Say What?!

Although I grew up outside of Chicago, I’ve spent the last decade split between the East and West Coasts. Now, after 5 years in Los Angeles, my husband and I are settling into life as Michiganders. Aside from the longer days and lower cost of living, the biggest differences I’ve noticed are linguistic. People speak differently here, and for me it’s like coming home. After a decade away, I am back in a state where people drink pop instead of soda. And, at long last, I’ve returned to the land of the Northern City Vowel Shift.

Speech is constantly in flux, whether or not we are aware of it. Regional dialects diverge, giving us the drawls of the South and the dropped r’s of the Northeast. More recently, cities in a large swath of the northern Midwest are reinventing their vowels, especially the short vowels in ben, bin, and ban. From Syracuse to Minneapolis, Green Bay to Cleveland, these vowels have been changing among Caucasian native English speakers. The vowels are now pronounced with a different positioning of the tongue, in some cases dramatically altering the sound of the vowel. A wonderful NPR interview on the subject is available online in audio form and includes examples of these vowel changes.

I must have picked up the Northern City vowels growing up near Chicago. When I arrived in Boston for graduate school, friends poked fun at my subtle accent. They loved to hear me talk about my can-tact lenses. And I can’t blame them for teasing me. The dialect can sound pretty absurd, especially when pushed to the extreme. It was probably best parodied by George Wendt and the SNL cast in the long-running Super Fans sketch.

I have long been in love with the field of phonetics and phonology, or how we produce and perceive speech sounds. Creating and understanding speech are two truly impressive (and often underappreciated) feats. Each time we speak, we must move our tongues, lips, teeth and vocal folds in precise and dynamic ways to produce complex acoustical resonances. And whenever we listen, we must deconstruct the multifaceted spectral signatures of speech sounds to translate them into what we perceive as simple vowels, consonants, syllables. We do all of that without a single conscious thought – leaving our minds free to focus on the informational content of our conversations, be they about astrophysics or Tom and Katie’s breakup.

Experiences in the first couple years of life are critical for our phonetic and phonological development. Details of the local dialect are incorporated into our speech patterns early in life and can be hard to change later on. As a result, everyone’s speech is littered with telltale signs of their regional origins. My mother and aunt spent their early years in a region of Kansas where the vowels in pen and pin were pronounced the same. To this day, they neither say nor hear them as different. Imagine the trouble my mother had when she worked with both a Jenny and Ginny. I’ve noticed major differences between my husband’s dialect and my own as well. My husband, a native Angeleno, pronounces the word dew as dyoo, while I pronounce it as doo because in Chicago the vowels yoo and oo have merged.

These days I’m watching phonetic development from a front-row seat. My baby has been babbling for a while and I’ve watched as she practiced using her new little vocal tract. She would vocalize as she moved her tongue all around her open mouth and presumably learned how the sound changed with it. From shrieks to gasps to blowing raspberries, she tested the range of noises her vocal tract could create.  And as she hones in on the spoken sounds she hears, her babbling has become remarkably speech-like. The consonants and vowels are mixed up in haphazard combinations, but they are English consonants and vowels all right. Through months of experimentation, mimicry, and practice, she has learned where to put her tongue, how far to open her mouth, and how to shape her lips to create the sounds that are the building blocks of our language. And just as she was figuring it out, we went and moved her smack into a different dialect. She will have to muddle through and learn to speak all the same. And once that happens, it will be interesting to see where her sweet little vowels end up.

Leaving Los Angeles

There’s something odd about Los Angeles, something I’ve come to fully appreciate only now that I’m moving away. Time passes differently here. Of course, the human perception of time is always malleable and subjective. Time flies when you’re having fun while a watched pot never seems to boil. It often feels like the pace of time picks up as we grow older and more set in our work and home routines. We ask, How is it June already? And of 2012, no less?  Before living here, I knew that our perception of passing time changes from one minute to the next, one day to the next, and certainly one year to the next. But I didn’t know that it changes by area code.

I’ve spent the past five years in LA and the five years prior to that in Boston. While those five years in Boston felt like four years in my subjective perception of time, my five years in Los Angeles felt like nothing. I don’t mean that they passed quickly; I mean that they didn’t seem to elapse at all. In sunny Southern California, each day is nearly identical to the ones before and after. In West LA where I live it’s never too hot or too cold. It never snows and rarely rains. Trees are always green with foliage and some flower or another is always in bloom. Easter feels just Halloween feels just like Christmas. We have only cardboard decorations and the music pumped through speakers at the outdoor malls to tell one holiday from the next. That and the calendar. The changing dates on our datebooks, paychecks, and receipts are a constant if paltry reminder that time marches on.

