Monday, April 22, 2019

Language Learning and Prediction in Infants: UBC Quinn Memorial by Richard Aslin

Photo of Dr Richard Aslin
Every year there is at least one lecture I eagerly await and look forward to, namely the Quinn Memorial Lecture Series. It has been my fifth attendance over the last six years, with my first one being Michael Gazzaniga’s exquisite lecture entitled Free Will and the Science of the Brain. Unfortunately, I had to miss last year’s lecture by Dr Robert T. Knight because the date and time interfered with my work schedule, but I had been luckier this time around.

Although it certainly did not look like it at first. The scheduled talk Learning and Attention in Infants: The Importance of Prediction in Development by Distinguished Scientist Richard Aslin was suddenly canceled and postponed to a later indefinite date. No reason nor future date were given at the time. Could it be that my brain would have to go two years in a row without the much needed and much desired annual adrenaline shot of knowledge?

Thank goodness, my worries were unfounded, and there I was seated upfront with my smartphone in hand to take notes in preparation for this blog post. I did not know what to expect and on paper, at least for me, the topic at hand about how infants learn language and make predictions about their surroundings did not have the similar emotional impact on me as did previous topics and titles of this wonderful series.

There was certainly nothing wrong with the subject, but for me personally, it came about a decade too late as my son has already taken his first steps into the preteen period. More importantly, I did not wish to hear in retrospect how I may have potentially failed him as a parent in terms of language learning and / or behavior.

Yet again for a second time, my worries were entirely unfounded. The talk itself was much more interesting and engaging than I had imagined. First, Dr. Aslin told us how infants learn through auditory statistical learning. This means that they break streams of words, which are for them initially nothing but random sounds, into auditory chunks, hence creating word boundaries.

These boundaries are often signaled in fluent speech with pauses, such as taking breath. These word chunks then are basically processed and analyzed by the infant brain to make predictions. In order to be able to better understand and predict their surroundings, babies have the tendency to listen and pay more attention to novel and infrequent words and tones.

Why? Because by knowing and establishing certain patterns, they can better understand the rules. This is not a case of merely memorizing words but also looking past them for meaning (vocabulary as a symbol of a designated thing / event in the world) and learning about the inherent rules (grammar, sentence structure and appropriate word choices). 

In a way then, it is memorization plus generalization, respectively known as model-free and model-based learning; the latter of which is generally designated as smart, abstract and flexible ways of comprehension, while the former is rather unfairly treated as the opposite of all those epithets.

Certainly, there is also incidental learning. This means that we absorb knowledge and information without particularly focusing on the given stimuli. This type of learning would occur when one is performing a task by also taking in background noise or information in an almost automatic or subconscious manner. 

Evidently, paying attention is much better suited for learning, but even when we do not notice stimuli implicitly, we are still aware of and capable of remembering strands of information around us without having to specifically focus on them.

The manner they tested all of this was very interesting. The researchers inundated infants with random sounds and stimuli, both in terms of nonsense words, i.e. random syllable sounds as well as tones. Babies tended to be interested in new stimuli, but whenever they managed to discern a clear and repeated pattern, they would lose interest.

This occurred because infants were able to predict the next sound, so the sequence did not provide any novel information for them. Once a pattern was established, the baby moved on to something else … unless there was an unexpected result. That is, if they were expecting a given sound to follow, but either it did not, or the pattern was changed, then the element of surprise would warrant and elicit their attention again.

This happens mainly due to the structure of our brain. To clarify this tendency of the brain to create, establish and predict patterns, they conducted an interesting experiment with pairs of tones. The researchers would play the sound of two honking horns beep beep. After repeated exposure, the baby expected them to come in pairs, yet when the researchers omitted the second beep, the brain nonetheless supplied it.

This was discovered by hooking up wires on babies (no worries, this is harmless and painless standard procedure), thereby noting the infant’s brain activity. In other words, when the brain registered the first honk, the second one was immediately supplied by the brain, regardless if it was or was not there!

Since our brains are wired to make sense of our environment in terms of words or tones, we would use top-down processing once a pattern has been established, meaning that the higher structures of the brain would override the lower ones. In the previous experiment, the higher brain regions literally expected the double tone.

Once inferences were made, babies would then allocate attention to new information. This was observed by their behavior and reactions, such as looking longer at unexpected stimuli or looking away from expected, hence “boring” and unstimulating stimuli. 

In that sense, the brain works tandem with behavior, we are able to see connections and patterns and then start looking for them, hence it is the brain structure that is grounded and established first before the behavior sets in and manifests itself.

