Albert Costa: “In bilingual people brain deterioration is slower”

March 12th, 2014 No Comments

The third series of ICREA-CCCB debates, «The Brain», continues on Tuesday 18th March with the lecture “The Bilingual Brain” by the ICREA research professor Albert Costa, one of the world’s leading scientists working in neurolinguistics. We have spoken with him and asked him to tell us in advance about some of the key areas of his research.

ICREA research professor Albert Costa

Your area of research is concerned with the way in which languages are installed in the brain in the case of bilingual speakers. Does this mean that you have identified the parts that store verbs and those that store nouns, for example?

One needs to think of the brain as being made up of circuits and not as isolated areas. By means of neuro-images we can tell which circuits are activated with speech. In the case of verbs and nouns, there are brain-damaged patients who are suddenly able to pronounce many more verbs than nouns, and other patients who start using more nouns than verbs. Hence, we see that there are some brain circuits that are more concerned with verbs and others with nouns. Starting from here, we look at bilingual speakers to see if the same circuits operate with the second language and the extent to which the organisation in the brain of the second language follows the same principles.

What should we understand by “bilingual speaker”?

Bilingualism doesn’t have a single definition as it consists of a wide range of cases. I lived in the United States for four years, for example, and I speak English with my son. Does that make me bilingual in English? Or aren’t I? Or, in the case of Catalan and Spanish, who is bilingual? The person who speaks both languages? Or only the one who speaks Catalan with his father and Spanish with his mother and must therefore have learned both languages at the same time? Every time we try to define bilingualism we leave out groups of people, so what we must do is to add adjectives to the concept of bilingualism: proficient bilingualism, of simultaneous acquisition, of successive acquisition, non-proficient, and so on.

What problems are entailed in being bilingual?

Bilingual people know fewer words in each language than monolingual people, for example. If you add up the total of all the words they know in both languages it will be greater, of course. However, a monolingual person might know 60,000 words in her language in contrast with the 40,000 a bilingual person knows in each of the two languages. If you play four hours of squash and four hours of tennis every day and I play only tennis for eight hours, I’ll play tennis better than you. Other disadvantages: it is more difficult for the bilingual person to find the precise word he needs. He experiences the “tip of the tongue” situation more often because he’s constantly changing languages, using them at ratios of 50:50 or 30:70 perhaps, while the monolingual person is 100% concentrated on just one language, so it’s not so difficult to come up with the more unusual words. Finally, there’s the matter of energy consumption. When you speak Catalan, you can’t switch off Spanish. You have to focus on one language and set aside the other. A monolingual person doesn’t have to do this. Bilingualism means devoting more resources and using more energy in this linguistic monitoring. It’s like when you go to England and you end up getting tired because of the effort of speaking English and your attempts to sideline Catalan and Spanish in order to speak English. Nevertheless, this outlay is only in terms of energy. It doesn’t use up neurones. In fact, quite the opposite happens.

What about the advantages of bilingualism?

Well we find that this linguistic obstacle course of managing two languages and switching the focus from one to the other is beneficial, and that it affects other brain structures and cognitive processes apart from language. We see that bilingual people can focus their attention better on stimuli, that they control attention better, have more grey matter and more neural connections in certain areas, and this means that they have a larger cognitive reserve when they are old. In bilingual people brain deterioration is slower. For example, we have seen studies showing that, among patients with Alzheimer’s disease, bilingual people come to the doctor complaining of symptoms later than monolingual people. This doesn’t mean they don’t have Alzheimer’s. In fact they show the same brain damage but they have compensatory strategies as a result of the obstacle course they’ve been managing for sixty years.

What are the practical applications of all these studies?

