The moment-to-moment pitch dynamics of child-directed speech shape toddlers’ attention and learning

Review written by Liza Mankovskaya (SLA, G7)

Have you ever wondered why we tend to talk to children in a different way than we speak to adults? You might think there isn’t much to it. After all, kids are cute, so adults melt, and hence - “baby talk.” Yet, this difference serves a very important purpose. Several decades of studies have shown that children, from young infants to toddlers, prefer this kind of speech; most importantly, when exposed to speech directed to them in this way, children are more engaged and learn more. But why? We can first consider the differences between speech to children, and speech between adults. One of the most recognizable ways in which caregivers tend to speak to children--child-directed-speech (CDS)--is characterized by significant variation in pitch and intonation. Compared to CDS, “adult” voice and intonations are much more monotonous, so children have a harder time concentrating. Thus, researchers believe that the overall higher level of engagement engendered by CDS promotes learning in children. What is less known, however, is how children process and learn from specific patterns of stress and intonation of CDS on the level of individual words. Recently, Princeton researchers Mira Nencheva, Elise Piazza, and Professor Casey Lew-Williams in the department of Psychology took on exactly this question. They identified specific ways in which caregivers’ pitch changed throughout a word (pitch contours) of CDS in English and analyzed how engaged  two-year-old children were during these different pitch contours and how well they learned novel words that followed these contours. Their findings provide a sub-second frame for understanding the mechanisms and features of CDS that make it optimal for children as they listen to CDS in real time. 

Continue reading

#MeToo? Perceptions of sexual harassment depend on the victim’s femininity

Review written by Leon Mait (PSY, G2)

In October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a call for women who had been sexually harassed to reply to her post saying “Me too”, aiming to give the public a sense of how pervasive the experience of sexual harassment is. This ignited the Me Too movement as we know it. However, ten years earlier, social activist Tarana Burke had already started using the phrase on her Myspace page to promote empowerment among women of color who had been sexually abused. Milano did later credit Burke with coining the phrase, but the fact that it took a White woman to bring national attention to a social movement spearheaded by a Black woman is telling.

Continue reading

Using virtual reality to demonstrate the environmental reinstatement effect

Written by Paula Brooks (PNI, G4)

Walking through your old high school might release a flood of memories that were locked away for years, perhaps even a decade (or more)! Walking through the cafeteria might remind you of the time you almost scared the timid new girl when you boldly walked up to her to invite her to join your friend group for lunch. Or maybe, going past the gym might bring back the memory of when you face planted in front of the entire class while attempting to do the high jump. (Full disclosure: Both of these things happened to me.)

Continue reading

The development of visual-spatial biases in children

Written by Munisa Said (PSY, 2022) & Crystal Lee (PSY, GS2)

How good are you at finding Waldo? Whether you’re good or bad at it, finding Waldo is not a trivial task. To do so, you must be able to direct your attention to a specific location in a scene, process a massive amount of noisy input, and, finally, make sense of it. Tasks that you perform in your everyday life like reading, driving, cooking--and yes, finding Waldo--all depend on your ability to direct your visuo-spatial attention, the attentional mechanism that allows you to select information from a specific location in space for processing, as well as filter out irrelevant information from other locations. 

Continue reading

Adult neurogenesis' role in social memory function

Review written by Renee Waters (PSY, G2)

Have you ever wondered how you can recognize a familiar friend in a busy environment? Or maybe how you remember a person you’ve seen just once? Social memory is the ability to recognize familiar others and is an essential function across species, not only for safety but also to maintain stable structures in complex and dynamic social networks. Social memory is involved in hierarchy formation, and defense, as well as mate, offspring, and interspecies recognition. A region of the brain called the hippocampus has long been pinpointed for its role in learning and memory generally; however, great strides have been taken recently to understand its role in social memory more specifically. 

Continue reading

Stories of immigrant achievement could combat xenophobia

Review written by Leon Mait (PSY, G2)

This country has a complicated relationship with its immigrants. On the one hand, we pride ourselves on theoretically being the “land of opportunity,” a “melting pot” where people from all backgrounds can come to try their hand at socioeconomic success. On the other hand, we often vilify the actual individuals attempting to come to this country, likening them to criminals, viruses, pests, and resource thieves. 

Continue reading

Surprising events create event boundaries in memories

Review written by Paula Brooks (PNI)

Imagine that you are binge-watching Netflix. In spite of the algorithm’s calculations, you are getting bored by the show that was suggested and you are thinking about stopping before the end of the season. However, to your great surprise, a new character enters halfway through the season and you are hooked. The plot has gotten more interesting and the acting has suddenly improved. What just happened?

Continue reading

Can people accurately predict emotions in others?

emotions study

Review written by Rohini Majumdar (PSY)

People tend to transition between emotional states in predictable patterns. We use what we know about how others are feeling in the moment to predict how they might feel in the future. Specifically, we make these predictions based on our knowledge of emotional state transition patterns from observing ourselves and others. Research has shown that benefits of social perception and prediction include positive real-world social outcomes such as stronger relationships with friends, higher satisfaction in romantic relationships, greater acceptance from peers, and more success within one’s community. 

Continue reading

The false duality of habitual versus goal-directed behavior

Written by Anika Maskara ‘23 & Thiago Tarraf Varella (PSY GS)

It is common in popular culture to imagine human decision making as a clash of two distinct choices. There is a “good option” and a “bad option,” an angel or a devil sitting on our shoulders. Like many dichotomies, though, that view of decision making is misleading. It is true that research suggests we have two different decision-making systems that sometimes disagree about which action to take, but neither is better or worse than the other; they simply use different algorithms to help us decide what to do.

Continue reading

Parents are encouraged to read to their children when they're young, but is this really so important?

Written by Munisa Said (PSY, 2022) & Crystal Lee (PSY, G2)

Why is it so important for parents to read to their children? Previous research has found that when parents read to their infants (also called “shared reading”), there are significant improvements in early language development (Mol & Bus, 2011). However, not all children broadly benefit from shared reading. The advantages of shared reading vary quite widely among children. A recent paper led by researchers from Princeton and Rutgers Universities endeavored to explain this variability by considering genetic factors that may impact this development of language acquisition. In previous studies, individual differences in dopaminergic and serotonergic systems (the neural pathways that deliver dopamine and serotonin throughout the brain) have been implicated in different outcomes for learning, attention, and behavior.  Thus, Jiminez et al. examined the genetic characteristics of these systems of almost 2,000 children in order to see if this variable also explained the diverse effects of shared reading.

Continue reading