Thursday, 8 October 2015

Word of the Day: Brimborion ‎(plural brimborions) - A useless or valueless object…

It’s not a word that rises unbidden to the lips of English speakers today, nor — if the record is to be trusted — at any time. It means a thing without value or use. It was borrowed from French, where it may still be found in dictionaries, though firmly marked as literary. According to the lexicographer Emile Littré, who compiled a famous dictionary of French in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, it’s a bastardised form of the Latin breviarium, the source of breviary for the service book used by Roman Catholic priests.

The link had been explained by another lexicographer two centuries earlier. Randall Cotgrave wrote in his French-English dictionary of 1611 that the word came to mean “foolish charms or superstitious prayers, used by old and simple women against the toothache, and any such threadbare and musty rags of blind devotion”, hence something valueless. A rare appearance is in a letter of 1786 by the writer Fanny Burney, in which she refers to “Talking to your royal mistress, or handing jewels ... and brimborions, baubles, knick-knacks, gewgaws”.

It is much less weird in German, in which the closely connected Brimborium, also borrowed from French but given a Latinate ending, is an informal term for an unnecessary fuss. The sentence “du machst viel zu viel Brimborium um eine Kleinigkeit” might be translated as “you’re making a lot of fuss about nothing”.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Word of the Day: Adoxography - Skilled Writing on an Unimportant Subject....

Few dictionaries, not even the Oxford English Dictionary, give room to this word, so it is left mostly to non-lexicographers to define it, which they often do in terms such as “good writing on a trivial or base subject”. Near, but not quite right.

It’s a modern word to describe an ancient way to train young people in the art of rhetoric. They would be challenged to compose a speech praising an unpleasant idea such as poverty, ugliness, drunkenness or stupidity. So a better definition would be “rhetorical praise of things of doubtful value”. Anthony Munday published a book on the method in 1593, a translation of an Italian work, under the title The Defence of Contraries. It contained brief disquisitional examples on topics such as “ignorance is better than knowledge” and “it is better to be poor than rich”. Its preface claimed that it would be particularly useful to lawyers.

The root is Latin adoxus, paradoxical or absurd, but not from the classical language. It was first used by the Dutch scholar Erasmus around 1536, who took it from an identical ancient Greek word that meant inglorious. It was based on the root doxa, opinion or belief, which is also the basis of doxology, a formula of praise to God, and also of paradox.

The noun was first used in 1909 in The Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire by Terrot Glover, though it was preceded by the adjective, adoxographical, which appeared in the American Journal of Philology in 1903. Dr Alex Leeper, the Warden of Trinity College, Melbourne, commented in Notes and Queries that year that it was an “ungainly word” and that it “will not, it is to be hoped, take root in the language.” His hope wasn’t fulfilled, though it remains rare.

New Research Has Found an Instinct for Fairness and Generosity in Toddlers….

Anecdotally, anyone who's spent time around toddlers knows that they mostly don't like sharing their toys. Together with research showing that toddlers, like adults, get pretty attached to their things and are reluctant to give them up, this has led to a popular belief that toddlers are selfish by nature.

But a team of developmental psychologists led by Julia Ulber has published new evidence in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology that paints a more heart-warming picture. These psychologists point out that most past research has focused on how much toddlers share things that are already theirs. The new study looks instead at how much they share new things that previously no one owned. In such scenarios, toddlers frequently show admirable generosity and fairness.

There were two main experiments. The first involved 48 pairs of 18-month-old or 24-month-old toddlers sitting together at table, in the middle of which was a small container containing four marbles. If the toddlers took a marble and placed it in a nearby jingle box, it made a fun noise. The point of the set-up (repeated four times for each toddler pairing) was to see how the pairs of toddlers would divvy up the marbles between them.

Most of the time (44 per cent) the toddlers divided the marbles up fairly, 37 per cent of the time unequally (i.e. one child took 3 marbles), and 19 per cent of the time one child took all the marbles. This all took place pretty calmly, with marble steals happening only rarely. Overall, the experiment "rarely left one peer empty-handed," the researchers said, "and thus [the results] do not match the picture of the selfish toddler."

In a follow-up experiment with 128 pairs of two-year-olds, the set-up was more complex and this time, unlike the first experiment, none of the toddlers knew each other. Again, the children sat at opposite sides of a table with marbles on offer, but this time they had to pull a board sticking out of their side of the table to get the marbles to roll down into a reachable tray (marbles could again be used to make a jingle box play music). When the apparatus was designed so that there was one shared tray between the two toddlers, the toddlers shared the marbles equally about half the time. And this rose to 60 per cent if they'd had to collaborate by pulling the boards together to release the marbles.