A better understanding of cortical representation of language can help us with a lot of things, for example, to decide whether to operate on a person or not. In the case of brain tumours we can know how the patient will end up, whether he or she will lose language or not. Or in bilingual patients who’ve had a stroke, we need to think about which language we should use for the rehabilitation. The one that’s least affected? Or the one that’s more affected? Or the one that’s more useful? These studies also help in language learning, to the extent that we can discover which techniques are best for language acquisition, or what predisposition each person has for languages. With small children we can find out which ones are more sensitive to phonological contrasts, and hence which children have more ability in learning languages, and so on.

Contemporary Museum of Calligraphy

Here’s another question people must always ask you: is it true that the earlier you start to learn a language the better?

The cliché says the earlier you start the better but this depends on certain other things. We know that sounds and accents should be learned very early. It is true that there is variation among individuals and that some people are good at capturing accents well but, in general, accent is picked up in the first year of life. Syntax should also be learned young but acquiring new words, for example, has no age limit. You can do this all your life. You’re learning new words in Catalan every day. This issue is always the cause of great controversy because, in Catalonia, we want the children to learn English, and the earlier the better, but we give them native speakers in the more advanced classes while the small children get non-native speakers! We need to give children teachers who are native speakers from the very beginning. This question always stirs people up and, every time I talk about it, I get complaints in emails from primary school teachers.

In Spain, your research has always been highly politicised.

It certainly has. When the Catalan radio stations phone me I know they want me to talk about the advantages of bilingualism and, in Madrid, they always ask me about the disadvantages … But, besides what goes on in the brain, bilingualism is a social decision. We decide whether to be bilingual or not, independently of what happens in the brain.

In the world in general bilingualism is the norm and monolingualism the exception.

Yes, monolingualism isn’t so common. In Europe it is relatively uncommon. Most European citizens speak more than one language. Another matter is whether you’ve been bilingual from the cradle. This isn’t so common, but there are a great many contacts between languages and this happens all around the world.

Alternatives to evolution

March 5th, 2014 No Comments

The challenges and new discoveries in brain research are the subject of «The Brain», the ICREA-CCCB debate which, over the coming four Thursdays, will make known the work of some of the country’s leading researchers in the neurosciences. The cycle begins with a lecture by Ricard Solé, ICREA research professor at the Pompeu Fabra University, who will give the lecture Brain(s): automatons, accidents and sinthetic evolution on 11 March about synthetic life and the possibilities now being opened up for shaping and finding alternatives to Darwinian evolution.

Ricard Solé

What can we understand by synthetic evolution?

We work with complex systems and synthetic biology is part of our research in which we examine how far it is possible to go in construction and design on the basis of biological components, and whether we can create some kind of system that might carry out computations or make decisions, systems that might learn and that can imitate and that would therefore be comparable with the brain or neuronal systems. In my department we inquire into what can be done and what can’t be done. Evolution has created a series of structures like the brain, which is a great innovation, but we are asking, “would there be alternatives?” or “is this the only possible solution?” If some day we manage to develop the technology that would make it possible to imitate something like the brain, with intelligence, awareness, cognition or empathy, would this system necessarily have to imitate life? Or are there other alternatives? Starting from here, we formulate the question on many different scales.

What is the role of the brain in your research?

We can’t create brains in the laboratory but we’re working with cells that are normally individualist and only know how to look for food, and we’re managing to get them to communicate and make decisions as a group, like ants, so they can learn and make decisions, et cetera. Evolution invented that but we have the chance to change the process and introduce into it things that were not envisaged in evolution. And synthetic biology is making us reconsider things that once seemed clear, for instance aging or death. We all believed that aging was an inevitable process, pure thermodynamics, but this is false. Aging can be stopped. In fact, evolution has brought us to this point because the natural way is to live long enough to reproduce and that’s that. However, in the laboratory we have found that you can manipulate the ends of chromosomes and put one of the aging enzymes out of action. Mice that live three times longer than the usual lifespan have been produced and others have been made to die young. We can therefore skip this law, this “design principle”. We wonder how far we can go with these possibilities and if there are any alternatives to aging, or if we can design systems wherein aging doesn’t have to be one of the basic rules. This generates more questions and makes us think that there are many such things that we have taken for granted but, now, we should perhaps be calling them into question.>

