Posts Tagged ‘communication’

By The Washington Post · Sarah Kaplan

Don’t go to work. Don’t see your friends. Don’t visit your grandmother in the nursing home. Don’t bring food to your sister who works at a hospital. Don’t hold your wife’s hand while she gives birth. Don’t play together. Don’t pray together. Don’t hug.

Of the many cruelties of the coronavirus pandemic, this is one of the hardest to accept: In a time when all we want is to be close to the people we care about, closeness is the one thing we can’t have.

Six feet has never felt farther away.

Psychologists are worried about the long-term effects of our new, socially distant reality. Decades of research has shown that loneliness and isolation are associated with high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, weakened immune systems and a host of other health issues.

But there is also hope in the data. Studies have revealed that human connection – something as simple as getting an offer of help from a stranger or looking at a picture of someone you love – can ease pain and reduce physical symptoms of stress. People who feel supported by their social networks are more likely to live longer. One experiment even found that people with many social ties are less susceptible to the common cold.

For everyone quarantined in solitude, aching and afraid for far-flung family and friends, this science can provide some solace. A supportive phone call, an empathetic ear, an expression of love – these things can bolster the immune system on a molecular level. Whether you are the recipient or the giver, kindness is good for your health.

“There are powerful protective effects that we shouldn’t ignore,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. “And the extent to which we cannot only be open to receiving support from others . . . but be a source of support to them, can potentially help us all get through this.”

Without a vaccine or an antiviral that can work against covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, social distancing is one of the most powerful tools to combat it. Reducing interactions between infected and healthy people slows the spread of the virus, buying hospitals and public health officials time to treat the influx of sick people.

But a global pandemic is a tough time to be alone.

Humans are a social species, said Naomi Eisenberger, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Los Angeles. Our brains and bodies have evolved to count on the closeness of others. Surrounded by family and friends, we feel safe from predators and secure that we will be cared for if we’re hurt.

But when we are on our own, or even when we just feel friendless, our bodies gear up for danger. Our nervous systems produce norepinephrine, a hormone associated with the “fight or flight” response. Inflammation – the way the immune system heals wounds and fights off bacterial infections – goes into overdrive. (Ironically, our anti-viral response is suppressed when we’re lonely. Apparently our bodies think they don’t need to worry about viruses when we’re not around other people.)

That response may have been adaptive for our distant ancestors, who needed it to avoid death by saber-toothed cat. But modern humans face more abstract threats, ones we cannot easily fight or flee. Loneliness leaves people in a state of constant, unhealthy unease – their blood pressure elevated, blood sugar levels high. If this state persists for too long, it can contribute to chronic health conditions such as diabetes, atherosclerosis and heart disease.

In a survey of 70 studies involving more than 1 million people from around the world, Holt-Lunstad found that people who lived alone were 32% more likely to die over a given period. People who reported feeling lonely were 26% more likely to die, and people who experienced social isolation – defined as few or infrequent contacts with other people – were 29% more likely to die. Even when the researchers adjusted for age, outside health conditions, nationality, gender, smoking habits and a host of other traits, this trend persisted.

In a separate analysis of 148 studies involving more than 300,000 people, Holt-Lunstad found that people who were more socially connected were 50% less likely to die over a given period. The correlation was even stronger than the one revealed by the isolation studies.

Alienation may hurt us, but kinship is a still more powerful balm.

One of the most important things kindness can do is ease our reaction to stress. In one experiment at Bert N. Uchino’s lab at the University of Utah, dozens of undergraduate students were brought into an empty room, seated in a chair and told they had been accused of shoplifting. They had three minutes to formulate their responses.

Their hearts began to race. Their blood pressure spiked. Stress hormones flooded their systems.

But in some instances, before leaving the room, the experimenter would tell the student: “If you need me for any reason or if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask me. I appreciate your participation in this experiment, and I’d like to be helpful to you should you need any help.”

In those cases, the students’ hearts didn’t beat quite so fast. Their stress responses were much less extreme.

“These data suggest that simply having potential access to support is sufficient to foster adaptation to stress,” Uchino and his colleagues wrote.