About 9 months of age, infants start searching for hidden objects because their brain - and with it their imagination - has developed to a state where the infants are capable of doing and perceiving such a thing; by around 18 months, they can produce two-word sentences. This seems to be universal and is caused by brain development growth and changes.

Yet some of the startling, if not downright shocking, finding was in relation to premature babies. It turns out that they can be at a significant disadvantage when it comes to their brain development although this may not be immediately visible or discernible in their behavior.

Put differently, premature babies may act and behave the same way as other infants, but their brain is less developed than their full-term counterparts. That sent shock-waves down my spine as my son was born prematurely! However, if you have premature children, or if by chance, you are one yourself, keep in mind that this is not always the case.

First off, each case or person is different, and it is not necessarily a disadvantage to begin with. In fact, the premature baby may make up for brain development at a later stage. Due to the plasticity of this magnificent and complex organ of ours, the brain can compensate for parts that have not fully developed, even more so at a younger and developing age. We should also note that the studies were conducted with babies that were significantly premature by about a handful of months and not by a mere month as it was in the case of my son.

Moreover, there are two other general factors that are significant and essential for learning as well. One of them is the fact that salience and prior knowledge tend to drive attention. Anything that is surprising and simply, or maybe ostentatiously, stands out will draw the attention of infants, an observation that is probably equally true for the adult age. The commonplace, however, is generally not worth a second look.

The other factor of importance is what is generally known and referred to as the Goldilocks effect. This simply means that if the information or stimuli presented is too simple or too complex for the baby, he or she will simply look away and lose interest. 

The Goldilocks effect plays also a significant role when it comes to stress and anxiety of children at school; optimal attention and learning is usually achieved when the material and / or environment is neither too comfortable and relaxing nor too stressful and exacting. The middle ground, i.e. the Goldilocks effect, is usually optimal for learning. 

But another question that arose was why was it that we as adults lose that infant ability to make sense of our environment? For instance, this type of processing information would be most useful when learning a second or additional language. Why was the same process not supplied to us at a later stage since it would make our language learning – and life - so much easier?

Part of the problem stems from the fact that as adults we have already established preconceived and set ways of learning and of reacting to our environment, commonly known as entrenched learning. Since we can make more and better sense of our surrounding, and we already have a plethora of prior information and knowledge to select from, we can predict it much better. As a result, and for better or worse, we are not so much drawn to new stimuli and information, but, in a sense, we lose some of our capacity for curiosity and wonder. 

But this is perhaps not the only reason we become somewhat jaded as adults. The other driving force, an issue that came up during my personal conversation with Dr. Aslin afterwards, was anxiety. When we are young, we are generally driven by our anxiety to make sense of everything that is around us, as it could spell potential threat and danger to our health and wellbeing. Once we have sorted out the information, we somewhat lose or at least soften that anxious edge.

With less anxiety, there is also less need to fear or worry about new stimuli. Dr. Aslin called this the dichotomy of an exploring baby versus an exploiting adult brain. While as infants, we strive to look for clues and knowledge to make predictions, as somewhat “jaded” adults, we want to use whatever new knowledge we get our hands on to better serve our benefit and purposes. Most of these developments may origin in the brain and are hence automatic and not necessarily within our control.

This has repercussions in terms of language learning as well. Our life does not so much depend upon making sense of the world since we have already more or less successfully passed through that stage in our younger years. However to finish on a more positive note, we can (and I would say should), despite our brain and age, preserve a sense of wonder by occasionally feeding the child within us and hence ensuring that this worldview or way of interpreting the world is still kept alive and well.

Friday, April 12, 2019

On How to Detect Deception: Book Review of Spy the Lie

Former CIA Officers Teach You How To Detect Deception
Deception is much more common than you may think; we can encounter it pretty much anywhere in all shapes and forms. It could be online and on television in the form of fake news or misinformation, it may be your teenage son or daughter, your spouse, your parents, and it may be even rampant at your work place.

In fact, it is at work where deception often feels most at home and sometimes even works overtime. As people want to gain the upper hand over their competing colleagues and since they wish to put themselves in the best possible light in front of their superiors, they may opt to spread gossip or even lie straight into your face.

Others are either too eager to please everyone at work by resorting to unabashed and bountiful flattery and hypocrisy, or they may constantly brag about how wonderful they are and keep mentioning and rubbing in their supposed accomplishments. Their aim is to climb up the corporate ladder, and since most of them are adept at manipulating and lying, and, more importantly, making you believe and swallow their lies, they indeed succeed.

In a much lesser degree yet undoubtedly to a certain extent, I see similar deceptive behavior among my college students. While a good majority of them are honest, some can come up with the most brazen and even shameless lies to attain passing or passable grades. At times, I marvel at their efforts of being disingenuous where in addition to downright lying, they resort to various inventive forms of cheating and plagiarizing. I just wonder if that skill and zeal had been applied to the work at hand, it would have most likely provided at least decent results.

But I shall not bore you here with the life of a teacher that can be both exhilarating and frustrating, so I shall get to the topic at hand on how to spot a lie and a liar. This is indeed a magnificently useful skill to have in life, especially since deception is so commonplace wherever you may find yourself. In the past, I would rely on my gut feeling or on visible and evident nonverbal cues to draw conclusions, but now thanks to the wonderful book Spy the Lie written by former CIA officers I can come to a better and much more accurate verdict.

Detecting deception is what officers in the field must engage in on an ongoing basis, and it is not only crucial but rather of utmost importance since the lives of people could be at stake. Throughout the years, these CIA officers have put together and developed a method to spot deception in others and now we can all reap the benefits from their research and personal experience in this handy and nifty book. 

I believe that this book should be mandatory for all police and customs officers as well as all those who engage in interrogations or interviews of various types, but it is also incredibly useful and helpful for those of us who simply want to know if others are being truthful to us or not.

So how do we know if somebody is indeed lying to us? Most of us engage in what is called global behavior assessment. What this entails is that we tend to look at the overall behavior, and then based on the data we have received, we make a decision. However, this is very cumbersome, often time-consuming as well as distracting. Instead, the authors propose to focus on salient and specific cues and signals of deception.

The nonverbal component is often emphasized in many books and television programs, but it is only part of it and can often be misleading. For example, when a person appears nervous in front of us or if they engage in closed body language, such as crossed arms, that may signal deception but not necessarily so. They might be nervous because that is their personality, or they just might be comfortable sitting or standing in that position.

The main thing is to closely observe the reaction to the question. If they have appeared relaxed and suddenly tense up or engage in closed nonverbal behavior when you pop the question, then that may be a sign of deception. In fact, the main takeaway here is to be attentive to any salient clues five seconds after the question has been posed.

That would represent their instinctive reaction to the question. In fact, we tend to think about ten times faster than we speak, so by the time you finished your question, the other person has already had time to process it and come up with an answer, either true or fabricated.

So what are suspicious gestures to look out for? They may be swallowing, clearing one’s throat or looking away immediately before answering the question, as well as grooming gestures, such as adjusting glasses, ties or shirt cuffs, and strands of hair with women. Interestingly, sweat management is another helpful clue. The sweat itself is not the problem nor the giveaway, but when they wipe it off, either with or without a handkerchief, then it becomes significant. 

Also, the deceptive person may suddenly tidy up their surroundings by adjusting and readjusting a cup of coffee or moving a pen from one side to another. All these behaviors are often unconscious ways of dealing with and dissipating anxiety.

Other nonverbal signals are what is known as behavioral pause or delay. If there is a significant or noticeable pause before a person answers, it may show deception. That of course depends on the question. If you ask a person what they were doing seven years ago on this day, they would need to pause and reflect; yet if your question was whether they had robbed a bank, there should not be any delay in proclaiming “No!” or “Of course not!”

There is also something known as verbal / nonverbal disconnect. Generally, our brains tend to connect the language with its matching gesture, but when you notice discrepancy, it may not be a good sign. For instance, the person says "no" while nodding the head. One must keep in mind that nodding and shaking heads may have different connotations in different cultures, so this should be taken with a grain of salt. They may also laugh or smile inappropriately while discussing a serious matter or issue and that is a potential red flag.

Another gesture involves hiding the mouth or eyes. If the person does the former, it may be a natural and instinctive way of covering up one’s lie, especially when they are responding to the given question. Also, when we are deceptive, we would avoid eye contact because we want to shield ourselves from the reaction of those we are purposely and intentionally lying to. 

Or the person might touch their face, bite or lick their lips, or they may pull on their ears. This occurs due to one’s anxiety as circulation focuses on vital organs and muscles in the fight or flight response. Hence the itchiness is caused due to a lack of blood in certain body parts, predominantly the surfaces of the face, the ears and the extremities.

Finally, to wrap up the body language cues, there are also anchor-point movements. If a person is sitting, the anchors would be their back and feet. For example, if a foot is in the air and moves or one’s hands are resting in the lap, that might be another method for dissipating anxiety. For this reason, it is best to interview or interrogate people in a chair that has wheels and with movable arm rests so that those behaviors can be amplified, hence making it easier to notice the anchor-point movements.

Throughout the book, the officers emphasize two important points. One that we need to have what is considered an L-squared view of the other person. That means we need to actively Look as well as Listen to their words and scan them for deceptive clues. Second, in order to reach a verdict, we need not just one but a cluster of deceptive behaviors. The more deceptive behaviors you can spot, the more likely the person is guilty of deception.

What should we watch out for when it comes to verbal content? There are various methods and strategies that are used to hide or conceal lies. One of them is simply the failure to answer a simple and straightforward question. That may occur because the person in question is trying to figure out just how to get way with their lie. Yet this behavior on its own and in isolation does not immediately spell out deception unless they are combined with other cues.

Another one would be denial problems. If the denial is expressed not just as a simple “no” but is accompanied and followed by statements like “I would never do something like that,” then you need to count it as a possible form of deception. 

In fact, the person may intend to deflect from the question and emphasize their position and reputation, neither one of which would be a good sign for them in this given context. In either case, if they add unnecessary details or elaborate their answers, it may point towards deception.

Another couple of tactics that potentially spell out deception is the reluctance or refusal to answer. This is the proverbial “I cannot answer the question” spiel or the suggestion that you’d be better off asking another person that same question. Or they might simply repeat and reiterate the same question: “So you’re saying that I cheated on the assignment?” This type of behavior is meant to fill in awkward moments of silence so that the person can gain time to come up with a good instead of a truthful answer.

This behavior can also come in the form of a nonanswer statement, like self-evident but dishonest statements of the ilk of “I’m glad you asked that,” “That’s a good question,” or “I knew you were going to ask me that.” This often demonstrates that the person is worried about something. Moreover, they might provide inconsistent statements or contradict themselves in the course of the conversation as they are trying hard and sometimes desperately to keep their story straight.

Or they may simply go into attack mode. Since they are afraid of being caught, they might as well accuse you of wrongdoing (in psychoanalytic terms known as projection) or they may attempt to impeach your credibility or competence with sarcastic and pointed questions such as “How long have you been doing this job?” This is also when kids burst out with their typical “Why do you always pick on me?” or “Why don’t you trust me?” In either case, not a good sign.

And then there are referral statements. They might refer to having already explained something or the person may claim that they have previously talked to someone else about the same issue. Through sheer repetition, they might get you to actually believe what they are saying. 

Or they might invoke religion and swear to God, which is generally not a good signal either.  And of course, there is the often used strategy of faking temporary amnesia with often heard statements like “Not that I recall …“ or “To the best of my knowledge” or  “Not that I am aware of” or even the staple answer of “As far as I know…” Of course, these answers may be valid in some cases, but in others, they are dubious if not downright suspicious.

Moreover, we also have qualifiers. There are two types of them, the exclusion and the perception qualifiers. Exclusion qualifiers are statements like not really, basically, for the most part, probably and the like. The second type of perception qualifiers involve statements like honestly, to tell you the truth, frankly or to be perfectly honest.

If you are honest, you do not have to say you are and why add the adverb “perfectly” there, for instance! What qualifiers do is they enable people to withhold certain information. You cannot just basically say the truth; you do, or you don’t for that matter, but we need to be aware that they may possibly be speech habits and patterns that we simply employ.

Finally, there are those highly popular and often used convincing statements. In that case, the deceptive person would give you a string of statements that are supposed to highlight their honesty, good standing or reputation so that they can convince you they are innocent of any type of wrongdoing. 

These people might point out that they are good and decent people, that everybody can vouch for their integrity, and that they have worked up a reputation in various fields of their lives. The goal here is not to provide information but to convince of their supposed personal integrity. And that is another major red flag.

That may be even noticeable in simple questions. If there was a theft at a company and people are interviewed for that reason, the truthful person would simply state their profession: I am an engineer, or I am a language instructor. The deceptive person might go into too many unnecessary details about what they do, what their responsibilities and duties are and how they have worked for various years at the agency or institution. That is already a potential warning sign that deception may be at work.

So there you have it! This book evidently contains many more examples and backs them up with personal experience as well as actual snippets of news items and interviews. If you want to put this to practice, you can watch video footage of famous impostors and liars, including but not limited to presidents like Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, or murderers like Ted Bundy, Susan Smith, or the Jinx’s own Robert Durst (yes, I’m pretty sure he’s guilty).

As with anything, the more you practice, the better you will get at it. And then you might even apply it onto the real world. But as the authors claim, this is indeed some superpower that you are given, and you must be careful with how you use it. You can apply it to anyone you wish, but it is advisable to avoid using it on your spouse or significant others. Just saying.