The brain, for example, works optimally in many regards but is a disaster in many others. It’s able to function at very low levels of metabolic outlay, and we scientists are unable to reproduce this. Yet there are many very inefficient things. The brain has been building on what there was before so, within the human brain, there is the brain of the reptile, the brain of the rat, and so on, and this creates a lot of conflicts in the way we think and when it comes to having stupid beliefs. If we want to construct a machine, is it important to bear that in mind? Or how important is the fact that we have been children? We learn the language in a process of acquiring knowledge that begins in early childhood and have seen that, maybe because certain things happen in that process, we need to be children. There are people who are working on “child” robots and perhaps the design of complex systems has to go through a process of growth.

In any case, yours is research without immediate practical results…

Yes, it’s pure theory. We’ve always been theoreticians and it’s only in the last few years that we’ve had a laboratory in which to carry out experiments. The goal of our work is to try to understand the origins of complexity and part of it is related with cognition, with how you learn, how you incorporate information, how you adapt to an external world with the ability to predict or being unable to predict. Time is very important for the human being and, for example, time clearly distinguishes us from any machine. You know that there’s a past and a future but machines live in the present. How can we do this, endow a machine with this? Our job is to raise such questions even if we are a long way from knowing the answers.

Nevertheless, we have some laboratory results. Imagine that we can get some bacteria to behave like ants, so they can learn and collectively resolve problems. We’re trying to re-create in the laboratory how cooperation appeared millions of years ago. If we can do this, we’ll be opening up interesting horizons. We’d be able to design cells that could go to tissue and do what we want it to do – reconstruct it, for example.

Roomba

How do you work? With powerful computers? With simulators?

You can approach the problem in many ways, from mathematics, to making theoretical models in which you approach the question in a very general way, through to computers where you can bring about evolution in circuits and artificial machines using Darwinian evolution. In other words, we don’t design them in the same way as an engineer would consciously go about it, but by trying to prompt their re-creation in the way that nature has evolved. Part of our inspiration also comes from science fiction when we read works that were written in the 1940s and 1950s, before the information revolution began. There are some very diverting things from that period. For example, the robot that cleaned the house wasn’t a Roomba but a robot in human shape with a vacuum cleaner in its hand. However, going beyond that, some science fiction is very interesting and it really transcends present-day technology. Science fiction also speculated on the brain-machine interface that might enable the brain to expand using technology but, from what we know about the brain at present, I very much doubt that this would be feasible.

An uncontrollable music

February 28th, 2014 1 Comment

By Sidewalk Bookings and Los Cuatro Cocos

“The complete cost of Smokescreen was 153 pounds. It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it! The medium may very well have been tedium but it’s changing fast. So if you can understand, go and join a band. Now it’s your turn”. That’s how Desperate Bicycles put it on the sleeve of their second single. It was an invitation to action, to form a group and just do it. Desperate Bicycles formed for the sole purpose of showing how easy it was: their first practice produced their first songs and a first single. It wasEngland, March 1977. The seed of punk sprouted lots of groups wanting to function on the fringes of the industry for vital and political as well as aesthetic reasons.

Self-management as a concept is older than the acronym DIY and is its basis: the anarchist idea of society that becomes aware and starts to construct its future, transforming the productive structure and managing it collectively with the participation of all of its constituent individuals. In disc form, this means taking part as a group, making your own decisions in all parts of the process, taking control of your art and what surrounds it, because the medium is also the message.

Pharmakon

When the CCCB contacted us, we immediately knew what we wanted: to use this invitation to put on a concert that would be difficult to organize in any other way and try to show something of the music that brings together Sidewalk Bookings and Los Cuatro Cocos in a new context for groups and for us. Since BCNmp7 bases its sessions on themes, in our case it would be “the uncontrollable music” that unites us.