Other research shows that looking at a picture of a loved one can make pain feel less intense. When people with strong support networks are asked to do complex mental math, their blood pressure stays lower and there is less of a stress-related chemical in their saliva. Simply thinking about a supportive person can activate a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with overcoming fear.

Scientists call this the “buffering effect.” The sense of security that people get from their friends and family allows them to meet stressful situations with a “calmer physiology,” Eisenberger said.

This, in turn, can lead to a stronger immune system. Many of the hormones involved in stress – cortisol, which stimulates the production of sugar; epinephrine and norepinephrine, which increase heart rate and elevate blood pressure – hinder immune cells’ ability to function.

This may be a consequence of how stress evolved, according to Uchino. “The idea is that anxiety and stress co-opted the immune system to deal with threats that are external,” he said.

It’s hard to prove an evolutionary theory, but the implications are undeniable: “Anything that psychologically affects us also affects our immune system,” Uchino said.

“For a long time, immunologists and social scientists didn’t really talk to each other,” he added, “And now we have to.”

All of the researchers expressed concern about the effect of a period of prolonged isolation on people around the globe. What will the mental health impact be on people with few social ties? How will people in unhappy or abusive relationships fare when forced to stay at home? Will avoiding people and mistrusting strangers become a habit that persists once the pandemic is over, affecting our interactions for years to come?

“We’re living a very different and worrisome time,” Uchino said. “Not just at the biomedical level but at the psychosocial level as well.”

This makes it all the more important for people to maintain their ties to one another, Holt-Lunstad said. Call and text and talk over Web video. Wave to neighbors. Sing from the balcony like an Italian tenor.

And do something kind for someone else, researchers say. Studies have shown that “prosocial behavior,” such as volunteering, curbs physical symptoms of stress. Remember that the coronavirus quarantine is a collective act of altruism – a sacrifice for the health of strangers as well as loved ones.

We shouldn’t even think of what we’re doing as social distancing, Holt-Lunstad said. She prefers the term “physical distancing.” It’s a reminder that the virus may have forced us apart, she said, but it doesn’t have to make us alone.

Human connection bolsters the immune system. That’s why it’s more important than ever to be kind.


Goldenrods that evolved in the presence of herbivores release volatile chemicals that trigger defenses in neighboring plants of their species, even those that are genetically unrelated.

by Ashley Yeager

When a beetle larva bites into the leaf of a goldenrod plant, a perennial herb known for its bright yellow flowers, it gets a mouthful of food to fuel its growth. But the plant’s perspective is rather different. The bite damages the goldenrod (genus: Solidago), causing it to launch molecular defenses against the insect and to emit a concoction of chemicals that change the physiology of goldenrod plants nearby. It’s as if the plants are communicating about the invader.

For researchers studying plants’ responses to herbivory, the reasons for this communication are something of a mystery. “We don’t have a good understanding of why these plants are emitting these cues,” Rick Karban, an entomologist who studies plant communication at the University of California, Davis, tells The Scientist. “We don’t even know if the cues that plants are emitting—that other plants can perceive and respond to—are somewhat intentional,” or just a byproduct of leaf damage.

The notion that plants communicate was controversial until the end of the 20th century. Biologists first argued that trees and plants could “talk” to one another in the 1980s, but data supporting the idea were dismissed by many researchers as statistically sketchy. Over the past few decades, however, the scientific community has revised its opinion. A series of papers have shown that when a plant such as goldenrod is damaged, it releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that prompt neighboring plants to mount their own chemical defenses against an impending herbivore attack. Karban says researchers are now focused on why the emitting plant puts out this signal, and whether it derives a benefit from telling those around it that it’s being eaten.

It’s possible that surrounding plants are merely eavesdropping on the signal emitter, which derives no benefit from the situation. Researchers have also proposed two alternative hypotheses that involve a benefit to the emitter. The first—the kin selection hypothesis—states that the plant emitting the signal indirectly benefits thanks to the increased survival of genetically related individuals in its vicinity, even if the plant itself is damaged by herbivory. The second—the mutual benefit hypothesis—posits that the plant emitting the signal directly benefits from communication because the preemptive chemical defenses launched by all its neighbors result in a hostile environment that encourages the herbivorous insect to move away from the area.

Finding evidence to distinguish between these scenarios hasn’t been easy, especially because plant communication is a small field. But a long-running project offers new clues. In 1996, a team at Cornell University started an elaborate experiment on one goldenrod species, S. altissima, regularly spraying rows and rows of the plant with the insecticide fenvalerate, while leaving other rows untreated. After 12 years, the researchers collected plants from each of the rows, brought them to the lab, snipped the stems, and grew clones. Then, the team set up collections of the clones in pots at a nearby farm, let goldenrod beetle larvae munch on some of the plants, and measured the emission of VOCs.

“This research was really mostly curiosity driven,” says Aino Kalske, a postdoctoral researcher in ecology and evolution biology at the University of Turku in Finland and a former graduate student at Cornell who helped with the experiment. She and her colleagues were particularly interested to see if the goldenrod’s chemical messages would evolve differently depending on whether the plants had been treated with insecticide and were protected from insect attacks or had been left untreated and experienced higher levels of herbivory. Differences in signaling between the treated and untreated plants’ descendants might be a small step toward determining which hypothesis about plant communication was correct.

The team found that VOCs emitted by goldenrod plants whose predecessors had been sprayed with the insecticide only induced genetically identical plants to mount preemptive chemical defenses to insect invasion—consistent with the kin selection hypothesis. But VOCs emitted by goldenrod whose predecessors hadn’t been sprayed with the insecticide induced the preemptive defense from all the other goldenrod plants around them, even plants that weren’t their kin—consistent with the mutual benefit hypothesis.

Additionally, the plants exposed to herbivory converged on a shared VOC signal over the course of the study—with all of the goldenrod plants eventually emitting the same chemical signals whether they were genetically identical to the emitter plant or not. Plants treated with insecticide showed no such signal convergence, the researchers reported in Current Biology last September. This sort of convergence on a single chemical signal is thought to benefit plants exposed to herbivory by providing a stronger deterrent against invading insects or a stronger attraction for the herbivores’ natural enemies. Kalske says the study provides the first concrete evidence that plants aren’t merely eavesdropping on one another, and that the emitter derives a benefit from releasing its chemical messages.

“The main value of the paper is the extremely long-lasting experiment needed to assess an evolutionary change in an organism,” Emilio Guerrieri, a researcher at the National Research Council of Italy’s Institute for Sustainable Plant Protection who was not involved in the study, writes in an email to The Scientist. The experiment, he says, “represents a sound demonstration that herbivores shape the VOC emission of a plant.”

Researchers still don’t know much about how the plants actually receive and respond to the VOC cues, Kalske notes, or whether the presence of other types of herbivores, such as mammals, influences similar signal changes. These are questions that the team would still like to answer, she says, not least because of the potential agricultural applications. “Understanding the intricacies of the plant world and plant-plant communication in more detail can potentially help us in plant protection in the agricultural context, if we can learn how to use these volatiles to turn on defenses in crop plants effectively.”

https://www.the-scientist.com/notebook/generations-of-insect-attacks-drive-plants-to-talk-publicly-67159?utm_campaign=TS_DAILY%20NEWSLETTER_2020&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=85515973&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8vgYliNz5ABV6V5y8nfekspNyWlR_u8kwYavJWO2rn12UkRI4JtrgOhqW_8tWCBOElTrXoYiey8YAUjNTNNyBHJfH0MQ&_hsmi=85515973

The world’s smallest bears copy one another’s facial expressions as a means of communication.

A team at the University of Portsmouth, UK, studied 22 sun bears at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Malaysia. In total, 21 matched the open-mouthed expressions of their playmates during face-to-face interactions.

When they were facing each other, 13 bears made the expressions within 1 second of observing a similar expression from their playmate.

“Mimicking the facial expressions of others in exact ways is one of the pillars of human communication,” says Marina Davila-Ross, who was part of the team. “Other primates and dogs are known to mimic each other, but only great apes and humans were previously known to show such complexity in their facial mimicry.”

Sun bears have no special evolutionary link to humans, unlike monkeys or apes, nor are they domesticated animals like dogs. The team believes this means the behaviour must also be present in various other species.

Also known as honey bears, sun bears are the smallest members of the bear family. They grow to between 120 centimetres and 150 centimetres long and weigh up to 80 kilograms. The species is endangered and lives in the tropical forests of South-East Asia.

While the bears prefer a solitary life, the team says that they engage in gentle and rough play and may use facial mimicry to indicate they are ready to play more roughly or strengthen social bonds.

“It is widely believed that we only find complex forms of communication in species with complex social systems,” says Derry Taylor, also on the team. “As sun bears are a largely solitary species, our study of their facial communication questions this belief, because it shows a complex form of facial communication that until now was known only in more social species.”

Journal reference: Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-39932-6

By Alison George

Human speech contains more than 2000 different sounds, from the ubiquitous “m” and “a” to the rare clicks of some southern African languages. But why are certain sounds more common than others? A ground-breaking, five-year investigation shows that diet-related changes in human bite led to new speech sounds that are now found in half the world’s languages.

More than 30 years ago, the linguist Charles Hockett noted that speech sounds called labiodentals, such as “f” and “v”, were more common in the languages of societies that ate softer foods. Now a team of researchers led by Damián Blasi at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, has pinpointed how and why this trend arose.

They found that the upper and lower incisors of ancient human adults were aligned, making it hard to produce labiodentals, which are formed by touching the lower lip to the upper teeth. Later, our jaws changed to an overbite structure, making it easier to produce such sounds.

The team showed that this change in bite correlated with the development of agriculture in the Neolithic period. Food became easier to chew at this point, which led to changes in human jaws and teeth: for instance, because it takes less pressure to chew softer, farmed foods, the jawbone doesn’t have to do as much work and so doesn’t grow to be so large.

Analyses of a language database also confirmed that there was a global change in the sound of world languages after the Neolithic era, with the use of “f” and “v” increasing dramatically in recent millennia. These sounds are still not found in the languages of many hunter-gatherer people today.

This research overturns the prevailing view that all human speech sounds were present when Homo sapiens evolved around 300,000 years ago. “The set of speech sounds we use has not necessarily remained stable since the emergence of our species, but rather the immense diversity of speech sounds that we find today is the product of a complex interplay of factors involving biological change and cultural evolution,” said team member Steven Moran, a linguist at the University of Zurich, at a briefing about this study.

This new approach to studying language evolution is a game changer, says Sean Roberts at the University of Bristol, UK. “For the first time, we can look at patterns in global data and spot new relationships between the way we speak and the way we live,” he says. “It’s an exciting time to be a linguist.”

Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aav3218

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2196580-humans-couldnt-pronounce-f-and-v-sounds-before-farming-developed/

Songbirds known as Japanese tits communicate using human-like rules for language and can mentally picture what they’re talking about, research suggests.

by Brandon Keim

Hear a word, particularly an important one — like “snake!” — and an image appears in your mind. Now scientists are finding that this basic property of human language is shared by certain birds and, perhaps, many other creatures.

In a series of clever tests, a researcher has found that birds called Japanese tits not only chirp out a distinctive warning for snakes, but also appear to imagine a snake when they hear that cry. This glimpse into the mind’s eye of a bird hints at just how widespread this ostensibly human-like capacity may be.

“Animal communication has been considered very different from human speech,” says Toshitaka Suzuki, an ethologist at Japan’s Kyoto University. “My results suggest that birds and humans may share similar cognitive abilities for communication.”

Perhaps this went unappreciated for so long, says Suzuki, simply because “we have not yet found a way to look at the animals’ minds.”

Over the last several years, Suzuki conducted a series of experiments deciphering the vocalizations of Japanese tits — or Parus minor, whose family includes such everyday birds as chickadees and titmice — and describing their possession of syntax, or the ability to produce new meanings by combining words in various orders. (“Open the door,” for example, versus “the open door.”)

Syntax has long been considered unique to human language, and language in turn is often thought to set humans apart from other animals. Yet Suzuki found it not in a bird typically celebrated for intelligence, like crows or parrots, but in humble P. minor.

MENTAL PICTURES
Once he realized that birds are using their own form of language, Suzuki wondered: what happens in their minds when they talk? Might words evoke corresponding images, as happens for us?

Suzuki tested that proposition by broadcasting recordings of P. minor’s snake-specific alarm call from a tree-mounted speaker. Then he analyzed the birds’ responses to a stick that he’d hung along the trunk and could manipulate to mimic a climbing snake.

If the call elicited a mental image, Suzuki figured the birds would pay extra-close attention to the snake-like stick. Indeed they did, he recently reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In contrast, when Suzuki broadcast a call used by tits to convey a general, non-specific alarm, the birds didn’t pay much notice to the stick. And when he set the stick swinging from side to side in a decidedly non-snakelike manner, the birds ignored it.

“Simply hearing these calls causes tits to become more visually perceptive to objects resembling snakes,” he writes in PNAS. “Before detecting a real snake, tits retrieve its visual image from snake-specific alarm calls and use this to search out snakes.”

Rob Magrath, a behavioral ecologist at Australia National University who specializes in bird communication, thinks Suki’s interpretation is consistent with the results. He also calls the work “truly delightful.”

“I love the way that Suzuki employs simple experiments, literally using sticks and string, to test ideas,” Magrath says. Similarly impressed is ecologist Christine Sheppard of the American Bird Conservancy. “It’s incredibly challenging to devise an experiment that would allow you to answer this question,” she says. “It’s really neat.”

MINDS OF THEIR OWN
Sheppard says it makes evolutionary sense for animals to possess a ‘mind’s eye’ that works in tandem with their communications: It allows individuals to respond more quickly to threats. Suzuki agrees, and believes it’s likely found not only in P. minor and their close relatives, but in many other birds and across the animal kingdom.

“Many other animals produce specific calls when finding specific types of food or predators,” he says. He hopes researchers will use his methodology to peek into the mind’s eyes of other animals.

For Sheppard, the findings also speak to how people think about birds: not just as pretty or interesting or ecologically important, but as fellow beings with rich minds of their own.

“When I was in school, people still thought that birds were little automata. Now “bird brain” is becoming a compliment,” she says.

“I think this kind of insight helps people see birds as living, breathing creatures with whom we share the planet,” she says.

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/02/japanese-songbirds-process-language-syntax/

From the way you move and sleep, to how you interact with people around you, depression changes just about everything. It is even noticeable in the way you speak and express yourself in writing. Sometimes this “language of depression” can have a powerful effect on others. Just consider the impact of the poetry and song lyrics of Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain, who both killed themselves after suffering from depression.

Scientists have long tried to pin down the exact relationship between depression and language, and technology is helping us get closer to a full picture. Our new study, published in Clinical Psychological Science, has now unveiled a class of words that can help accurately predict whether someone is suffering from depression.

Traditionally, linguistic analyses in this field have been carried out by researchers reading and taking notes. Nowadays, computerised text analysis methods allow the processing of extremely large data banks in minutes. This can help spot linguistic features which humans may miss, calculating the percentage prevalence of words and classes of words, lexical diversity, average sentence length, grammatical patterns and many other metrics.

So far, personal essays and diary entries by depressed people have been useful, as has the work of well-known artists such as Cobain and Plath. For the spoken word, snippets of natural language of people with depression have also provided insight. Taken together, the findings from such research reveal clear and consistent differences in language between those with and without symptoms of depression.

Content
Language can be separated into two components: content and style. The content relates to what we express – that is, the meaning or subject matter of statements. It will surprise no one to learn that those with symptoms of depression use an excessive amount of words conveying negative emotions, specifically negative adjectives and adverbs – such as “lonely”, “sad” or “miserable”.

More interesting is the use of pronouns. Those with symptoms of depression use significantly more first person singular pronouns – such as “me”, “myself” and “I” – and significantly fewer second and third person pronouns – such as “they”, “them” or “she”. This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words.

We know that rumination (dwelling on personal problems) and social isolation are common features of depression. However, we don’t know whether these findings reflect differences in attention or thinking style. Does depression cause people to focus on themselves, or do people who focus on themselves get symptoms of depression?

Style
The style of language relates to how we express ourselves, rather than the content we express. Our lab recently conducted a big data text analysis of 64 different online mental health forums, examining over 6,400 members. “Absolutist words” – which convey absolute magnitudes or probabilities, such as “always”, “nothing” or “completely” – were found to be better markers for mental health forums than either pronouns or negative emotion words.

From the outset, we predicted that those with depression will have a more black and white view of the world, and that this would manifest in their style of language. Compared to 19 different control forums (for example, Mumsnet and StudentRoom), the prevalence of absolutist words is approximately 50% greater in anxiety and depression forums, and approximately 80% greater for suicidal ideation forums.

Pronouns produced a similar distributional pattern as absolutist words across the forums, but the effect was smaller. By contrast, negative emotion words were paradoxically less prevalent in suicidal ideation forums than in anxiety and depression forums.

Our research also included recovery forums, where members who feel they have recovered from a depressive episode write positive and encouraging posts about their recovery. Here we found that negative emotion words were used at comparable levels to control forums, while positive emotion words were elevated by approximately 70%. Nevertheless, the prevalence of absolutist words remained significantly greater than that of controls, but slightly lower than in anxiety and depression forums.

Crucially, those who have previously had depressive symptoms are more likely to have them again. Therefore, their greater tendency for absolutist thinking, even when there are currently no symptoms of depression, is a sign that it may play a role in causing depressive episodes. The same effect is seen in use of pronouns, but not for negative emotion words.

Practical implications
Understanding the language of depression can help us understand the way those with symptoms of depression think, but it also has practical implications. Researchers are combining automated text analysis with machine learning (computers that can learn from experience without being programmed) to classify a variety of mental health conditions from natural language text samples such as blog posts.

Such classification is already outperforming that made by trained therapists. Importantly, machine learning classification will only improve as more data is provided and more sophisticated algorithms are developed. This goes beyond looking at the broad patterns of absolutism, negativity and pronouns already discussed. Work has begun on using computers to accurately identify increasingly specific subcategories of mental health problems – such as perfectionism, self-esteem problems and social anxiety.

That said, it is of course possible to use a language associated with depression without actually being depressed. Ultimately, it is how you feel over time that determines whether you are suffering. But as the World Health Organisation estimates that more than 300m people worldwide are now living with depression, an increase of more than 18% since 2005, having more tools available to spot the condition is certainly important to improve health and prevent tragic suicides such as those of Plath and Cobain.

https://theconversation.com/people-with-depression-use-language-differently-heres-how-to-spot-it-90877

By Drake Baer

Everybody knows that humpback whales make excellent professional wrestlers: With zero hesitation, these gentle giants will leap out of the sea, corkscrew their bodies, and then slam back into the water with 66,000 pounds of fury.

It turns out that these cetaceans aren’t just doing this to show off: According to a recent paper in Marine Mammal Science, the breaching serves as an acoustic telegram, communicating with far-off pods. It’s like how European or African peoples would send sonic signals from village to village via drum, or how wolves howl at the moon. Make a big enough splash, and the percussion speaks for itself.

As noted in the marine-life publication Hakai magazine, University of Queensland marine biologist Ailbhe S. Kavanagh and colleagues observed 76 humpback groups off the coast of Australia for 200 hours between 2010 and 2011. They found that breaching is way more common when pods are at least 2.5 miles apart, with fin- or fluke-slapping deployed when fellow whales are nearby.

The breaching probably carries better than whales’ signature songs: “They’re potentially using [these behaviors] when background noise levels are higher,” Kavanagh tells Hakai, “as the acoustic signal possibly travels better than a vocal signal would.” Given that whale songs have regional accents, you have to wonder if their aerial gymnastics have a certain patois, too.

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/02/why-whales-jump-into-the-air.html

Thanks to Pete Cuomo for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.