Saturday, November 12, 2016

Lifelong Bilingualism and its Effects on the Brain: UBC Quinn Memorial 2016

Ellen Bialystok: Lifelong Bilingualism: Reshaping Mind and Brain
It was that time of the year again for me to attend the next Quinn Memorial Lecture at UBC. This annual event is filled with distinguished key speakers and the 2016 version presented us with Dr. Ellen Bialystok, the Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University with a lecture entitled “Lifelong Bilingualism: Reshaping Mind and Brain.” 

Considering that I myself speak five languages fluently and that my son is growing up immersed in two simultaneous languages, English and Spanish, I was personally most interested in learning about the consequences and the beneficial and / or possibly harmful effects of bilingualism.

In fact, I am so dedicated to this wonderful series that I tried my utmost to battle against my own fatigue and budding migraine to physically make it to this talk. It was a busy day as I rushed quickly home to have a quick early dinner and then headed out to UBC to make it there on time.

Arriving at UBC, I was slightly at a loss vis-à-vis the recent structural changes and ongoing, seemingly everlasting constructions, and I must admit I felt a little embarrassed of temporarily not knowing my way around despite having spent more than eight years at this great university. But its face and façade have become almost unrecognizable due to the demolitions of older buildings and creations of new modern architecture, and I sincerely miss the look and feeling of my beloved university.

But let us get back to the lecture. It seemed less attended than previous talks, and I was able to seat myself firmly and visibly in the second row, which was almost empty. I awaited with keen interest the arrival of the guest speaker, and the whole lecture started surprisingly on time and included fewer opening sessions and diversions but rather jumped right into linguistic matters.

The overall theme of the talk was neuroplasticity, which refers to changes in structure and connectivity of the mind and brain. Language learning is an experience that leaves footprints on the brain and changes the efficiency and automatic processes of the mind. In fact, language learning is intense and based on the whole brain; put differently, there is no specific language switch mechanism operating in the brain turning from one language to another since languages are jointly activated.

Hence, the brain needs to select the target language, and selective attention is required for this. It is not a language switch but rather a spotlight model where the brain must focus its attention and resources or shine its light on a specific domain. This, in turn, leads to changes in some regions of the brain and strengthens and increases efficiency on certain tasks.

However, Bialystok first let us know of the disadvantages of bilingualism; they are indeed few, but there are certain limitations. The main one is a reduced linguistic representation, meaning a lack of words and vocabulary in each language. It makes sense that a person who knows only one language, a monolingual may generally have more words at their disposal than someone who is storing words and information on two or more different languages.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a young Swiss woman years ago. Back then, I was gently bragging about my language skills when she countered to my multilingual mind that it may be so but that it also meant I could not speak any of them as well as a person who knew just one single language. To my shock and surprise, science and research is on her side, at least broadly speaking.

The second disadvantage is a lack of verbal fluency. If you are bilingual, it gets worse with multilinguals, you tend to speak more slowly as you need to focus on the given target language. This is true of myself, especially when I lack sleep AND have no coffee in the morning. It takes me slightly longer to find the appropriate expressions and sometimes words seem to elude me. In other situations, I may have the right word but in the wrong language. And occasionally I dream in all my languages and wake up rather confused and bewildered.

This is also true of my son, especially a few years back when he would speak more slowly than some of his classmates. This was due to the brain trying to locate and then process in the correct domain. However, contrary to the opinion of some monolinguals, my son very rarely confused the words and languages, and he managed that rather well without the aid of coffee.

Apart from difficulty generating words, for example on verbal fluency tests on which bilinguals tend to perform worse than monolinguals as the former do not have the same vocabulary depth, and apart from a slower retrieval of words in speaking, lifelong bilingualism is beneficial in various ways. 

For instance, bilinguals generally perform better on executive function tasks as it boosts their attention system. Especially on complex memory tasks, there is more facilitation and less interference among children and older adults. A curious finding is that generally younger adults show little group difference in terms of ability; they perform about the same. Yet overall bilinguals are better at memory tasks as their executive attention is always on, and they have stronger cognition in relation to memory and attention.