The first thing we did was find points of connection—an artist that either of us might programme—and organize the session around them. We also knew that we wanted something special which, above all, had to reflect our way of doing things, even in an unusual context like the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona. All the options that came to mind were, in music terms, fairly aggressive, and all of them went with Una Bestia Incontrolable.

Una Bestia Incontrolable often play in Barcelona, but it’s not easy to get to see them as they’re an autonomous group on the fringes of the festival and venue circuits, with roots in a very specific scene though stylistically free. They started out from punk to expand and burn beyond punk or hardcore. It was they who suggested Pharmakon and Coàgul to share a session and collaborate with them: two projects with which they share roots but not necessarily a style. These roots go around the world, because the punk circuit is not a closed room. Collective management or mutual assistance stretches its tentacles far beyond the grey buildings of any given city. We’re talking about punk, but not just that. We (Los Cuatro Cocos and Sidewalk Bookings) try to function autonomously, not as a stylistic hallmark (indie), but as an attitude to life, a certain way of doing things. As Desperate Bicycles said, go and do it. There’s no merit in it.

Una bèstia incontrolable

 

This is what “An uncontrollable music” is about: music that is born free, united by an attitude to life and a sensibility that doesn’t impose a style. On 6 March, you’ll hear an overwhelming live set, aggressive music that aims to shake you without telling you what to do. We hope it will be a gateway for you to a different, betterBarcelona than the one we’re shown every day. That’s what it is for us.

Coàgul

Like a Lucio Fulci film, says Marc O’Callaghan, aka Coàgul, of the two songs on his cassette Janitor, “their music aspires to open the gates of heaven and hell”. And even though, as with the Italian horror film director, you might think it has more to do with hell than with heaven, he is right to a degree. To continue with the cinematographic similes, this Catalan’s songs could be the soundtrack for the wildest works of Shinya Tsukamoto; like the films of the father of cinematographic cyberpunk, Coàgul is art of noise, electronic and industrial sounds of demolition, and reflections from the beyond of a viscerality that explodes in your face. In short, O’Callaghan puts the soundtrack to the everyday lives we live in a dehumanized industrial and technological society. And it manages to be a furious, highly personal warning cry to awaken us all from lethargy.

Marc O’Callaghan (Coàgul) © Joan Teixidor

Una Bèstia Incontrolable

Una Bèstia Incontrolable are one of those groups that cross borders, both mental and physical. They’ve already toured in the US, where they’re hailed as heroes of the rawest, most primitive punk. But actually, that’s the least of it; the Catalans are just as good on either side of the pond. On this shore, we get to see them in squats, social centres and venues that have seen fit to weather their sonic storms. Storms that crystallized a few months back with the release of their first official disc, Observant com el món es destrueix, an album full of fury, rage and noise, like their concerts, comprising nine songs that deliver a kick to the gut. Not the kind of kick that leaves you doubled over, the kind that is a call to action, to do something in this world that seems to be on its way to hell in a hand basket. The intellectual and musical discourse of Una Bèstia Incontrolable is not cryptic, and after the initial overdose of decibels and the shock it may occasion in those unfamiliar with the sound, it should open the minds of all those listeners who think that the most furious and freethinking atavistic DIY punk and hardcore are not their thing.

Pharmakon

Closing the session is Pharmakon, the noise-neurotic project of Margaret Chardiet, a New Yorker who’s just 23 years old and already has a fair few years’ experience on the stage. She started out as Pharmakon in 2007 when she self-released her first CD-R. The child of punks and one of the figures who helped to build the multi-task space and mecca of contemporary experimentation, Red Light District (in Far Rockaway), Margaret Chardiet grew up going to punk concerts at DIY venues like ABC No Rio and C Squat, as well as going to house shows every week. Well connected with the avant-garde scene and centring on noise/improv experimentation, Margaret came into this world on the extreme edge, in terms both of music and content. Pharmakon has a supernatural stage presence and she herself describes her performances as an exorcism as she casts out her demons to confront the audience with uncomfortable feelings. We can expect an amazing, harrowing live set with invocations and diabolic cries.