In another variation of the set-up – possibly the most illuminating – the children had separate trays, and sometimes the researchers made it so that one child received three marbles in their tray and the other child just one. On about one third of these occasions, the results were delightful – the "lucky child" with three marbles gave up one of their marbles to their partner, willingly and unprompted. "This is the youngest age ever observed at which young children make sacrifices in order to equalise resources," the researchers said.

These acts of fairness were greater when the marbles were colour-coded so that two marbles matched the colour of one child's jingle box (located behind them) and the other two matched the other child's.  This colour-coding effect on generosity might be due to the children interpreting the colours as a sign of ownership (i.e. the idea being that this or that marble belongs to the other child because it matches their jingle box), or the colours might simply have helped the children, with their limited numerical skills, to identify a fair split in the numbers of marbles.

The researchers said their results showed that "young children are not selfish, but instead rather generous" when they're sharing resources among themselves, and that more research is needed to establish "in more detail the prosocial or other motives that influence the way in which young children divide resources."

New Genetic Evidence Suggests Face Recognition is a Very Special Human Skill…

A new twin study, published this month in PNAS, of the genetic influences on face recognition ability, supports the idea that face recognition is a special skill that's evolved quite separately from other aspects of human cognition. In short, face recognition seems to be influenced by genes that are mostly different from the genes that influence general intelligence and other forms of visual expertise.

The background to this is that, for some time, psychologists studying the genetics of mental abilities have noticed a clear pattern: people's abilities in one domain, such as reading, typically correlate with their abilities in other domains, such as numeracy. This seems to be because a person's domain-specific abilities are strongly associated with their overall general intelligence and the same genes that underlie this basic mental fitness are also exerting an influence on various specific skills.

Nicholas Shakeshaft and Robert Plomin were interested to see if this same pattern would apply to people's face recognition abilities. Would they too correlate with general intelligence and share the same or similar genetic influences?

The researchers recruited 2,149 participants, including 375 pairs of identical twins who share the same genes, and 549 non-identical twins, who share roughly half the same genes, just like typical siblings (overall the sample was 58 per cent female with an average age of 19.5 years). The participants completed a test of their face processing skills, including memorising unfamiliar faces, and also tests of their ability to memorise cars, and their general intelligence, in terms of their vocabulary size and their ability to solve abstract problems.

Comparing the similarities in performance on these different tests between identical and non-identical twin pairs allowed the researchers to estimate how much the different skills on test were influenced by the same or different genes.

All the abilities – face recognition, car recognition and general mental ability – showed evidence of strong heritability (being influenced by genetic inheritance), with 61 per cent, 56 per cent, and 48 per cent of performance variability in the current sample being explained by genes, respectively.

Crucially, performance on face recognition was only moderately correlated with car recognition ability (r = .29 where 1 would be a perfect correlation) and modestly correlated with general mental ability (r = .15), and only 10 per cent of the genetic influence on face recognition ability was the same as the genetic influence on general mental ability (and likewise, only 10 per cent of the genetic influence on face memory was shared with the genes affecting memory for cars).

Essentially, this means that most of the genetic influences on face recognition ability are distinct from the genetic influences on general mental ability or on car recognition ability. Shakeshaft and Plomin said this "striking finding" supports the notion that there is something special about human facial recognition ability. These results add to others that have suggested face recognition is a special mental ability – for instance, some have argued that faces alone trigger brain activity in the so-called "fusiform face area" (although this claim has been challenged); and unlike our ability to recognise other objects or patterns, our ability to recognise faces is particularly impaired when faces are inverted, consistent with the idea that we use a distinctive "holistic" processing style for faces.

The story is complicated somewhat by the researchers' unexpected finding that recognition ability for cars was also linked with distinct genetic influences that mostly did not overlap with the genetic influences on general mental ability. Perhaps, the researchers surmised, the tests of general mental ability used here (a vocabulary test and the well-used Raven's Progressive Matrices) did not adequately tap the full range of what we might consider general mental abilities. Whatever the reason, it remains the case that this new research suggests that face recognition ability is influenced by a set of genetic influences that are largely distinct from those implicated in a similar form of visual recognition (for cars) and implicated in vocabulary ability and abstract reasoning. Based on this, the researchers concluded they'd shown for the first time that "the genetic influences on face recognition are almost entirely unique."