Finally, Bialystok looked at older age and dementia and the corresponding effects of bilingualism. On certain tests like the Stroop effect, older bilingual adults tend to perform better. They tend to have more intact and more robust frontal and medial temporal regions, which affect attention processing as well as memory. As a result, the age of diagnosis of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease is usually later with bilinguals.

In fact, bilinguals may get Alzheimer’s Disease but show symptoms at a later date. This is because the brain compensates for general regions due to its neural plasticity; certain parts make up for affected regions. In fact, studies in societies that consist of largely bilinguals show lower incidence of dementia. On the downside, it seems that when bilinguals end up getting Alzheimer’s, the disease tends to be in a worse and more progressive state.

As we can see, bilingualism is beneficial for the brain in many ways. It strengthens certain regions and improves focus on attention as well as performance on memory tasks. But what about multilinguals? Does it follow the adage of the more the better? 

Bialystok claims that this is generally so. Learning an additional language is of definite benefit for the brain. Oddly enough, research shows that the advantages increase by language but then stop after the fourth language, after which it plateaus! So knowing a fifth language does not seem to give you any tangible benefit!

This was a very interesting lecture that focused more on statistical analysis and showed clear benefits of learning an additional language. Hopefully, it inspires people to pick up another language! Yet the talk did not address, for lack of time and scope, many other benefits that come with knowing other languages. I see languages as an important and essential tool and a powerful weapon for peace and unity.

Knowing a language gives you a glimpse into another culture and worldview and can increase your ability to understand others and empathize with them. Both these traits, understanding and empathy, are at great risk these days, and leaders around the world should not only fund and promote education but also encourage language learning and literature so that more open minds can be fostered across the world.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Existential Analysis on how to understand and deal with Aggression

head photograph of Alfried Längle
It was time for another enlightening talk by Alfried Längle held at Vancouver’s St. Paul’s hospital and this time around he was going to share with us his insights on aggression. The questions that were on my mind were what causes aggression and how can it be best dealt with. And Längle, whom I have affectionately nicknamed the Dalai Lama of psychotherapy, would naturally provide the answers to both of my questions.

He started off with the quotable phrase that we are happier than we think and that, contrary to many people’s opinions, the environment alone cannot give you happiness. You can be staying at a beautiful tropical island or living in a mansion but if your mind is not at ease, you will not enjoy it at all.

The most important key to happiness is an inner yes. That means that we are in tune or in agreement with what is happening around us. If you like the job you have and you give yourself to it whole-heartedly, then you are content and at peace. If you love the person you are with, you say yes to him or her, then you are happy and enjoy your relationship.

The problem is when there is no inner yes to either yourself or towards your outer situation, i.e. the world around you. In fact, suffering, an avoidable and generally unpleasant aspect of life, cannot and should not on its own destroy your inner fulfillment. People who accept themselves and are in tune with who they are and what they are doing will find ways to deal with upsetting events.

We know that we cannot escape them and must deal with suffering as we are subjects of time, both physically and psychologically. Life is a constant flow, which means that we cannot stop or block it but must go with it and the best we can do is to harmonize with the ebbs and flows of time.

We are living entities that travel through spacetime and must eat and work and deal with reality; at the same time, we can also see life as a challenge and an opportunity to discover ourselves, to find out what moves and touches us and what we like and dislike. It is a constant journey of self-discovery.

For my whole existence, I have to be me and cannot be anybody else. I cannot be divorced from myself but need to be aware of myself, of the person I am here and now. If you are outside of yourself or if you feel that you cannot develop or discover yourself, then you basically “lose” yourself.

This means that you will feel alienated, feel outside of yourself. If you are not the productive author of something special in your life, you may feel continuous suffering and get depressed. But if you have something valuable in your life, that could be your work, a child or any project that excites you, then you will experience a valuable context around you and most likely feel connected with others and the things that surround you.