The timelessness of life in LA can be deeply unnerving, most of all when one looks in the mirror. Although we don’t feel it, time is passing and taking its toll (as does the strong southern sun). Sometimes I wonder if the popularity of plastic surgery out here is more than a consequence of the movie industry. Perhaps people here go under the knife because of how the years can slip away, unnoticed and unmourned. They shouldn’t be older, yet clearly they are. Time passes with or without our knowledge and consent.

Right now my husband and I are in the midst of a big transition. Our belongings are already en route to Michigan, our new home. We are headed back to a land that has weather, for better or for worse. Although I’ll miss friends and family in LA, I’m looking forward to experiencing seasons and observing the passage of time. Each day will be part of a season with its own unique temperature and palette of colors. And my daughter will learn the holidays by how they feel – from the blaze of July Fourth to the biting cold of each New Years Day.

On Nano-Naps and Dreamscapes

New mothers must be collectors of broken sleep, eagerly taking a sliver here, a shard there – whatever they can get.

Now that my baby is four months old, she’s finally sleeping at night. Still, she wakes me every two hours to nurse. She is half asleep while she feeds and I am always nodding off. In the few seconds it takes for my sinking head or my nursing baby to summon me back, I’ll have a momentary dream. A micro-dream. A nano-nap. No more intricate dreams of forgetting to do my homework or going to prom in a maternity dress. These dreams are all business: snapshots of everyday life. Once it may be a view of my husband lifting the baby out of her crib. Another time, I glimpse a lump in bed beside me and realize it’s my baby buried in our blankets (a terrifying dream.) But usually I simply dream that she’s nursing. A dream of mere reality: no more, no less.

How do I even know that I’m dreaming? The details are off. And in these cases, the switch from dreaming to wakefulness can be particularly strange. Once the transition felt as seamless as a change of camera shots in a television show. One moment I was looking down at my nursing baby; the next, she was flipped (mirror-reversed) in my arms and her head was noticeably smaller! Never before have I had such an immediate comparison between the mind’s eye and the naked eye, nor realized how very similar they feel. And never before have I had such uninventive, literal dreams. It’s as if I can’t muster the energy to dream up anything better.

In the face of my lackluster dreaming, I am all the more fascinated by the rich dream life of my daughter. From the day she was born I’ve watched her smile, pout, and wince and heard her scream and giggle madly in her sleep. In fact, she smiled in her sleep months before she gave us her first waking smile. Physicians have observed rapid eye movements in fetuses, suggesting that babies dream in the womb. But what are they dreaming of? Is it limited to what they know: heartbeats and jostling and amniotic fluid? Or perhaps their dreams are wilder than our own, unconstrained by the realities of life on this earth. After all, the infant brain contains legions of unpruned synapses and far more neurons than that of an adult. Who’s to say what sort of fantasy it might come up with?

Whatever sort of dreams a newborn has, we don’t remember them as adults. By late infancy, we’ve already pruned enough synapses and experienced enough of the world to have a basic vocabulary for our dreams. An adult’s dream may create some odd combinations – eyeballs growing on trees or hats that unfurl into snakes – but the vocabulary, the unitary elements, are fixed. Eyeballs, trees, hats, snakes. Grow, unfurl. Our potential dreamscapes are wholly constrained by the details of our waking existence.

As my baby examines new places and things, I am reminded that she’s cobbling together her own vocabulary of the world. She will store away sensations, objects, creatures, actions, concepts, cultures, and myths. A knowledge that the sun shines from above and plants sprout from below. That rivers run and lakes loiter. That caterpillars turn into butterflies and never the other way around. For better or for worse, her future dreams will be shaped by the idiosyncrasies of our funny little world.

Divvying Up Baby

I recently bought my baby new pajamas with a decal that says, “50% Dad + 50% Mom = 100% Me!” I couldn’t resist an outfit that doubles as both math and biology lessons. But on further reflection, I’ve realized that this simple formula is wrong in more ways than one.

To begin with, my baby doesn’t look like she’s 50% Mom. At best, she looks about 10% Mom. I’ve written before about how our daughter would be a mixture of traits from European and Indian peoples, reflecting her mom and dad’s respective heritages. Yet she arrived looking like a wholly Indian baby. This is fine, of course. I think she’s absolutely perfect with her caramel skin and jet black eyes and hair. But it’s hard to keep a straight face when friends politely ask us who we think she resembles. And when I’m out with her in public I’m aware that I look like her nanny, if not someone who’s stolen a baby. She truly doesn’t look like she’s mine.

