Not Enough Time

There is not nearly enough time in the day/this program is not nearly long enough. When it hit me that there are now only four days remaining before I go home, I became really depressed. I’m just now getting to know everyone and settle into life in the big city! Nonetheless I will continue to enjoy my time here.

Today we did a lot of REALLY COOL THINGS. And you will have to keep reading to know what those really cool things are.

This morning started off kind of slow. One of the professors who was supposed to come and lecture was sick today, so we only had one, and then we were free to nap and lunch before coming back for a tour of two different labs. Here’s a summary of this morning’s lecture. It’s short, because I was half asleep.

When the shoe fits: word learning in naturalistic learning environments
Lila Gleitman (was sick) so given by John Trueswell
Dr. Trueswell is the director of the program here at IRCS and on the Linguistics faculty here at Penn. However, his main area is psychology. He is interested in how children acquire language and investigates the bootstrapping phenomenon which is thought to be one way in which children acquire language starting with very little. There are several models for how children learn their first word. One of the models is the Single Meaning Hypothesis, which states that children hear a word and make a single hypothesis about what it means according to the word’s referent in the child’s environment. That word will be attributed to something readily accessible. Later, if the child’s hypothesis is found to be incorrect, the child we reconsider how he/she understands the word and attempt to make a new connection between the word and his/her environment. This theory is much more supported and logical than the other, which is the Multiple Meaning hypothesis. In the Multiple Meaning hypothesis, it is thought that children hear a word and keep several objects in mind about what the word could refer to. Later, when the child hears the word again, it compares the objects it sees at that point to the objects he/she sees (sorry, I keep referring to children as ‘it.’ Whatevs.) to the objects that were present before and narrows down the possibility. This seems really cognitively taxing and there isn’t very much evidence to support it. 
There was a lot of stuff about adults acquiring words according to high-information and low-information trials during an experiment and yadda yadda no one wants to hear so I’m going to move on.
We didn’t get to hear the lecture I actually wanted to hear this morning, which was about how the mind processes difficult words. That is, words that have long length or that are comprised of several constituents, or that have complex irregular morphology. Anyway, we got some nap time so that was nice. I napped and then went to lunch to talk to the professor about language acquisition and we had a really good discussion. One of the best things about this conference, I have found, is that the students are actually all willing to participate in discourse no matter the topic. Everyone knows everything about everything. Except linguistics. The non-linguistic people keep asking questions that make me really anxious to spew information out about language change, acquisition, morphology, and culture and stuff. Fortunately I’ve been able to keep my mouth shut some of the time so as not to look like the most annoying person ever. Today we covered the topics of how the brain processes morphology, how TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation, which you will read about in a sec) affects language processing, and some other cool topics. 
After lunch we split up into two teams. I think I forgot to mention this, but there are two scavenger hunt teams and there are 11 students in each group. There’s the red team, and the winning team. I’m on the winning team. It’s actually become something of an obsession; we have to take pictures of certain things and people around the city and I’ve gotten like 20 points for our team because I’m not good for much else. But we get a prize and I want the prize. 
SO we split up into our teams and headed in opposite directions to different labs and then switched labs later in the afternoon. They were both really awesome. The first one was the TMS lab. Dr. Roy Hamilton demonstrated the TMS technology and explained how it works and what it is used for. For those who don’t know, TMS is used to depolarize (i.e. fire) the neurons in the cortical tissue of the brain in a centralized location. The machine uses two coils which, when run-through with an electric current, create a magnetic field. Faraday’s principle states that the oscillation of a magnetic field generates an electric current at a distance proportional to the square of the distance from the magnets, so using that idea they localize the magnetic field to stimulate various parts of the brain. Before this is all done, an MRI scan is taken of the subject’s brain. Then, using little headbands and plastic ball things, they use a computer and an infrared scanner and a couple tools to match the position of the subject’s head to their MRI scan on a computer screen. Then, by using a metal rod tool, you can see exactly what part of the brain you’re going to stimulate (in 3 dimensions, no less) before you fire up the machine. The TMS can be applied at various frequencies, strengths, and durations, elements which are controlled very carefully. Some types of TMS have been known to cause seizures, though the probability is only about 1/700. 
This technology has been used to treat depression and aphasia, though aphasic studies are still in their infancy. The FDA has approved TMS for treating depression as a refractory treatment after at least one medication has failed. Dr. Hamilton gave us a demonstration on one of his colleagues and I got a video. Also, he demonstrated the brain localization technique on Tatiana, one of the women here at the conference. (Side note… at what age does a girl/boy become a woman/man? It feels weird to refer to myself as a man but I’m definitely not a boy…)

Watch this video… the guy’s hand will move when Dr. Hamilton uses TMS over his motor cortex (at least, the part that is used when moving the hand). 

After the demonstration, we went upstairs to the conference room and talked about all the possible applications and issues with TMS before heading out and over to the hospital to meet Dr. Branch Coslett, MD.
This was less of a lab and more of a conference. We sat in a conference room around a table and discussed two case studies with Dr. Coslett. He gave us the symptoms a certain patient had and then asked us for what we thought might have been wrong with his brain, which was really cool. We all threw out diagnostic ideas and shared what information we knew about what areas of the brain affected specific behavioral patterns and cognitive processes and learned a lot from each other. We’re no diagnosticians by any means, but it felt like we were on House. After ‘diagnosing’ the patient we got to look at MRI scans of their brains to see where the damage had actually occurred (they were stroke patients, forgot to mention). 
After the discussions we went back to eat dinner on campus and I slept for a bit back at the dorm. At seven we were scheduled for a screening of the documentary The Linguists. The documentary was about two linguists, their travels all over the world, and their work on documenting dying languages before they go extinct. This is one of the things I really want to do at some point in my life, and it definitely looks even more interesting than I thought it was previously. Not only did we get to screen the film, but one of the linguists from the film, Dr. David Harrison was there to talk with us and answer our questions about his work and about linguistics in general. After watching the film we discussed for about another hour about how to get out into the field, find funding, and function on such trips. It was a really, really cool experience. Then we got pictures with him! 
Finally we all headed back to the dorm, but none of us were really up to sleeping after our mentally stimulating discussion so we met on the third floor lounge to… play ukulele and sing songs. I taught someone else how to play ‘Over the Rainbow’ on the uke and right before going to bed, someone decided we needed to have an IRCS talent show on Thursday evening. So that’s what we’re doing, apparently. Sleep time.

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