For example, some people may see forms of activism as a meaning-filling activity. The fact that they are contributing to some positive change, for instance, helping to preserve the environment, will give them a necessary boost; they are doing what they care about most and they approve of their own actions.

To my knowledge, and for better or worse, money on its own cannot give us that type of self-satisfaction unless it is tied to a way of sharing it with others or helping those who are less fortunate. This may a reason why there are many (but still not enough!) philanthropists among the wealthy, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, to name a few.

All of this preamble leads to one of the main sources and causes of aggression, which is rejection. This means that for whatever reason I do not give consent to that which surrounds me; I may feel and perceive to be trapped in a hostile environment or in an unfulfilling job or relationship and that causes overwhelming stress. I may either reject parts of myself or feel rejected by others or by society in general; either way it is a frustrating experience.

This leads to psycho-dynamic reactions. In moments of stress, we may revert towards older, more primitive, manners of coping with difficult situations. In terms of evolution, our animal instincts dealing with survival of the species may kick in and take over the more refined and developed parts of our selves, the moral and ethical dimensions.

This old way of animalistic information processing has the function of preserving life and is less interested in ethics. It is a psychic dimension, a world of impulses, that at its forefront wants to reduce pain. Sometimes we believe that we need to avoid or confront the pain in order to preserve our species or our well-being.

Avoidance is a form of not being exposed to dangers, and we may find temporary relief in escaping a troublesome situation. In some cases, we may rationalize it and we may not even fully gauge or understand the consequences of this kind of behavior, but in either case, it cannot be a permanent or viable solution to a problem.

To give an example, let’s say we have not studied sufficiently or simply have difficulty understanding a subject and we choose not to go to the exam. This type of avoidance will, of course, come and haunt us in the form of a bad grade and possibly lead towards failing the whole course.

Another way of coping with stressors may be fighting against it and becoming hyperactive. In this case, we do more than we need to because we feel insecure about the situation. We may study nonstop, we may review our notes constantly and even “overlearn” for an exam. At least in this situation we are doing something, but the problem is that we are doing too much and that in itself can cause us stress; albeit the end effect, a possible good grade, might reward us, at least to some degree.

Now the problem is when the first types of coping do not resolve the issue. This can lead to aggression, which is the highest form of activation and it can bring the situation to a boiling point. Aggression is an automatic protective reaction that uses high levels of energy and gives us momentum, especially when we sense that the lower levels did not work.

Interestingly, and I must say to my own surprise, Längle believes that aggression is not a drive. A drive is like an itch that, when satisfied, produces good feeling. Both food and sex fall into this category as we generally derive pleasure from engaging in those activities, but aggression does not produce good feelings on its own.

In fact, aggression is not really part of our natural make-up; it is more a reaction, a response to a stimulus. And more often than not, that same stimulus stems from feelings of social rejection, of being rejected by others. This stimulus is similar to physical pain, and in fact, it triggers the same parts of the brain. Social rejection is akin to suffering physical pain!

Not belonging to a group or being excluded or perceived as an outcast makes us sick, especially when this cannot be communicated to others. This situation may trigger disgust in us and our body feels violated as if we had taken in some poison. As a result, our blood pressure rises and we feel not only depressed but it can be transformed to feeling hurt and wanting to lash out at others because of it.

The aggressive act is not because of pleasure but rather serves as a misguided means to protect oneself. Part of the rejected person feels threatened and they may resolve to an aggressive act in order to salvage that threatened part. We see these acts of violence, for example, in crimes of passion. The slighted person feels that he or she cannot exist in peace while the other is still there and they believe that killing that person, the perceived threat, could alleviate the pain.

The same can be applied to school shooters as the majority of them either have experienced significant loss or defeat, or they have been hurt, or they have suicidal thoughts. Suicide is aggression that is turned inward against the self, and paradoxically, we may think that killing oneself may solve the issue and save the threatened self. In either case, the threat is perceived as not letting us be.

Hence, the question is and remains to be or not to be, and in many situations it may boil down to either you or me! If your being does not allow my being to exist, I must destroy you. This sense of intense powerlessness may create the desire to run down the threat, to eliminate it once and for all.