How else is the formula wrong? Genetically. Sure, our daughter’s nuclear genes are comprised of DNA sequences from both my husband and me. But she has another sort of DNA in her body, one that literally outweighs the conventional type. This DNA lives in her mitochondria, the bacteria-like structures that populate our every cell. Mitochondria are like tiny internal combustion engines, generating all of our energy through respiration and releasing heat that makes us warm-blooded animals. Although mitochondria don’t have many actual genes, they each carry several copies of those genes. Multiply that by the 10 million billion or so mitochondria in our bodies and you’ll find that we each contain more DNA by weight for mitochondria than humans. And these mitochondrial genes are inherited entirely from the mother.

Mitochondrial genes can’t claim credit for your eye color, jaw shape, or intrinsic disposition. Their reach is mostly limited to details of your metabolism and your susceptibility to certain diseases. But mitochondrial DNA is significant for another reason: scientists use it to trace human lineages across the globe. After all, they don’t get reshuffled in each generation as our nuclear genes are. Mitochondrial inheritance can be traced back hundreds of thousands of years, following the maternal lineage at every generation. Unlike the historian’s genealogy, which often follows surnames passed down from fathers, the scientist’s genealogy is a tree built of mothers alone.

So it is through our mothers that our heritages can be traced into the distant past. In every one of her cells, my baby carries a map leading back through me and my mother and her mother and beyond . . . unbroken all the way back to our earliest origins as modern humans. And since my baby is a girl, she can continue that line. So long as she has a daughter and she has a daughter and so on, I will remain a part of that ongoing chain.

My condolences to all you men out there. Same to all you women who only had sons. You’ve passed on your nuclear genes and your child may be the spitting image of you, but your mitochondrial chain has been broken and you will be left out of the biologist’s tree. Although my daughter looks classically Indian, her mitochondrial DNA reveal only her European lineage. Despite the hair, eyes, and skin she inherited from her daddy, my baby’s mitochondria are mine all mine. She and I are links in a traceable chain of human life while my husband is nowhere to be found.

That’s something I can remember the next time I’m mistaken for the nanny.

Dreaming of Me

My belly button has all but disappeared. In its place, an odd little pillow of skin lies flush with the rest of my stomach. A dark line – the linea nigra – now runs down the length of my abdomen, dividing me in two. My appendix and intestines, previously at home in my abdominal cavity, have been pushed up and to the sides so that they now form mysterious bulges just below my ribs. Stranger still, I find myself in possession of someone else’s breasts. And then there’s the most noticeable change: the beach ball sized stomach that wholly eclipses my view of my feet.

Of course these changes didn’t come on all at once. I’ve had many months to notice and adjust to them. Still, they’ve happened more rapidly than any other physical changes I’ve experienced in my life. Faster than an adolescent growth spurt, certainly, or any weight gain or loss. My brain has had trouble keeping up. I bump into things with my belly, forgetting its size. I struggle to maintain my balance as my vestibular system tries to adjust to my changing weight distribution. But the lag that has fascinated me most is how I envision myself in my dreams.

Even months into my pregnancy, after my stomach had visibly ballooned, the self I inhabited while dreaming remained as lean as ever. Although thoughts of my pregnancy filled my waking hours, at night I wasn’t the least bit pregnant. In fact, I often dreamt of myself as a high schooler again, wandering the halls without a class schedule or scrambling to find a bus that would deliver me there on time. Why high school? I don’t put much stock in the elaborate interpretation of dream symbols, but I imagine that my dreams of being a lost high school student reflect my waking awareness that parenthood is at my doorstep and I am unprepared. In the face of such a dramatic life change, I can’t help but feel that I’ve lost my lunchbox or forgotten a homework assignment somewhere.

Then, a month or so ago, my dreams began to change. Or rather my dream self changed. My new self often had a swollen midsection and wore maternity clothes (or in one case, a maternity prom dress). She couldn’t drink alcohol and got worn out just walking from the car. The dreams weren’t usually about my pregnancy; my enormous belly was simply present, just like my arm, hands, and feet. Something about my self-image, my internal body schema, had updated. A switch had been flipped and my mind was caught up with my changing body.

I began to wonder about these internal self-schemas that reveal themselves in our dreams. Do other pregnant women experience the same switch and a similar lag? And how long does it take for them to switch back after they’ve delivered their babies? What about other changes to one’s appearance, like growing or shaving off a beard? Or, in a more dramatic example, what happens when someone loses a limb?

