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Can Musical Training Help Fix ‘The Cocktail Party Problem?’

(cbcparklane/Flickr)

(cbcparklane/Flickr)

By Barbara Moran

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Boston University Research News website under the headline, “The Cocktail Party Problem.”

Alan Wong first noticed the problem a few years ago. In a crowded bar or restaurant, he could barely understand his companion’s conversation. Wong, 35, blames the problem on a well-spent youth: “I went to a lot of loud concerts in my 20s, and now my hearing sucks,” says Wong, executive producer at Boston University Productions. “It’s a bummer,” he adds, “especially when I have a hard time hearing the lady friends.”

Scientists call it the “cocktail party problem,” and it’s familiar to many people, even those who pass standard hearing tests with flying colors: they can easily hear one-on-one conversation in a quiet room, but a crowded restaurant becomes an overwhelming auditory jungle. For people with even slight hearing problems, the situation can be stressful and frustrating. For those with significant hearing loss, hearing aids, or cochlear implants, cocktail parties become an unnavigable sea of babble.

“It can really affect communication,” says Gerald Kidd, a BU professor of speech, language & hearing sciences. “It causes people to avoid those kinds of places, either because they don’t want to work that hard or it’s just unpleasant to be in a situation where they’re not following things. So it’s a big problem.”

Selective Listening

Kidd and his colleague Jayaganesh Swaminathan, a BU research assistant professor of speech, language & hearing sciences, study the cocktail party problem, trying to understand exactly why this particular situation is difficult for so many people. Their research, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), and published in Scientific Reports in June 2015, asked an intriguing question: can musicians—trained to listen selectively to instruments in an ensemble and shift their attention from one instrument to another—better understand speech in a crowded social setting?

“Music places huge demands on certain mechanisms in the brain, and at some levels, these overlap with language mechanisms,” says Aniruddh Patel, a professor of psychology at Tufts University and co-author on the paper, who studies the cognitive neuroscience of music and language. “The question is: would a high level of musical training advance speech and language as well?” In other words, can musical training help fix the cocktail party problem? Continue reading

A Phrase To Renounce For 2014: ‘The Mentally Ill’

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(Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

I wince every time I read it. So does the president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Paul Summergrad, he says.

I saw it most recently in The New York Times, in the headline pictured above and a recent masthead editorial: “Equal Coverage For The Mentally Ill.” It’s all over, from The Boston Globe — “New Era for the Mentally Ill” — to The Wall Street Journal — “Crime and The Mentally Ill.” Just about any media outlet you care to name.

What’s so bad about “the mentally ill”? Isn’t it reasonable shorthand in the usual headline space crunch?

In a word, no, says Dr. Summergrad, psychiatrist-in-chief at Tufts Medical Center and chair of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. He sees two main problems with it. First, the definite article, “the.”

“Imagine if I said that about any other group. It suggests that people who suffer with these conditions are somehow other than us, and can be put in a discrete and often stigmatized category. It creates a sense of otherness that is not the reality, statistically, of these illnesses.”

Any other group? I try a thought experiment, the headline “Equal coverage for the women.” Weird. “New era for the gays.” Offensive. “Crime and the blacks.” I get the point.

The term creates ‘a notion that it’s a uni-modal type of thing.  We need a more inclusive and more granular language.’

Second, Dr. Summergrad said, “there’s the denotation of what mental illness means, but there’s also the connotation. When people ask me, is it really possible that 25 percent of the population is mentally ill, what do they mean by that question?”

“That they think of it as something very extreme?'” I hazarded.

“Exactly, they mean that somebody has a form of very severe psychotic illness. But the reality is, what is a mental disorder? From a clinical standpoint, it means a disorder in various forms of mental functioning: thought, speech, emotion, behavior.”

And those disorders are myriad and mixed and often of general medical origin, with a range of “everything from Autism Spectrum Disorders to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, through Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, anxiety disorders, post-partum depression, recurrent depressive illness, dementing illnesses which have profound effects not only on memory but on behavior. Parkinson’s disease has high rates of very severe anxiety and depression.”

So the term “the mentally ill” creates not just a notion of separateness and otherness, Dr. Summergrad said, but also “a notion that it’s a uni-modal type of thing. And I think we need a more inclusive and more granular language.”

I’d add a third argument against “the mentally ill,” gleaned several years ago when I was writing a Boston Globe story about people who recover enough from their own mental illnesses to become “peer specialists” who help others with similar challenges. Continue reading

Typing And The Meaning Of Words

(Adikos/Flickr)

This is one of those studies that’s either really profound, or, well, really not.

Researchers from London and New York say they’ve discovered a link between typing letters on a computer keyboard and mood.

Specifically, typing words with more letters on the right side of the keyboard apparently makes people happier, a phenomenon the scientists dub the “QWERTY” effect, named after the first six letters on the top left of the most modern-day keyboards. (Why they didn’t choose an acronym with letters on the right side, to make people feel more positive about the study, I have no clue.)

Here’s a news release describing the research, published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review:

Words spelled with more letters on the right of the keyboard are associated with more positive emotions than words spelled with more letters on the left, according to new research by cognitive scientists Kyle Jasmin of University College London and Daniel Casasanto of The New School for Social Research, New York. Their work shows, for the first time, that there is a link between the meaning of words and the way they are typed – a relationship they call the QWERTY* effect. Their study is published online in Springer’s journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

In the past, language was only spoken and therefore, only subject to the constraints on hearing and speaking. Now that language is frequently produced by the fingers – typing and texting – it is filtered through the keyboard i.e. through QWERTY. As people develop new technologies for producing language, these technologies shape the language they are designed to produce. What Jasmin and Casasanto’s work shows is that widespread typing introduces a new mechanism by which changes in the meaning of words can arise. Continue reading