In Today’s Science News, we learn about the impact mechanical tools have on our language skills, find out about an increase in storm activity in the North Atlantic and how social distancing measures in the spring of 2020 effectively curbed the pandemic in Germany.
Article Nr. 1: Using mechanical tools improves our language skills, study finds
SD-Date: 11th November, 2021
Et-Date: 4th December, 2021
ScienceDaily Summary: „Research has revealed a correlation between being particularly proficient in tool use and having good syntactic ability. A new study has now shown that both skills rely on the same neurological resources, which are located in the same brain region. Furthermore, motor training using a tool improves our ability to understand the syntax of complex sentences and — vice-versa — syntactic training improves our proficiency in using tools.“
A link between our use of tools and certain linguistic functions has been suggested by research, though brain imaging* didn’t provide any evidence of such links.
The reason for this suggestion of a possible link comes from our own history: during times of technological boom, our ancestors language increased as well. This led to the question whether specific tools, which involve complex movement, relies on the same mechanism as understanding complex linguistic functions such as syntax does.
*Brain imaging is a technique to directy or indirectly image the structure, function or pharmacology of the nervous system. There are two categories: structural imaging and functional imaging. It’s also known as Neuroimaging.
Method of Research
In collaboration with CNRS researcher Véronique Boulenger, the research team developed a series of experiments which relied on brain imaging techniques and behavioural measurements. Their study was conducted in two parts with different tests and a control group.
Various tasks were completed by the participants; linguistically, they performed syntax exercises in French, and for motoric skills they were given 30 cm-long pliers.
This allowed the scientists to identify specific and common tasks in the brain networks.
During these tests, the participants performed a syntatic comprehension task before and after 30 minutes of motor training with the pliers.
With this, the researchers showed that motor training with the tool leads to improved performance in syntactic comprehension exercises.
- Participants of the experiment did better with sentences that were considered to be more difficult
- Brain activations in common areas were observed when handling the tool and performing the syntax exercises – the spatial distribution was the same (the region where it occurred is called „basal ganglia„)
- It also works vice versa (i.e. training of language improved motor performance with the tool)
- These improvements didn’t show up in groups who only used their bare hands or had no training at all
Meaning in a Clinical Setting
The study conducted by the scientists is also beneficial for those who have lost some of their language skills, thus open a possibility to rehabilitate these patients:
„The scientists are now thinking about how to best apply these findings in the clinical setting.“We are currently devising protocols that could be put in place to support the rehabilitation and recovery of language skills of patients with relatively preserved motor faculties, such as young people with developmental language disorders. Beyond these innovative applications, these findings also give us an insight into how language has evolved throughout history. When our ancestors began to develop and use tools, this proficiency profoundly changed the brain and imposed cognitive demands that may have led to the emergence of certain functions such as syntax,“ concludes Brozzoli.„
Article 2: Climate modeling confirms historical records showing rise in hurricane activity
SD-Date: 2nd December, 2021
Et-Date: 4th December, 2021
ScienceDaily Summary: „Scientists have now used climate modeling, rather than storm records, to reconstruct the history of hurricanes and tropical cyclones around the world. The study finds that North Atlantic hurricanes have indeed increased in frequency over the last 150 years, similar to what historical records have shown.“
The reason for the new approach on studying storm patterns is connected with doubts of measurements taken that far back in time (1850s onwards). While nobody denies what the historical records show, the uncertainty comes from the amount of storms that may hadn’t been recorded due to the limited technology back then. As a consequence, this uncertainty has kept scientists from relying on storm records, and with it their patterns, for indications how climate influences storms.
Recently, a statistical approach was used to identify storms that were missing from the historical records. As it is elaborated in the article: „To do so, they consulted all the digitally reconstructed shipping routes in the Atlantic over the last 150 years and mapped these routes over modern-day hurricane tracks. They then estimated the chance that a ship would encounter or entirely miss a hurricane’s presence. This analysis found a significant number of early storms were likely missed in the historical record.“ They concluded that there was a chance that, over the last 150 years, storm activity did not change.
