Biology 103

Angely Mondestin's picture

Seasonal Affective Disorder: It's That Time Of The Year Again

When I was younger my Aunt Maggie would randomly get really depressed and irritable. I never understood why, but my mom always told me to just ignore it. As I grew older I started to notice that these ‘episodes’ would only occur around certain months of the year, particularly in the winter. I then observed some more unusual characteristics: she quickly gained a lot of weight, most of her free time was spent sleeping, and she became less involved in our family affairs. When she did get involved it was only to start unnecessary and petty fights. I couldn’t comprehend why she was acting so distant towards her own family. It was a known fact that she hated the winter along with the snow so when I was thirteen-years-old she moved from Newtown, Pennsylvania to West Palm Beach, Florida. After a year or so she was back in shape and her attitude was nothing but friendly. She no longer slept her days away, and even though she lived twenty-four hours away she still remained really close to us. I now know that what my Aunt Maggie was suffering from was seasonal affective disorder, but in order for me to fully understand what she was going through I must first understand the disorder itself. It is for this reason that I will be looking at the symptoms and causes in particular that are related to this disorder.

Meagan McDaniel's picture

I Love You, But I Can't Pronounce It: The Physical Difficulties Behind Learning to Speak Another Language

The full phrase is “Ya tibya lyublyu,” but it's that last word that ties up my tongue. No matter how many times I rehearse saying “I love you” in Russian, it never comes out naturally; the “blyu” gets stuck to the roof of my mouth and I end up saying either “lyubloo” or sometimes just “lyubu.” Once in a while it comes out correctly, but I have to pause between “lyu” and “blyu,” calculating in my head what my mouth is going to have to do next.


Obviously, I'm not used to putting sounds together this way. But one might think, after a few tries, I'd get the hang of it and there would be no more trouble. Grammar and vocabulary take time to memorize, but why is making unfamiliar sounds difficult, too? I assume that everyone's mouth and tongue are basically the same structurally, and have the capability to make all the sounds found in every human language – but why is it hard or sometimes impossible to do?

According to Wikipedia's article on second language acquisition, this isn't just my problem. Although “those who begin learning a language late in life are capable of gaining a high level of fluency,” it seems clear from research that “the overwhelming majority of those who begin learning a language after puberty are unable to acquire a native-like accent.” (1) And interestingly, Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins claims that “in multilingual persons, an accent in their third language often reflects the pronunciation of the speaker's second language. I have observed this when a West African from a French-sphere country is speaking English. Though he sounds like an African, he has a French accent in English also.” (2)

So, accents are a fundamental part of language acquisition – now I'm a little less worried about my trouble with the word “люблю.” But I still want to get it right! Knowing this happens to everyone doesn't explain why.

The Linguistic Society of America backs up part of my original thought; apparently, everyone is “born capable of both producing and perceiving all of the sounds of all human languages.” However, this does not last; soon, “a child begins to learn what sounds are important in his or her language, and to disregard the rest.” By a child's first birthday, he or she has learned to ignore sound distinctions that don't matter to whatever language he or she is learning to speak. (3) So that's why I can't hear the difference between hard and soft Russian consonants; since English doesn't distinguish between consonants in this way, I've grown up thinking of them as the “same” sound, when in fact there are differences. I'm tempted to say they're subtle differences and so I can't be blamed for my confusion, but that isn't right, either; I only think they're subtle because I've been trained since birth not to notice them. The same thing happens to speakers of Japanese who learn English; there's no distinction between l and r in Japanese, so they sound the same to a Japanese speaker listening English. My first reaction as an English speaker is that the difference between l and r is enormous, but of course, that's because I've been trained to hear it!

Differentiating between important and unimportant sound distinctions makes sense. Learning to communicate would be a lot harder otherwise, because every possible inflection of every possible sound or combination of sounds would mean something different, and most of these sounds would not be used by any given language. It is easier, it seems, for the brain to just lump similar sounds together and understand them as only one sound – so much easier that this is literally what it does when we first learn language. In the infant brain, “a different cluster of neurons in the auditory cortex of the brain responds to each sound” in the language, so that certain sets of sounds are wired to a single neuron cluster as one sound. (4)

This hardwiring of neurons cannot be completely unchangeable; after all, some people can and do learn to distinguish the unfamiliar sounds of another language, even if those sounds are grouped under one heading in their native tongue. However, these individuals are usually “unable to acquire a native-like accent” when speaking (assuming they did not learn the second language during childhood). For me, this is counter-intuitive – I would imagine that rewiring your brain is more difficult than forcing your mouth and tongue to do things it is technically already capable of – but my own experience tells me otherwise. I can now tell the difference between a hard and soft 'л' in spoken Russian (well, sometimes, anyway), but I still can't say the right thing.