If it does not turn to hate, then it will turn to anxiety. Hate is a cold-blooded lifeless thing, a pale face that is destructive and is very dangerous. However, anger or fury is alive; it is full of blood and movement, and it is not necessarily bad if it can be tamed and handled or re-channeled towards more productive measures.

In rage, one has a red head and one wants to shake the other. Rage is loud and trembling and it searches for relationship. It has reached a point where it cannot resolve itself through words or communication anymore. It can lead to marking one’s space while desperately trying to be who one is.

This can occur because one feels trapped or forced and is trying hard to do something about the stifling situation or circumstances. One has the aim of wanting to be seen and heard. All this stems from the perception of deeply felt injustice; at the same time one is defiant and will not accept being treated in such a way. It is when we want to show others that they are wrong or we want to find ways of redressing or punishing the injustice.

At this stage, we are vengeful and want others to learn a lesson, and in some cases, we may wish to hurt them. But if it is turned inward, it may lead to self accusations. You feel that you are not taken seriously or overlooked. This can make you either depressed or can motivate you to confront it.

As you want to be yourself and be respected and valued by others, you feel hurt. It is wounding us and when we cannot resolve it, we become aggressive. This may be manifested in “playful” aggression in the form of cynicism, sarcasm or even vandalism. 

One feels meaninglessness and emptiness and may want to destroy the context. For example, by doing acts of vandalism, by scratching people’s cars, by damaging or destroying things or property, one feels partly validated and believes that one has at least restored a little bit of justice in an utterly unjust world.

This sentiment can then be carried even further when people thrive on creating more confusion and chaos in the world and may even engage in bullying and torturing victims. All of this is an expression of the painful feeling of meaninglessness; it is a kind of crying out for help.

The cynic, for instance, says something but actually means the opposite and does so not only to get a point across but to draw attention to themselves. With sarcasm, the speaker uses cutting humor and biting derision because there are things they find not only hard to accept in and about the world but they also try to protect themselves from such perceived threats.  

As a rule, any type of violence, from the seemingly benign to the overtly aggressive kind is inherently selfish; one’s self interest is more important than others and one may be even inconsiderate of the damage that one causes with one’s behavior. Yet the driving force of it all is protection, a protection for survival and it is seen as a desperate coping mechanism to deal with anxieties and uncertainties.

As Längle pointed out, the problem is not the aggression itself, but rather giving into that feeling in a blind and unseeing manner. Yet using it in a seeing and understanding way, feelings of aggression can give us insights into our lives and being. Aggression can then give us the capacity to evaluate our inner self and come to a better life.

Yet we need to humanize aggression and not let it take control of us. It has a hidden message that can help us understand and see ourselves in a clearer light. But in order for this to happen, we must detoxify it from its harmful potential and see it as a lesson to be learned and realize its helping power. 

The worst is to let it fester and become hatred. Hatred has no saving grace or silver lining; it is inflexible, destructive, and damaging both towards ourselves as well as others.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Lalun: Music out of this World and the Quest for Peace

World music band Lalun playing live
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a concert entitled “Lalun – Dreams from Andalusia and the Silk Road” at the Vancouver Playhouse. I was intrigued by this musical ensemble as they advertised themselves as a globe-trotting world music group that was influenced by music from Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The individual members and their instruments looked equally eclectic; there was Liron Man who is originally from Israel but living in Spain and he was playing hand pans (?) as well as Lan Tung from Taiwan / Canada playing the erhu, a type of Chinese violin, and, last but not least, Canadian Jonathan Bernard on (various types of) percussion.    

I had a certain amount of expectations as I generally enjoy and often listen to world music. Entering the concert room, my family and I were lucky to find front-row seats. After a bi-lingual introduction (English and Chinese) that included a seemingly endless list of sponsors, basically a long string of Vancouver restaurants, banks, businesses and what-have-you, the musicians took over the stage and wasted no words but jumped right into the music.

