Cognitive skills differ across cultures and generations

An innovative study of children and parents in both Hong Kong and the United Kingdom, led by University of Cambridge researchers Michelle R. Ellefson and Claire Hughes, reveals cultural differences in important cognitive skills among adolescent participants but not their parents. The results are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Our findings showed substantial contrast between adolescents in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong when it came to executive functions, which may help to explain substantial differences in academic success,” says Ellefson. “However, these differences do not extend to their parents — which leads to the question of whether these differences might go away over time.”

Research suggests that executive functions — the higher-order cognitive skills we use to reason, plan, and adapt to circumstances on the fly — are linked with many long-term outcomes and are shaped by various factors, including parental and cultural influences. Ellefson, Hughes, and colleagues decided to take a novel approach to studying these executive functions, accommodating developmental and cultural perspectives in one study.

A total of 1,428 children and parents from Hong Kong and the UK completed the same four tasks, which were designed to measure executive function skills related to inhibition, working memory, task switching, and planning.

The results revealed that, on average, children in Hong Kong had higher executive function scores than their same-aged peers in the UK. For example, the average executive function score for 10-year-olds in Hong Kong was about the same as the average score for 12-year-olds in the UK. There was no such difference, however, between parents in Hong Kong and parents in the UK.

When the team compared performance across generations, they found that the parents tended to respond more accurately than the children, but took longer to produce these accurate responses, meaning that parents avoided mistakes by slowing down.

In both Hong Kong and the UK, there was a modest but notable correlation between parents’ and children’s scores — parents with high executive function performance were more likely to have kids with high performance.

Together, the research highlights the benefits of combining multiple theoretical perspectives in one study, looking at similarities and differences across both cultures and age groups.

“This is our first paper together and it shows the value of developmental psychologists getting out of their ‘age bunkers’ to look at topics from a broader perspective,” says Hughes.

“Our findings indicate that cultural contrasts may differ in nature as well as magnitude at different points along the life span,” the researchers conclude in their paper.

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Intelligible speech despite noisy surroundings

Prof Dr Dorothea Kolossa and Mahdie Karbasi from the research group Cognitive Signal Processing at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) have developed a method for predicting speech intelligibility in noisy surroundings. The results of their experiments are more precise than those gained through the standard methods applied hitherto. They might thus facilitate the development process of hearing aids. The research was carried out in the course of the EU-funded project “Improved Communication through Applied Hearing Research,” or “I can hear” for short.

Specific algorithms in hearing aids filter out background noises to ensure that wearers are able to understand speech in every situation — regardless if they are in a packed restaurant or near a busy road. The challenge for the researchers is to maintain high speech transmission quality while filtering out background noises. Before an optimised hearing aid model is released to the market, new algorithms are subject to time-consuming tests.

Researchers and industrial developers run hearing tests with human participants to analyse to what extent the respective new algorithms will ensure speech intelligibility. If they were able to assess speech intelligibility reliably in an automated process, they could cut down on time-consuming test practices.

New algorithm developed

To date, the standard approaches for predicting speech intelligibility have included the so-called STOI method (short time objective speech intelligibility measure) and other reference-based methods. These methods require a clear original signal, i.e. an audio track that’s been recorded without any background noises. Based on the differences between original and filtered sound, the value of speech intelligibility is estimated. Kolossa and Karbasi have found a way to predict intelligibility without needing a clear reference signal, which is still more precise than the STOI method. Consequently, Kolossa and Karbasi’s findings might help reduce test processes in the product development phase of hearing aids.

The RUB researchers have tested their method with 849 individuals with normal hearing. To this end, the participants were asked to assess audio files via an online platform. With the aid of their algorithm, Kolossa and Karbasi estimated which percentage of a sentence from the respective file would be understood by the participants. Subsequently, they compared their predicted value with the test results.

Research outlook

In the next step, Kolossa and Karbasi intend to run the same tests with hearing-impaired participants. They are working on algorithms that can assess and optimise speech intelligibility in accordance with the individual perception threshold or type of hearing impairment. In the best case scenario, the study will thus provide methods for engineering an intelligent hearing aid. Such hearing aids could automatically recognise the wearer’s current surroundings and situation. If he or she steps from a quiet street into a restaurant, the hearing aid would register an increase in background noises. Accordingly, it would filter out the ambient noises — if possible without impairing the quality of the speech signal.

About the project

The main objective of the project “Improved Communication through Applied Hearing Research” was to optimise hearing aids and cochlear implants to ensure that they fulfil their function for their wearer even in very noisy surroundings. RUB researchers worked in an international team together with researchers from the UK, Switzerland, Denmark, and Belgium. Prof Dr Rainer Martin from the RUB Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology headed the EU-funded project. Industrial partners were hearing aid manufacturer Sivantos and cochlear implant company Cochlear. “I can hear” ended in December 2016.

