Author Archives: Jamie Maaskant

Talking about talking

During everyday life, its easy to take language for granted. You go about your day able to almost seamlessly communicate with others. However, when you’re in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, it’s impossible not to notice. Language becomes a thing you think about every day, trying to pick up words and hoping you’re pronouncing the words correctly. When we were talking about animal language in class, it made me wonder why do we have such an advanced way of communicating with each other. We had learned about various ways that animals communicate in some of my previous classes, however, humans have always found a difference in our language that we believe makes it unique. So, what is it that allows us to have the ability to create complex languages?

Picture of me on the phone. Picture credits: Genevieve Wilson

Lai et al. (2001) found that the Foxp2 gene plays a large role in our ability to speak by studying the DNA of people who had a language disorder. According to Schreiweis et al. (2019), the gene is found in throughout many species of animals, however, humans have a slightly different version of it. In order to study the effects of the difference, they altered the gene in mice to resemble the human version and compared them to mice with the normal mouse gene. They found that the human version of the gene caused more neurons to express Foxp2 than the normal mouse version did in areas where there was a lot of expression. However, they also found that in areas of the brain without a lot of Foxp2 expression, the human version caused even less expression than the normal mouse gene did.

Castellucci et al. (2016) also studied the effects of Foxp2 in mice, however, they studied the effects of getting rid of the gene instead. Because mice who don’t have the gene at all end up dying as juveniles, they studied mice with only one copy of the gene and its impacts on mating calls. They found that the mice with only one copy of Foxp2 didn’t produce sounds longer than 75 ms while the mice with both copies did. They also found that the mice with only one copy of the gene produced more consistent sounds than the mice with both copies.

All of this was super interesting, but mice are a little different from people. So, what is it that Foxp2 does in people? For obvious reasons, there haven’t been experiments with Foxp2 in humans but there have been more studies done on the family that Lai et al (2001) studied. For example, Schulze et al. (2018) used this family to study Foxp2’s effects on working memory, or the memory of what just happened. They first gave both the family members with the mutation and controls with the normal gene an IQ test. They then did various memory tests such as giving them a sentence, asking them to say if it was true or false, then asking them to repeat the last word. They found that the people with the altered Foxp2 gene did worse on the tasks than the control participants did. This could indicate that language is important in our working memory or that the Foxp2 gene also plays a role in working memory. Emmorey et al. (2017) also looked at the association between working memory and language, but without looking at the Foxp2 gene. They studied 3 groups of people: monolingual English speakers, deaf American Sign Language speakers, and people who spoke both languages. They had the participants perform various tasks such as being shown a simple picture, for example a letter, and having to remember which direction it was facing. They found that the way that you speak does have an impact on how you remember things, but most of their results seemed to apply to how you remember language.

The idea that language could impact memory was fascinating, but human experiments can’t prove a cause. Schreiweis et al. (2014) did an experiment in mice where they compared mice with the human version of Foxp2 with the wildtype mice. They trained the two groups of mice to a maze and found the human version of the gene did impact the mice’s learning. However, they said that the reason for the change still wasn’t known. Language obviously plays a large role in human cultures; however, it seems like there is still a lot that is unclear about how we are able to talk. It’s crazy how much one gene can impact our ability to communicate with one another. However, I think for now I would settle for learning some other languages instead of understanding language itself.




Works Cited

Castellucci, G. A., Mcginley, M. J., & Mccormick, D. A. (2016). Knockout of Foxp2 disrupts vocal development in mice. Scientific Reports, 6(1), 1-12. doi:10.1038/srep23305

Emmorey, K., Giezen, M. R., Petrich, J., Spurgeon, E., & O’Grady Farnady, L. (2017). The relation between working memory and language comprehension in signers and speakers. Acta psychologica, 177, 69–77. doi:10.1016/j.actpsy.2017.04.014

Lai, C. S., Fisher, S. E., Hurst, J. A., Vargha-Khadem, F., & Monaco, A. P. (2001). A forkhead-domain gene is mutated in a severe speech and language disorder. Nature, 413, 519-523. doi:

Schreiweis, C., Bornschein, U., Burguière, E., Kerimoglu, C., Schreiter, S., Dannemann, M., … Graybiel, A. M. (2014). Humanized Foxp2 accelerates learning by enhancing transitions from declarative to procedural performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(39), 14253–14258. doi:10.1073/pnas.1414542111

Schreiweis, C., Irinopoulou, T., Vieth, B., Laddada, L., Oury, F., Burguiere, E., . . . Groszer, M. (2019). Mice carrying a humanized Foxp2 knock-in allele show region-specific shifts of striatal Foxp2 expression levels. Cortex. doi:10.1101/514893

Schulze, K., Vargha-Khadem, F., & Mishkin, M. (2018). Phonological working memory and FOXP2. Neuropsychologia, 108, 147–152. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.11.027



Me on the phone. [Personal photograph taken in Paris apartment]. (2019, June 28).

Taken by Genevieve Wilson

Breathing Easy?

Walking around the streets of Paris, I quickly noticed the amount of people smoking and cars on the road. In the USA, smoking cigarettes has become pretty uncommon and passing someone smoking is a relatively rare nuisance. However, in Paris smoking is common and you pass multiple people smoking whenever you walk around. Knowing the effects of secondhand smoke and combining that with the traffic here, it made me wonder what effects air quality can have on the brain. As soon as I started searching for articles on the topic, it became concerning how much easier it was to find articles than it was for my past two blog posts.  Even more concerning, was an article by Grineski and Collins (2018) on the effects of air pollution in schools in the United States that found that minority children were more at risk for exposure to polluted air. According to the article, this can cause a child to not do as well in school as their unexposed peers, so what causes this change?

Image I took at the Musee d’Orsay that shows off Parisian traffic.

One article that they had cited that I thought was particularly interesting and relevant was by Calderón-Garcidueñas et al. (2008), they performed autopsies on forty-seven healthy people who had died, mostly of accidents, from either Mexico city, which has extremely high amounts of air pollution or two control cities with very little pollution. They found that air pollution increased the amounts of a peptide associated with Alzheimer’s disease in the brain, even in children. Another study by Rivas et al. (2019) found that air pollution can negatively impact working memory, or the ability to remember and think about things that have just happened in males. They also found that this isn’t isolated to a few individuals and can impact the entire area. However, they found no impact on the working memory of females.

These studies made me wonder why you rarely hear anything about the dangers of air pollution in the USA, so I looked up a map.

Image from:

This map shows that the United States tends to have pretty good air quality when compared to the rest of the world. Atlanta seems like it might have a yellow dot by it however, it’s hard to tell without labels and borders. However, all of France is yellow and it appears that it might have an orange dot around Paris. This means that even when I was enjoying what seemed like “cleaner” air on the Provence trip, it was still more polluted than if I were to get out of Atlanta and go to another part of Georgia.

While I’ve enjoyed Paris, this has made me wonder why the air pollution wouldn’t be something that is talked about more? Before coming here, people warned me about the pickpockets and toilets, but no one warned me that I would pass so many people smoking every day or that the traffic could get so much worse than Atlanta traffic especially with a good well-connected public transport system. Learning about this makes me wonder if there is more that could be done to educate people on the negative impacts that air pollution can have. I feel like we only ever hear about its impacts on the lungs or maybe the throat but, with the exception of the scientists doing this research, no one seems to mention that it can even have huge impacts on the brain.



Works Cited

Calderón-Garcidueñas, L., Solt, A. C., Henríquez-Roldán, C., Torres-Jardón, R., Nuse, B., Herritt, L., … Reed, W. (2008). Long-term Air Pollution Exposure Is Associated with Neuroinflammation, an Altered Innate Immune Response, Disruption of the Blood-Brain Barrier, Ultrafine Particulate Deposition, and Accumulation of Amyloid β-42 and α-Synuclein in Children and Young Adults. Toxicologic Pathology, 36(2), 289–310.

Grineski, S. E., & Collins, T. W. (2018). Geographic and social disparities in exposure to air neurotoxicants at U.S. public schools. Environmental research, 161, 580–587. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2017.11.047

Rivas, I., Basagaña, X., Cirach, M., López-Vicente, M., Suades-González, E., Garcia-Esteban, R., . . . Sunyer, J. (2019). Association between Early Life Exposure to Air Pollution and Working Memory and Attention. Environmental Health Perspectives, 127(5), 057002. doi:10.1289/EHP3169



Amyloid beta. (2019, June 02). Retrieved June 17, 2019, from

Do we see as well as we think we see?