Language itself is produced by learning how to control the various “resources” the body has at its disposal for speaking: the sound generator (vocal chords) and sound chambers (larynx, nasal cavity, and mouth). (5) Presumably, if the brain can be rewired to hear new differences between sounds, it could also be rewired to make new cues to these resources and come up with the correct vowel or consonant for the new language. However, this does not seem to happen as readily – though, in fact, it does happen. I remember in middle school I watched a lot of unsubtitled Japanese films, having read the plots beforehand; sometimes I would try to mimic the language out of curiosity or boredom, but could never get the 'r' sound right, because it's something of a mixture between English 'r' and 'l'. One day, however, I just said it during one of my monologues and found that I could say it. Simply by practice, I had hit upon how to use my “resources” to make this sound; it required putting my tongue behind my front teeth as in 'l' but shaping my mouth in an entirely different way. This unintentional process of trial-and-error mimics what occurs in young children; they listen to what is spoken around them and test out sounds until the ones they produce compare favorably with what they hear. (5) I have experienced other examples of this principle in my life as well; after six years of taking Spanish class, I could pronounce Spanish words more like a native speaker than not, although I had never actively attempted to improve.

This is not to say that learning how to produce an unfamiliar sound is simple, or that once you “get it,” you say it correctly forever. (My Spanish pronunciation has fallen off since I stopped studying it, after all.) But it seems from my personal observations that the steps required to produce sounds outside one's own language are identical to the steps required to differentiate those sounds from native ones when hearing the new language spoken. The learner must hear the new sounds over and over (and perhaps in comparison to each other) to recognize that they are different; he or she must also test out different ways of producing a perhaps familiar sound to come up with the correct way to make the foreign sound. (Think of people trying to learn the English sound “th” by working their way from a native “z.”) But if the process is the same, why is one so much more difficult than the other? Why can people learn to hear differences faster than they can learn to speak them – and usually, never learn to speak them perfectly?

I turned up no conclusive answer for this question in my online research. Some posit that pronunciation is simply given a backseat to grammar and vocabulary, leaving students insecure about fully exploring new sounds. (5) However, the primary consensus seems to be that one's first language is hardwired so thoroughly into the brain that foreign sounds have difficulty tearing away from the sound “magnets” that are built around the native language. If you grow up bilingual, great – you get two sound sets already built in. But try to learn later in life, and one will have to wrench itself out of the pattern of the other – and it's harder to make the new sounds than it is to understand them.

This is frustrating, because I want answers, and somehow the above conclusion doesn't satisfy me. What about those rare people who don't have an accent in the language or languages they learn after childhood? What about people who are naturally gifted at learning languages and absorb them relatively quickly? What if I work really, really hard to rewire my brain and produce new sounds – will that help reduce my accent? Or does it all have to be unconscious and gradual, like with children? Since there is little readily available literature on the subject, I suppose I'll just have to find out for myself.

Ya tibya lyubloo...lyublYOO...

Hannah Mueller's picture

Orthomolecular Psychiatry As a Preventative Measure

Many health-conscious people take a multivitamin daily because they wish to provide
their bodies with an optimal amount of vitamins and minerals. This simple idea, that one cannot
rely solely on diet to take in all the nutrients one needs, is widely accepted. A field of
complementary and alternative medicine called orthomolecular therapy draws on the same basic
understanding. From the Greek "ortho," right, orthomolecular describes a treatment that
provides "the body with optimal amounts of substances which are natural to the body" (4).
Orthomolecular psychiatry, in particular, is the prescription of extra nutrients to treat mental
disorders. Some orthomolecular practices, such as those attempting to cure cancer and
schizophrenia, are advised against by health agencies (6). However, the therapy can also be
applied as a preventative measure for more common disorders, or for conditions that might
otherwise seem like a result of societal pressures instead of physical problems. If vitamins and
minerals enhance day-to-day bodily functions, their absence in the diet may account for
abnormal functions of the mind.

Cayla McNally's picture

Sexual Differentiation and Gender Roles

As we evolve from zygotes to fully-functioning adults, we are influenced by a myriad of various factors, from the way we are raised to who we associate ourselves with. When I think of what I have become, I think of all my external influences- what I have read, whom I have met during my lifetime, the experiences I have had; what I rarely ever think of is my genetic makeup and how it has influenced me as a person. Out of the functions that genes oversee in the human body, the most intriguing is sexual differentiation, which is the development of a person from an “undifferentiated zygote” to a fetus, which will then evolve into a walking, talking, conscious male or female (2).