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Aphasia may not solely be a language disorder, study shows

Aphasia, a language disorder commonly diagnosed in stroke patients, may not be solely a language issue as traditionally believed, according to a Penn State study.

The study adds to a growing body of research highlighting other cognitive functions affected by aphasia, and indicates that the consequences of brain damage in aphasia patients may be more extensive than originally thought.

“The findings are significant because they can influence how patients with aphasia are treated to ensure a more complete recovery,” said Chaleece Sandberg, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at Penn State and principal investigator of the study.

“Aphasia is considered to be strictly a language deficit, but as a field we are starting to embrace the notion that language is not distinct from other functions, and that it is really integrated with many other functions,” Sandberg said.

The findings appeared in the February edition of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Aphasia is a communication disorder caused by damage to parts of the brain that control language, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. The most common cause of aphasia is stroke. Patients diagnosed with aphasia can have difficulty speaking and understanding spoken words as well as difficulty reading and writing.

Sandberg’s study of adults with aphasia compared to same-age healthy adults indicates that issues may extend beyond language portions of the brain and therefore require additional intervention programs to ensure patients’ full recovery.

Specifically, Sandberg studied resting-state fMRI data, meaning subjects were awake, but not performing any task.

“Regions involved in hearing, vision, motor processing, attention and executive functions like organization and planning — even when at rest — are still all highly connected and talking to each other, forming distinct networks,” Sandberg said.

However, in brains at rest in people with aphasia, networks involved in hearing, motor processing, attention and executive functions were not as strongly connected as the same networks in the control group.

“The regions in these networks are not talking to each other as much as healthy adults of the same age, even in networks where brain damage didn’t occur. This suggests widespread problems beyond the specific site of damage, which may cause problems for communication in the whole system, not only in networks that have specific damage,” Sandberg said.

The study is one of the first pieces of neuroimaging evidence to support a broader approach to aphasia treatment.

“When we are looking at ways to help people with aphasia recover their language function, we really need to look at the whole brain system and think about aspects of cognition such as attention and memory and how they may be affecting recovery of language function.”

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Mathematicians predict delaying school start times won’t help sleep deprived teenagers

Delaying school start times in the UK is unlikely to reduce sleep deprivation in teenagers, research from the University of Surrey and Harvard Medical School has found. The research, conducted in collaboration between mathematicians and sleep scientists, predicts that turning down the lights in the evening would be much more effective at tackling sleep deprivation.

Teenagers like to sleep late and struggle to get up in time to go to school. The commonly accepted explanation for this is that adolescents’ biological brain clocks are delayed. It has been suggested that to remedy this, school start times should be delayed for older teenagers so that they are again in tune with their biological clock.

The study, which is published today in Scientific Reports, used a mathematical model that takes into account whether people are naturally more of a morning or evening person, the impact of natural and artificial light on the body clock and the typical time of an alarm clock, to predict the effects of delaying school start times.

The mathematical model showed that delaying school start times in the UK would not help reduce sleep deprivation. Just as when clocks go back in the autumn, most teenagers’ body clocks would drift even later in response to the later start time, and in a matter of weeks they would find it just as hard to get out of bed. The results did, however, lend some support to delaying school start in the US, where many schools start as early as 7am.

The mathematical explanation has its roots in the work of the 17th century Dutch mathematician Huygens. He saw that clocks can synchronise, but it depends on both the clocks and how they influence each other. From research over the last few decades we know that body clocks typically run a little slow, so they need to be regularly ‘corrected’ if they are to remain in sync with the 24-hour day. Historically, this correcting signal came from our interaction with the environmental light/dark ‘clock’.

The mathematical model shows that the problem for adolescents is that their light consumption behaviour interferes with the natural interaction with the environmental clock — getting up late in the morning results in adolescents keeping the lights on until later at night. Having the lights on late delays the biological clock, making it even harder to get up in the morning. The mathematics also suggests that the biological clocks of adolescents are particularly sensitive to the effects of light consumption.

The model suggests that an alternative remedy to moving school start times in the UK is exposure to bright light during the day, turning the lights down in the evening and off at night. For very early start times, as in some US regions, any benefit gained from delaying school start times could be lost unless it is coupled with strict limits on the amount of evening artificial light consumption.

Lead author Dr Anne Skeldon said: “The power of the mathematics is that we are able to use existing knowledge about how light interacts with the biological clock to make predictions about different interventions to help reduce ‘social jetlag’.

“It highlights that adolescents are not ‘programmed’ to wake up late and that by increasing exposure to bright light during the day, turning lights down in the evening and off at night should enable most to get up in time for work or school without too much effort and without changing school timetables.”

Co-author Dr Andrew Phillips said: “The most interesting part of this analysis for me was the counter-intuitive finding that the most extreme evening types are predicted to derive the least benefit from a delay in school start times, because they tend to use evening artificial light for a longer interval of time.