And I was immediately floored, meant in the best way possible! Their music was astonishing from the very beginning. The hand pans were basically strange-looking but beautiful sounding large bowls with apparent holes in them. The Chinese violin had a wailing sound to it evoking dreams and images of Asian landscapes. In fact, after hearing her play on the erhu I was reminded of the handful of Asian movies (Raise the Red Lantern (1991), In the Mood for Love (2000), to name a few) I had seen and felt inspired and compelled to watch more of them in the near future.

The percussion, which included hand drums and the occasional cymbals thrown in for good measure, added an interesting rhythm to the whole scene. Although I had initially thought that the band’s description was a little bit far-fetched and exaggerated, I must say that even with the first song, they covered more global terrain than I had expected.

This music in all its splendor also felt close to home. Being myself born in Iran, I felt there was a nod to Persian music, which was, in fact, the case. But it was even more than that because the tunes and instruments added different cultural hues to the whole undertaking. One of the odder choices, their final song of the day, ended up being a traditional Persian song, translated into Chinese, that the erhu player was singing and playing to, but again somehow and against the odds it actually worked.

The music was perfect fodder to my imagination and I could picture it as soundtrack to various scenes of movies that were playing in my mind. Yet, in addition to that, I felt a certain sense of peace and calm. I attributed this to two different phenomena.

First, the music did not only have deep-seated roots and foundations, but it was also played and presented with passion and love. It was during this performance where I felt that the musicians were in various ways baring their souls.

This feeling usually occurs when I am in the presence of what I consider genuine art. In movies, literature or music, this means that I am presented with something very special that deeply resonates within me. It strikes chords in me and I feel that the work of art is not meant to merely please and entertain, not meant to rake in profits and fame, but was rather a type of personal expression or even confession, a desire that is deeply felt and true to the heart.  

As I was listening, I was mentally going through my own art, my writing that I have created and longed that somebody somewhere would equally feel the love and passion I have poured into it. To me that is the very essence of art, to make others feel something profound, and I certainly felt that way with this outstanding concert.

The second phenomenon was more related to the content, the music and its colorful influences. Here we had a perfect blend of longstanding cultures and traditions and it invoked that feeling of peacefulness to be one in and with the world. 

The traditions were woven into each other rather flawlessly like a monumental mosaic and it showed us that despite conflicts, pain and suffering we witness around the world, there is also a binding force, a unity expressed through the soul of music that makes these worldly matters and issues insignificant, divisive, and unnecessarily destructive.

I could not help thinking about the constant and continuous conflicts in the Middle East, and I was aware of the fact that there was an Israeli musician and composer who had managed to create a bond between seemingly incompatible cultures of Jewish and Arab nations.

If only both sides could see their commonalities, the love and beauty that was expressed through each of their musical heritage and their tonal traditions and that together, they could indeed create something that surpassed either side on its own, a thing of absolute intercultural beauty. I was reminded of that dream while attending this concert.

In fact, about half way through, Liron Man, the hand pan musician and composer commented on that very same idea of mine! He talked about his song called “Tierra,” Spanish for land or home, and how it reflected a mixture of different cultures, including Arabic as well as traditional Jewish music.

To my shock and surprise, the song ended with the traditional folk song “Hava Nagila”, which is translated as “Let us rejoice”, a fitting and uplifting ending to his song. Now I say “shock and surprise” because before the concert had even begun I had what I deemed a rather silly and perhaps even stereotypical idea that I should ask him to play “Hava Nagila” at some point. And here it was embroidered into this cultural musical hotpot. It was as if they had read my mind or I had read theirs, which either way was rather eerie (but again in a good way).

This concert given by the multicultural band Lalun was indeed a mind-blowing experience. The music itself was out of this world, but to have it transport us like a magical carpet not only across thousands of miles but through thousands of years of history is indeed indescribable. 

These musicians have traveled extensively and play music independently as well, but what I saw and heard and felt in this one-hour-concert is rare and I very much encourage all to experience it for themselves if given a chance.