Annabella Wood's picture

What is a Belief?

What is a belief, and why bother having any? After all, if nothing can be proven as true, why would we believe in anything anyway? But certainly, we believe things, even against all sensory input.

For instance, if you stand in the middle of train tracks and look at them going off in the distance, your sensory input tells you that they meet up yonder a ways. And yet, you don’t believe that. Why would you go against your perceptory input on this? Probably it is because you have prior experience with tracks, watching them while on a train or walking, and have had the experience of seeing them open up before you as you move. Or do they open up before you? Though your senses tell you they do, you don’t believe that either. You believe they are stationary, not moving. But if that is true, how come they come together at the horizon, but never where you are?

Annabella Wood's picture

Lactose Intolerance

Do you feel sick after ingesting milk products? Do you have to stay away from foods that
contain milk or cheese? If so, you are possibly lactose intolerant. You might also be
allergic to dairy. The two conditions are not the same, though they share one effect on
people’s lives; staying away from dairy foods. We will not explore dairy allergies in this

Here we are exploring lactose intolerance. What is lactose intolerance? Lactose
intolerance is a condition brought on by a lack of the digestive enzyme lactase, whose job
it is to break up the lactose molecule during digestion. If you don’t have enough lactase
to break up the lactose in your digestion system, lactose will remain inside the intestine.
It can not pass through the intestinal membrane wall to be absorbed into the blood stream.
When the lactose is sitting in your intestine, digestive bacteria will do its best to
metabolize the lactose. In doing so, the bacteria put off large amounts of gas, resulting in
your experience of bloating, flatulence and diarrhea, all of which can be quite painful. (1)

Sarah Gale's picture

Should You Get A Flu Shot? And Other Stories

About a week ago, I felt like I was getting a cold. Rather than down some DayQuil and move on, I decided to take a different approach. I entered into a small, patchouli-smelling store called Arrowroot on Lancaster and looked around for some alternative cold medicines and found one named Coldcalm. The directions said to let two tablets dissolve on the tongue every two hours, and the sufferer’s cold symptoms would be relieved. Hating cough syrup and interested, I decided to buy the package of white pills and was happy to find that they really helped. Even though I still had a cold, it was entirely manageable.

Then my mother called me, telling me to get a flu shot. It’s not that I am not scared of needles, but I don’t particularly like getting shots (although, who does?). So I decided to do research and see if the whole needle-in-arm event could be avoided this flu season. I found that it’s not necessary to be vaccinated, although getting a shot isn’t a bad thing. I know that I, for one, will not be going to the Health Center for a flu shot this year.

Georgia Lawrence's picture

The Science of Homosexuality

Homosexuality is an issue that has sparked tumultuous debate in the United States, and has been brought to the forefront in the last fifty to sixty years. While the legal and social implications has captured the attention of the media, the lingering question of biology remains at the core of the debate. Is it possible that one is born with the characteristic of being homosexual, or is it solely a learned behavior embedded in cultural norms? Researchers since the nineteen-fifties have studied homosexuality in a variety of ways, through genetics, animal behavior, and even birth order. While few have come to a conclusive answer, important progress has been made since the time homosexuality was merely considered a mental disorder that could be cured.

Angely Mondestin's picture

Chocolate? As a Health Benefit?

Is chocolate really as harmful as the world makes it out to be? I remember coming home one night after trick-or-treating and gazing into my huge pillowcase full of candy. I can vividly recall selfishly eating most of it all in one night and feeling incredibly ashamed and guilty that I had done so. My mom spitefully reproached me with all the horrible things that were going to happen to me if I continued to act so carelessly. Chocolate has attained such a negative reputation throughout the years, and it is often referred to as the devil’s candy. Unfortunately, not many people know that this sensuous and sinful candy actually produces beneficial health related results.

Claire B's picture

Why do we sweat?

Every evening after finishing my yoga session, I leave the yoga studio feeling strong, calm, revitalized, and, above all, incredibly sweaty. The combined effects of a heated yoga studio and physical exertion always seem to challenge my body temperature, resulting in the feeling that every square inch of my skin is oozing with perspiration. My yoga teachers have always told me that sweating is very healthy, and it helps the body get rid of toxins and excess energy. In looking into this question of why we sweat, I will examine the biological basis for sweating, and why it varies from person to person.

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