“For evening types, it is critical to keep evening light levels low to derive any of the potential benefits of a delay in morning alarm times, otherwise their bed time is very prone to shifting later. Understanding these individual differences, and how they are influenced by light consumption, is necessary to maximize the effects of any policy change.”

Co-author Prof Derk-Jan Dijk said: “Just as mathematical models are used to predict climate change, they can now be used to predict how changing our light environment will influence our biological rhythms.

“It shows that modern lifestyles make it hard for body clocks to stay on 24 hours, which shifts our rhythm of sleepiness and alertness to later times — meaning we are sleepy until late in the morning and remain alert until later in the evening.

“As a result, during the working week our alarm clocks go off before the body clock naturally wakes us up. We then get insufficient sleep during the week and compensate for it during the weekend. Such patterns of insufficient and irregular sleep have been associated with various health problems and have been termed ‘social jet lag’.”

The mathematical understanding of biological clocks suggests that adolescents are particularly sensitive to the effects of light consumption. However, the model can be applied to other age-groups as well. It can be used to design new interventions not only for sleepy teenagers but also for adults who suffer from delayed sleep phase disorders or people who are not synchronised to the 24-hour day at all.

The research draws attention to light, light consumption and darkness as important environmental and behavioural factors influencing health. This has implications for how we design the light environment at work and at home in our modern light-polluted societies.

 

Asian-American students have strong academic support

Despite having the strongest academic support from parents, teachers, and friends, second-generation Asian American adolescents benefit much less from these supports than others, finds a study by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

The findings, published in the Asian American Journal of Psychology, suggest that support may be experienced as pressure and that stereotyping Asian Americans as high achievers can be problematic.

“The tension produced from immigrant parents’ high expectations and their children’s efforts to fulfill these expectations might exacerbate the academic pressures experienced by second-generation Asian Americans,” said Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, assistant professor of international education at NYU Steinhardt and author of the study.

Support from parents, friends, and teachers is a vital resource for adolescents when they form their own academic expectations. High academic expectations and support from others are linked with students having higher expectations for themselves and other important academic outcomes, such as getting good grades or going to college.

However, academic social support and its benefits are not necessarily uniform across students of different racial and generational backgrounds. In the case of Asian American youth, scholars have described two theories that may shape the academic expectations of Asian Americans: the Immigrant Bargain and the Model Minority Stereotype. The Immigrant Bargain explains how immigrant children, who are aware of their parents’ sacrifices, feel obligated to be successful in order to justify the hardships experienced by their parents. The Model Minority Stereotype constructs Asian American identity around high academic achievement.

In this study, Cherng and his co-author, NYU Steinhardt doctoral student Jia-Lin Liu, sought to understand whether academic social support from parents, friends, and teachers actually helps Asian American students or compounds the pressure that the youth experience.

The researchers used data from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, a nationally representative dataset of 15,360 high school students. They looked at information reported by the students, students’ parents, and teachers during the students’ sophomore year, including whether parents and teachers expected students to go to college. This information was linked to academic expectations reported by students in their senior year of high school — specifically, whether they anticipated completing a college degree. The researchers also looked at demographics, such as race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and immigration status (first-generation, second-generation, and third-generation and beyond).

They found that academic social support was an important ingredient in the formation of college-going expectations and that second-generation Asian Americans had the strongest social support. However, the influence of parents, friends, and teachers was not uniform: second-generation Asian Americans benefited less — or sometimes not at all — from academic social support despite having parents and teachers with the highest expectations and friends who were the most academically oriented.

For example, second-generation Asian Americans who had the highest level of support actually had lower probabilities of going to college, at 74 percent, compared to their peers with lower levels of support, at 83 percent. In contrast, third-generation Whites who had the highest level of support had 3 percent higher probabilities of expecting to go to college than did their peers with less support.

In addition to second-generation Asian Americans, parents of all generations of Latino students, third-generation Black students, and second-generation White students had significantly higher academic expectations compared to parents of third-generation White students.

Teacher’s academic expectations also varied on students based on students’ backgrounds. Both first- and second-generation Asian Americans and White students had teachers with higher expectations compared to third-generation White students. Teachers had significantly lower expectations towards Latino and Black students from all generations.

“Although sometimes thought of as a ‘positive stereotype,’ the Model Minority Stereotype not only can place pressure on Asian American youth to excel, but does not fully reflect the history and achievement of Asian Americans,” Cherng said. “Teachers and policymakers who believe that all Asian Americans excel can overlook the educational needs of those who need assistance.”

Given the negative influence the Model Minority Stereotype can have on Asian American youth, the authors conclude that more efforts should be taken to recognize and address this issue. For example, teachers can facilitate productive dialogue about Asian American stereotypes with students and families.