Don’t mention the war: or, doing what you didn’t want to do

In last week’s issue of Science Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard University, summarised his research into a peculiarly incompetent example of agency. There are various actions we perform. We fix on our goal and act in a way that will bring it about. But sometimes we go about trying to not do something. Ever make a mental note not to mention a sore point in conversation, only to bring it up? Wegner calls these phenomena “ironic effects” and proposes that they are the effects of a monitoring process the brain undergoes when we try to avoid thinking about or doing something. Unsurprisingly, he found that “effective strategies include accepting symptoms rather than attempting to control them.” I.e. the best way to not do something is, sometimes, to stop trying to not do it. In the same way one does not maximise one’s pleasure by trying to maximise one’s pleasure (the paradox of hedonism), successful exercises of agency do not always follow the simple model of directing one’s thought or will toward one’s goal.

For an interview with Daniel Wegner go here.

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Bad Grammar Picked-Up By Monkeys

Cottontop Tamarin

Following Chomsky’s seminal Universal Grammar hypothesis in the mid-twentieth century, the debate continues to rage over whether human language capacities involve any innate and/or domain-specific component, or whether they are wholly learned. It also remains an interesting question as to how human beings came to acquire whatever innate language endowment they may possess. Researchers at Harvard claim to have uncovered evidence of an evolutionary precursor to human language affixation (the method by which we ‘tense’ verbs, e.g. walk/walk-ed) in Cottontop Tamarins. The research team, led by Ansgar Endress, found that Cottontops display the capacity to recognise incorrect, or ‘ungrammatical’, syllable sequences of this form. In the study, the Tamarins were familiarised with a particular prefix or suffix (for instance, ‘shoy-‘) by being exposed verbally for half an hour to syllable strings displaying that pattern (‘shoy-bi’, ‘shoy-la’, ‘shoy-ro’, etc.). When tested again the next day, the monkeys showed signs of surprise when the speaker uttered a ‘word’ which did not conform to the pattern (e.g. ‘bi-shoy’).

While this might not show that the monkeys recognised the speakers ‘slip’ as bad grammar, the researchers argue that their results show that human language capacities incorporate memory processes that were not language specific in our ancestors, such as an (innate) ability to recognise and respond to simple temporal ordering patterns, as demonstrated by the Cottontops. This ability finds employment in non-human forms of communication (the songs of humpback whales, for instance) and, in primates, the ability to learn how to use complex tools, says Professor Marc Hauser, who collaborated in the study. The primates may be a long way away from being able to correct our grammar; nevertheless, they may have cognitive capacities that are less than a million miles away from our own.

Read the source article here.

Article: ‘Evidence of an evolutionary precursoe to human language affixation in a nonhuman primate’, By Endress, Cahill, Block, Watumull & Hauser. Forthcoming in Biology Letters, manuscript available at:

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