Picture of the sky over Pont du Gard

On the first day of Arts on the Brain, we were told to write freely about the prompt “What color is the sky?” I immediately remembered a podcast about a man, Guy Deutscher, who asked his daughter every day what color the sky is, and she didn’t answer blue. The podcast by Jad Abumrad and Jim Gleick starts off by talking about Homer and his lack of the word blue in his texts. It then goes onto talking about other old texts that don’t mention blue. It then goes into talking about the order that colors enter languages and says that blue is always the last one and that the theory was that it had to do with having the ability to make the color. They then talked about another person who brought a test to a group of people without the word for blue and that they had trouble identifying the blue box from green boxes. This seemed like proof that language impacts perception. They then got to Deutscher’s experiment with his daughter. They made sure that no one told her the sky was blue but made sure she did know the color blue. At first, she refused to answer the question about what color it was until one day she answered white and eventually she said blue. This seemed to answer why languages wouldn’t find it incredibly important to add a word for the color blue.

This made me wonder, how much does language impact perception? Do French people experience the world differently than I do? So many people speak more than one language here, unlike in America, and would that impact your perception as well?

Photo from

Broca’s and Wernike’s areas, outlined above, are two of the major regions associated with speech. The visual cortex at the back of the brain is where the majority of visual processing happens. At first, it appears that the visual cortex is so far away from the rest of the sensory processing and anything involving language. However, everything in the brain travels through multiple areas in the brain. Here is the path that light takes after entering the eye:

Photo from

Once the sight has been processed by the visual cortex, it then projects out to other regions of the brain.

Photo from

Language and speech also move around to different regions like in the picture below.

Photo from

With all of this and other information moving through the brain, it doesn’t seem super farfetched to me that language could impact our perception. Bhatara et al. (2015) showed that learning a second language would impact rhythm perception in native French speakers. Work by Ardila et al. (2015) shows that one region of the brain has to do with both recognition and adding a word to what you see. They also showed that this region connects with regions that play roles in thinking, categorization, and memory.

More recent research by He et al. (2019) compared color perception between Mongolian and Mandarin speakers. According to the study, both languages only have one word for light versus dark green. However, Mongolian divides light and dark blue into two different words while Mandarin only has one word for light and dark blue. They showed the subjects greens and blues and asked them to divide them into one of the 2 or 3 categories. They were then asked to sort the colors so that similar ones were together. The Mongolian speakers grouped the colors more closely together than the Mandarin speakers did. They also did an experiment where they timed how long it took the participants to find which color was different than the rest and found differences between the two groups. These experiments further show that language does have an impact on how we perceive color.

It would be interesting to find out if language or culture plays more of an impact on color perception. However, because the two heavily influence each other and are nearly impossible to completely separate, it would be impossible to know which plays a larger role. I would also be interested to know if language’s impact on color perception means that I would see artwork differently than a native speaker of a different language. Did all of the artists that we’re learning about in Arts on the Brain see their paintings differently than I do?  Would a bilingual person categorize colors according to their first language or the language they speak with the most color terms? Would common terms like light blue vs dark blue play a role or would they both be considered blue? I think the impact that language can have on perception is fascinating and will definitely keep it in mind the next time I’m looking at paintings in a museum.

Works Cited

Ardila, A., Bernal, B., & Rosselli, M. (2015). Language and visual perception associations: meta-analytic connectivity modeling of Brodmann area 37. Behavioural neurology, 2015, 565871. doi:10.1155/2015/565871

Bhatara, A., Yeung, H. H., & Nazzi, T. (2015). Foreign language learning in French speakers is associated with rhythm perception, but not with melody perception. [Abstract]. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41(2), 277-282. doi:10.1037/a0038736

He, H., Li, J., Xiao, Q., Jiang, S., Yang, Y., & Zhi, S. (2019). Language and Color Perception: Evidence From Mongolian and Chinese Speakers. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 551. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00551

Radiolab – Why Isn’t the Sky Blue? [Jules Davidoff and Guy Deutscher] [Audio blog review]. (2018, January 2). Retrieved June 9, 2019, from






What to do when everything is moving

One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Paris is the amount of traffic and the prevalence of people who use the Metro to get around. Even though I’ve lived in Atlanta my whole life, I think I had been on MARTA once when it was full to standing room only, and that was only because two big events ended around the same time. However, every morning on my commute to class in Paris it seems like we are fighting to be able to get a spot on the train. Another major difference that I’ve noticed between these train systems is that the Metro trains tend to have more turns in the tracks, which never fails to make a large group of the people standing momentarily lose their balance.  Here are the maps so that you can compare the two.

Image from the French Metro map website

Image from Marta guide website

Whenever the train goes around a bumpy turn, you always see people taking a step or people who weren’t previously holding onto anything reach out to the nearest pole. Considering the number of ways the train can throw you off balance, it’s almost surprising that people never fall over. This made me wonder, why is it that we are able to balance so easily even when the ground beneath us is moving?

According to Chiba et al. (2016), your body uses information like vision, the location of your body and limbs, touch, and the position of your head to maintain its balance. Together, these all allow the central nervous system to help control your posture and if one of the inputs becomes less reliable, then the body compensates for it by paying more attention to the other inputs. According to Takakusaki (2017), these inputs all enter the brain where they are processed in various regions. These signals can then follow either automatic or cognitive pathways in order to then exit the brain through the spinal cord so that the signal can be delivered to the body. The automatic pathway, which controls balance, is much more direct which allows you to respond faster.

Coelho et al (2016)’s study added an extra layer to understanding balance by giving people an extra task while testing their balance. They tested balance while an individual was holding a tray with a cylinder either standing on the flat side or lying on the round side balancing on it. This reminded me of when I’m on the metro trying to hold onto my bag, phone, wallet, etc. Because of the risk of pickpocketing, I try to keep everything in front of me and I keep my wallet and phone in my hand rather than putting my phone in my pocket or letting my wallet hang off my wrist. I see others on the Metro holding items in their hands all of the time as well. While the cylinder on a tray is definitely more complicated to keep balanced than a phone or bag, I felt like this extra aspect would help to see what is going on when people are staying steady on the Metro.

They placed a harness around the participants’ stomachs which applied a constant pressure pulling them backward. They then asked them to count down from a random number by threes while they were holding the tray. They then released the harness causing them to move forward. This would cause them to have to readjust so that they wouldn’t drop the cylinder. They also tested the participants using the same procedure except without making them count down.

Both counting down and the direction the cylinder was placed in affected how fast the tray moved, how fast their upper body moved, and how much their upper body moved. Additionally, counting down but not the direction of the cylinder affected how much their center of mass moved. These results show that when the cylinder was in a more unstable position, they were able to adjust so that it moves less. They also showed that having the cognitive task seemed to make them move more.

I found these results interesting because it means that having something unstable seems to make you balance more. This seemed a little counter-intuitive to me at first, but it makes sense that the amount of attention you are spending on balancing could impact how well you balance. This is evident in how the cognitive task appeared to make balance worse. I think it would be interesting to see if the people who are hold ing objects in their hands or the ones that are zoning out are the ones that stumble more on the Metro. I also think it would be interesting to see if repetition affects balance. For example, if the people who rode the metro everyday stumbled less on the turns than visitors from cities that don’t rely as heavily on a train system or if the harness being released would cause the participants to be better prepared for it.
Works Cited


Chiba, R., Takakusaki, K., Ota, J., Yozu, A., & Haga, N. (2016). Human upright posture control models based on multisensory inputs; in fast and slow dynamics. Neuroscience Research, 104, 96-104. doi:10.1016/j.neures.2015.12.002


Coelho, D. B., Bourlinova, C., & Teixeira, L. A. (2016). Higher order balance control: Distinct effects between cognitive task and manual steadiness constraint on automatic postural responses. Human Movement Science, 50, 62-72. doi:10.1016/j.humov.2016.10.008

Takakusaki K. (2017). Functional Neuroanatomy for Posture and Gait Control. Journal of movement disorders, 10(1), 1–17. doi:10.14802/jmd.16062