s (something that Japanese students of English find especially difficult)...By the end of the 10-week training period the subjects had improved their recognition of the two sounds by an average of 18%."

(From a later section of the chapter:)

"Examples like these suggest to many linguists that certain words are a more natural ‘fit’ than others for the things they describe. A number of experiments over several decades have supported this idea...the German psycholinguist Heinz Wissemann asked a group of subjects to invent words for various sounds. He found that the subjects tended to create words beginning with ‘p’ ‘t’ or ‘k’ for abrupt sounds, and words beginning with ‘s’ or ‘z’ for flowing sounds. In a more recent experiment involving natural language, the linguist Brent Berlin provided English speakers with fish and bird names from the Huambisa language (spoken in Peru). He found that they were able to distinguish the words for fish from those for birds significantly more often than chance, even though Huambisa bears no resemblance to English."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On Memory

Here are a couple of short extracts from chapter 3 (on memory) of my upcoming book 'Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind':

"Remembering something from our past is not at all like pulling facts from our brains, but rather a reconstruction aided by our level of interest, knowledge, and emotion at the time of the event and the subsequent point of recollection. The neurologist Antonio Damasio contends that we remember in this way because there is no single area or location in the brain that contains the memory of a past experience. Rather, different aspects of an experience activate different parts of the brain so that remembering involves a process of pulling these distributed pieces back together. "

(From a later section in the chapter:)

"Elaborative encoding is how experienced actors are able to memorise lengthy scripts with very high levels of accuracy. Rather than attempting to learn their lines by rote, the actors analyse scripts, questioning the underlying meaning of the material in order to better understand the motivations and goals of their characters. Studies confirm that when students are asked to use “all physical, mental, and emotional channels to communicate the meaning of material to another person, either actually present or imagined” their line retention improved significantly, compared to those who read the script for comprehension alone."

For more information about the book, and/or to pre-order, visit

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Book Video for 'Embracing the Wide Sky'

Here is a 5 minute video of me discussing some of the key themes of my new book 'Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind' - hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Intelligence and IQ

Here are a couple of extracts from chapter 2 of my new book 'Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind'. This chapter deals with the topic of intelligence/iq and the nature of talent/genius.

"If intelligence is, as I contend, a concept too subtle and nebulous to ‘prove’ in any scientific way, what are we then to make of the phenomenon of IQ testing? To help me answer this question, I decided to undergo the process myself – the first time I have ever had my ‘IQ score’ assessed. The test was supervised by a qualified educational psychologist, using a series of one-on-one tasks taken from the most commonly used evaluation of adult intelligence – the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS)..."

(From a later section in the chapter:)

"Controversies over the nature of intelligence also extend to its origins: Are examples of remarkable talent or giftedness the result of nature or nurture (or both)? The debate has raged for decades, polarising public and scientific opinion in good part because the stakes are so high, with the different views leading to starkly different social and political implications. If, for example, a person’s talents are determined by his genes then there is little we can do to improve on the minds we are born with. On the other hand, if environmental factors are what count, then education, encouragement, and access to opportunity are more important than who an individual’s parents or grandparents are."

Visit for more information about the book, to read reviews, or to buy online.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Embracing the Wide Sky Chapter 1 Extracts

I'm going to be posting short extracts here from each of the 10 chapters of my upcoming book 'Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind'. New extracts will appear every other day or so up till New Year.

Chapter 1 is all about the brain and how much more adaptable it is than scientists and the public ever previously imagined:

"The realization that our brains can rewire themselves based on our experiences raises an interesting question: is it possible to tap the power of our brains’ plasticity to enhance our senses and even create new ones? Yes, says the Osnabrück cognitive scientist Peter König, inventor of the ‘feelSpace’ belt. Wide and lined with thirteen vibrating pads, the belt detects the earth’s magnetic field using an electronic compass. With each step of the user, the vibrator that points nearest to magnetic north starts to buzz. In time, the wearer is able to orient himself with ease. One subject who tried the belt out for six weeks described developing an intuitive map of his city inside his head."

(From a later section in the chapter:)

"Evidence that savant talents are rooted in natural (if unusual and extraordinary) brain processing comes from research carried out by the Australian scientist Professor Allan Snyder, director of the Centre for the Mind in Sydney. Autistic thought is not incompatible with ordinary thought, Snyder argues, but a variation on it – a more extreme example. To test his theory, Snyder and his colleagues used a technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which involves sending a series of electromagnetic pulses via electrodes into the subject’s frontal lobes – the idea being to shut down temporarily the left hemisphere of the brain in order to boost the right side (the side most implicated in savant skills). They noted improved artistic and proofreading abilities in several of the subjects following the application of TMS. The improvements disappeared within an hour of the stimulation being stopped."

To find out more about the book, and/or pre-order a copy, visit

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

My Open Letter to Barack Obama in the Advocate

The December edition of the US 'Advocate' magazine has just appeared, with an open letter I wrote to President-elect Barack Obama. You can read it online here: