What happened in 2011…
One of the more memorable songs from “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street” suggests keeping the memories of the holidays close at hand at all times. Understanding how memories are formed and how they can be retained for future retrieval was the focus of several studies in 2011.
For example, at the start of the year, European researchers wanted to know how memory formation was affected by the use of either a pen or a keyboard to take notes. Their results suggested that certain areas of the brain are activated by the multiple senses involved in conveying and translating the information from pen and paper into the mind, while other areas of the brain are stimulated when a keyboard is used.
Another team that studied the effects of physical activity on the brain echoed the idea that memories are formed and kept using multiple senses. The researchers found that in people who went for long walks several times a week, the region of the brain associated with retaining memory called the hippocampus was slightly larger compared to the same region of the brain in people who only did stretching exercises.
The importance of a bigger hippocampus was demonstrated by neuroscientists in a recently published paper that linked the portion of this region of the brain located in the back of the head to memory formation. Together with other parts of the brain involved in collecting sensory information, the team said, the size of the posterior hippocampus plays a role in one’s ability to save and retrieve memories.
Another team approached memory as something encoded in the basic blocks of life. Every year, when the temperatures start dropping, the monarch butterflies head from the east coast of the United States to the warmer weather in Mexico. Given the short lifespan of these insects however, none of them make more than one trip south. Researchers pieced together the entire DNA sequence of the monarch butterfly and are using the information to understand how the knowledge of where to go is hardcoded in the insects’ genes.
The ability to keep and recall memories is one thing, being able to share them requires communication skills. When people can’t find the appropriate word, they often resort to gestures to convey the information. While the concepts of food/eat and water/drink may be universally understood the world over, a report in April from evolutionary linguists suggested that unlike rice, language developed in many places at the same time, resulting in different grammar structures, though Yoda’s personal style of talking is not one of the more popular options.
Many more studies involving language focused on the effects of bilingualism on the brain. For example, Canadian researchers worked with young children in their study from January to show how those who had been exposed to more than one language were more focused than their counterparts, likely in part because they needed to pay more attention to determine which language they were hearing in order to respond appropriately.
Another study from researchers in Great Britain and Japan teamed up to demonstrate that people who fluently speak two languages literally have a different mindset compared to people who only speak one language. The report published in March used colors to emphasize the differences between cultures, and how bilingualism can be useful in a world where global communications are becoming increasingly common.
Finally, an Israeli study from February suggested that people who already know two languages don’t need to stop there. Bilingual people, the team reported, are able to learn additional languages with greater ease than the monolinguists. “Gaining command of a number of languages improves proficiency in native languages,” said study coauthor Salim Abu-Rabia of Haifa University in a statement. “This is because languages reinforce one another.”
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