I haven’t found much written on baby bumps and beards, but several people have studied whether amputees dream of themselves with intact or amputated bodies. The answer, in short, is it depends. One study found that a majority of surveyed amputees dreamt of themselves with amputated bodies at least some of the time. Among them, 77% made the switch within the first 6 months following their amputations. But the study also showed that a surprising percentage of the surveyed amputees (31%) dreamt exclusively of themselves with intact bodies, even a decade or more after their amputations. Preliminary findings suggest that those who undergo the amputation at a later age, those who regularly use a prosthetic limb, and those who experience phantom sensations from the missing limb may all be more likely to dream with their bodies intact.

It should come as no surprise that the results of the studies are complicated and variable. We can’t expect anything as complex as dreams and internal self-representations to be wholly consistent from person to person or from one dream to another. In my case, I may be pregnant in one dream but not in the next. At times I even dream I’m someone other than myself. Wading into dreams can be a messy business, certainly, but my curiosity is piqued and I’m eager for more data. To all those pregnant or post-pregnant ladies, beard growers, or head shavers out there: please comment and share your experiences! How long did it take for your dream self to catch up with the real thing?

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Photo credit: Sabin Dang

The Demise of the Expert

These days, I find myself turning off the news while thinking the same question. When did we stop valuing knowledge and expertise? When did impressive academic credentials become a political liability? When did the medical advice of celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Ricki Lake become more trusted than those of government safety panels, scientists, and physicians? When did running a small business or being a soccer mom qualify a person to hold the office of president and make economic and foreign policy decisions?

As Rick Perry, the Republican front-runner for president recently told us, “You don’t have to have a PhD in economics from Harvard to really understand how to get America back working again.” Really? Why not? It certainly seems to me that some formal training would help. And yet many in Congress pooh-poohed economists’ warnings about the importance of raising the debt ceiling and have insisted on decreasing regulations despite the evidence that this won’t help to improve our economy (and will further harm our environment.) Meanwhile, man-made climate change is already affecting our planet. Natural disasters such as droughts and hurricanes are on the rise, just as scientists predicted. But we were slow to accept their warnings and have been slow to enact any meaningful policies to stem the course of this calamity.

The devaluation of expertise is puzzling enough, but perhaps more puzzling still is the timing. Never before in human history have we witnessed the fruits of expertise as we do today. Thanks to scientists and engineers, we rely on cell phones that wirelessly connect us to the very person we want to talk to at the moment we want to talk. In turn, these cell phones operate through satellites that nameless experts have set spinning in precise orbits around Earth. We keep in touch with friends, do our banking and bill-paying, and make major purchases using software written in codes we don’t understand and transmitted over a network whose very essence we struggle to comprehend. (I mean, what exactly is the Internet?) Meanwhile, physicians use lasers to excise tumors and correct poor vision. They replace damaged livers and hearts. They fit amputees with hi-tech artificial limbs, some with feet that flex and hands that grasp.

Obviously none of this would have been possible without experts. You need more than high school math and a casual grasp of physics or anatomy to develop these complex systems, tools, and techniques. So why on Earth would we discount experts now, when we have more proof than ever of their worth?

My only guess is education. Our national public education system is in shambles. American children rank 25th globally in math and 21st in science. At least two-thirds of American students cannot read at grade level. But there is something our student score high on. As the documentary Waiting for Superman highlighted, American students rank number one in confidence. This may stem from the can-do culture of the United States or from the success our nation has enjoyed over the last 65 years. But it makes for a dangerous combination. We are churning out students with inadequate knowledge and skills, but who believe they can intuit and accomplish anything. And if you believe that, then why not believe you know better than the experts?

I think the only remedy for this situation is better education, but not for the reasons you might think. In my opinion, the more a person learns about any given academic subject, the more realistic and targeted his or her self-confidence becomes.

The analogy that comes to mind is of a blind man trying to climb a tree. When he’s still at the base of the tree, all he can feel is the trunk. From there, he has little sense of the size or shape of the rest of the tree.  But suppose he climbs up on a limb and then out to even smaller branches. He still won’t know the shape of the rest of the tree, but from his perch on one branch, he can feel the extensive foliage. He’ll know that the tree must be large and he can presume that the other branches are equally long and intricate. He can appreciate how very much there must be of the tree that’s beyond his reach.

I think the same principle applies to knowledge. The more we know, the more we can appreciate how much else there is out there to know – things about which we haven’t got a clue. As we climb out on our tiny branches, acquiring knowledge, we also gain an awareness of our profound ignorance. Unfortunately, many of America’s children (and by now, adults too) aren’t climbing the tree at all; they’re still lounging at the base, enjoying a picnic in the shade.