Pharmakon

The first #BCNmp7 session, An uncontrollable music, is on Thursday 6 March from 21:00 to 00:00 in the Teatre del CCCB

More information at CCCB web and @CCCBmusica Twitter account

 

(Català) Chirbes, retratista

February 26th, 2014 No Comments

Gianni Borgna, like a novel

February 26th, 2014 No Comments

Gianni Borgna

When we first came up with the idea, with Josep Ramoneda, of designing an exhibition that would relate Pasolini with the city of Rome, I immediately got in touch with Gianni Borgna. We knew he had been a friend and collaborator of the filmmaker and we were also aware of the great work he had sustained in the field of cultural policy as municipal and regional adviser to Rome’s first governments of the Left. His enthusiasm for the project gave us all the guarantees that we were doing something different and original with respect to previous exhibitions featuring Pasolini, in some of which Gianni himself had been involved. From the very outset, Gianni thought about conceiving the exhibition ‘come un romanzo…’ and that the story’s starting point should be the arrival in Rome by train of Pasolini and his mother, in January 1950, as they fled the political and sexual intolerance that he had suffered in Casarsa.

As the project advanced and gradually became more international, Gianni was especially pleased when he knew that the exhibition would also be presented in Paris, Rome, and Berlin. He also showed great complicity when another curator, Alain Bergala, joined the team: a decision that converted the creative process into a constant and enriching exchange of points of view, which Gianni always cultivated with exquisite refinement. The director of the Cinemathèque Française, Serge Toubiana, in his prologue to the French version of the exhibition catalogue, recalls in detail how Gianni Borgna guided us physically around a geographical reconstruction of Pasolini’s Rome, especially that of the last night of the poet’s life, from the Piazza della Repubblica to the beach at Òstia where he was murdered. And also the emotional, categorical and knowledgeable way in which Gianni explained to us the political implications of that brutal death. As Serge reminded us in that text, those of us lucky enough to be present will never forget those sessions in Rome, where we came to understand the deep relationship between the artist and the nerve centres of its culture, the borgate, the different neighbourhoods where he had filmed and lived, and the places he would meet up with other intellectuals of Rome.

We also quickly understood what Gianni Borgna meant for culture in Rome, how he was loved by so many diverse people, all grateful for the cultural awakening he had driven in the times of his political responsibilities at the side of Rutelli, of Veltroni, and even of the president of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, all politicians who, in the last few days have expressed their condolences, underlining the profound loss represented by his death. In the interviews that Gianni held with Dacia Maraini, with Ennio Morricone and with Ninetto Davoli, contained in the Pasolini Roma catalogue, one can accurately deduce the scope of his humanistic culture and at the same time, the warm trust shared with all the people who were party to the complicities forged during times of cultural resistance in Rome.

For all of us who have worked with him, we are especially saddened that his death has occurred just two months before the inauguration of Pasolini Roma at the Palazzo d’Exposizioni in Rome, because he was especially looking forward to this pleasure. He had supervised the adaptation of the exhibition to the venue with unremitting enthusiasm, while warning of the importance of the prologue, the fact that people should understand the sombre yet simultaneously hopeful way in which Pasolini arrived in the city, which the poet would absolutely transform absolutely in his own narrativity. Gianni had made us understand exactly that: how Pasolini had revealed to the intellectuals of Rome a city that was different, that was there, with all of its transforming potential.

On the inauguration day, 15 April, Gianni won’t be there, but if we have learned one thing from a process such as this, it is that some people’s deaths are germinal, and that the mark that they leave on a cultural process becomes inerasable. Gianni Borgna made us participate, from Barcelona, in a European project, in an Italy that we felt closer to than ever before. It is lives like his that make you understand the meaning of shared heritage, that of thinking, that of intelligence and that of friendship.

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