Kerry Emanuel, author of the study, pointed out that the hurricane paths in the 19th-century may have looked different from today’s. Moreover, the scientists who conducted the research may have missed shipping routes in their analysis that have not been yet digitized. He explains: „All we know is, if there had been a change (in storm activity), it would not have been detectable, using digitized ship records. So I thought, there’s an opportunity to do better, by not using historical data at all.“
Method of Research
Emanuel used dynamical downscaling (a technique developed by his group), a method already used for 15 years to study the climate’s effect on hurricanes. The technique first starts with a coarse worldwide climate simulation which is then embedded with a finer-resolution model that simulates features as small as hurricanes. These combined models are then given real-world measurements of atmospheric and ocean conditions. Lastly, Emanuel disperses the realistic simulation with hurricane „seeds“ and then runs the simulation to see which of these „seeds“ become full-grown storms.
A climate reanalysis was used for this study. It combines observations made in the past with climate simulations „to generate accurate reconstructions of past weather patterns and climate conditions“. In this instance, he only used observations collected from the surface due to the specific subset of climate reanalysis. In the article, he also explained why:
„We chose to use this approach to avoid any artificial trends brought about by the introduction of progressively different observations.“
He then ran the model on three different climate reanalyses over the past 150 years.
- There’s been an „unequivocal increase“ across all three models in North Atlantic Hurricane activity
- A hurricane drought occurred during a period in the 1970s and 1980s, also observable on historical records. Emanuel’s group proposes that it may have been due to sulfate aerosols, which were byproducts of fossil fuel combustion, which likely set off a cascade of climate effects that resulted in cooling which in turn suppressed hurricane formation
Overall, except for the hurricane drought, there has been an increase in storm activity according to the research of Emanuel and his group. However, he also says that the drought is easier explained than the long-term increase in activity since the 19th-century.
This mystery, as he calls it, bears the question how global warming might affect future Atlantic hurricanes.
(found independently why looking for an image of the dynamic downscaling technique, that’s why I include it now for those interested. It can also be found at the end of each ScienceDaily article, though)
Article 3: Social distancing measures in the spring of 2020 effectively curbed the COVID-19 pandemic in Germany, study finds
SD-Date: 28th September, 2021
Et-Date: 4th December, 2021
ScienceDaily Summary: „Early contact restrictions and school closures prevented over 80 per cent of COVID-19 infections and over 60 per cent of deaths in Germany within three weeks, a new study finds.“
The strict restrictions implemented in mid-March 2020 after the Conference of Federal State Prime Ministers (Ministerpräsidentenkonferenz), before testing was widely available and masks were mandatory, was still criticized in some parts despite a sharp drop in infections as claimed by the article. One argument was that people would change their behaviour even if the measures hadn’t been enacted.
Hence, the team of authors led by Junior Professor Dr Emanuel Hansen studied the impact the restrictions had on the infections and death toll in the early phase of the pandemic.
Method of Research
The research team used detailed figures from the Robert Koch Institute (founded in 1891, it is one of the oldest biomedical institutes in the world) and anonymized movement data from private mobile phone providers from the more than 400 German districts. Districts with late and early outbreaks were compared and the researchers then estimated how the behaviour of the citizens and the infection rate would have evolved in Germany if social distancing measures hadn’t been implemented.
Through this the causal effect of all measures thus corresponds to the difference between the inferred hypothetical development (no social distancing measures) and the actual development.
The findings are separated in two steps and a further analysis; first one being based on the mobile phone data, and the second on evidence of effective containment of the pandemic.
- Step 1
The people’s spatial movement was in fact reduced by the policies, 30% on average.
As it was intended.
- Step 2
Within the first three weeks, the contact restrictions already showed effectiveness.
More than 80% of Covid-19 infections were prevented (about 500,000).
More than 60% of Covid-19 deaths were prevented (about 5,400).
- Further Analysis
Said restrictions slowed the rate of infections in all population groups.
Only in the group of 60-year old was the containment rate somehwat weaker.
One plausible explanation: the closing of schoolds and childcare facilities had a stronger effect on children and their parents than on the generation of grandparents.
„With no other tools available in the early stages of the pandemic like vaccination or rapid testing, there was no viable alternative, Hansen added, despite the economic and social costs of closing schools and businesses.“
Note: the study focuses exclusively on the first Covid-19 wave in Germany. It does not allow for any conclusions on policies in later waves of the pandemic.