Should it surprise us, then, to learn that they don’t see the value in expertise? That they can support political candidates who disparage the advice of specialists and depict academic achievement as a form of elitism? Why shouldn’t they trust the advice of a neighbor, a talk show host, or an actor over the warnings of the ‘educated elite’?

No single person can know everything there is to know in today’s world, so the sum of human knowledge must be dispersed among millions of specialized experts. Human progress relies on these people, dangling from their obscure little branches, to help guide our technology, our public policy, our research and governance. Our world has no shortage of experts. Now if only people would start listening to them.

Full of Mind

8746021327_7ac16de746_bThere’s that term again. Mindfulness. It seems to pop up everywhere these days, like the phrase “Don’t have a cow” did in the early 90’s. Like the concept of free love in the 60’s, or isolationism of the 30’s, mindfulness is all the rage in this new millennium.

I’ve come across the concept through family and friends, readings, and now relaxation techniques for labor. Advocates say you can use it to relieve stress, improve physical health, and manage depression and anxiety disorders.

Focus on your breath, they tell you. Become aware of the sensations in your body. Clear your mind of other thoughts and just be in the present moment.

This is, of course, far easier said than done. Now more than ever, with cell phones going off and email, Facebook, and television all clamoring for our attention, we are accustomed to constant entertainment. Even in the few spare moments while we wait for a friend or stand in line at the store, our smart phones feed us a steady stream of news updates, comedic videos, and celebrity gossip. With such entertainment at our very fingertips, it seems impossible to simply focus on our breaths. We would just get so bored.

The problem is that, while distracting ourselves might ward off boredom, it doesn’t seem to make us very happy. Consider a research article published in Science last year with the catchy title ‘A Wandering Mind in an Unhappy Mind.’ The authors used an app that contacted subjects on their iPhones at random times during the day and asked them to record what they were doing at that very moment and rate how they were feeling, from very bad to very good. Finally, it asked them whether they were thinking about something other than what they were currently doing (i.e., not being mindful) and if so, whether that thought was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.

What did the authors find? About half of the time, subjects reported that they were thinking about something other than their current activity. The study showed that subjects were less happy when their minds wandered to neutral or negative thoughts than when they were being mindful about the present moment. Even when their minds wandered to positive thoughts, they were no happier than when their thoughts were engaged in the current activity. In short, being ‘mindless’ doesn’t make you feel better, and it can potentially make you feel a whole lot worse.

Another example comes from the remarkable personal experience of a neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor, who suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke that damaged much of her left hemisphere. In her memoir, My Stoke of Insight, she describes the extraordinary changes she underwent as the stroke ravaged her left hemisphere. She lost the capacity to produce or understand speech and could not walk. But perhaps the most striking detail in her description was the mindfulness she experienced as a result of her brain trauma.

As she writes, “I stopped thinking in language and shifted to taking new pictures of what was going on in the present moment. I was not capable of deliberating about past or future-related ideas because those cells were incapacitated. All I could perceive was right here, right now, and it was beautiful.”

Her experience of perfect mindfulness in the present moment brought her a profound sense of peace and oneness with the rest of the universe. Many who regularly use mindfulness techniques say they experience those same feelings as a benefit of their practice.

Over the course of several years, Dr. Bolte Taylor underwent a miraculous neurological recovery that returned her brain functions. But with all of those gains, she lost something as well. As she puts it, “Now that my left mind’s language centers and storyteller are back to functioning normally, I find my mind not only spins a wild tale but has a tendency to hook into negative patterns of thought.” She now uses mindfulness techniques like focusing on the sensations in her body to bring herself back when her mind is wandering to negativity.

By now, I’m sold on the benefits of mindfulness meditation. I’ve listened to meditation tapes, taken mindfulness classes, and even done a daylong retreat. Yet I still can’t coax myself to sit down and practice it regularly. There are just so many other things to do, and even household chores sound more fun (or at least less boring) than just breathing for a half an hour.

Now, more than six months into my pregnancy, my thoughts are turning to my impending labor. I’ve looked for tools to handle the pain and fear that may come with it. Today, Lamaze is out and meditation is in. From medical doctors to so-called hypnobirthing classes, everyone is recommending mindfulness meditation techniques for relaxation during labor. So I’ll give just being another try because this time it seems that the New Agers are actually on to something.

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Photo credit: Darla Hueske

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