Why Humans Have the Unique Ability to Learn New Words


Scientists have found a pathway in our brains that is responsible for the acquisition of new words, an ability unmatched by any other species; chimps coming in second place with a limit of no more than a hundred words. This could be exciting news for those who are polyglots or who are learning a new language for either travel, school, or the workplace.

The common notion is that we learn new words through hearing them first and then spitting them back out, in other words, input and output, or recognition and recall. Very little is known about what happens inside the brain itself within the intricate neural mechanisms.


Researchers from King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry have been able to draw out the pathways in the brain which are activated when learning new words. What the researchers found was that a collection of nerve fibers called the arcuate fasciculus connect the auditory and motor regions and is responsible for our ability to articulate new words. Depending on how this region is developed, everybody’s ability to acquire new words and languages will vary.

Related Article: Neocortex: How Human Memory Works and How We Learn

The researchers have also concluded that this pathway does not exist in other species, and that it is unique to humans. Yes, chimps can learn new words, however, their vocabulary is limited to double digits on average. Also, consider how many species you know that are bilingual or trilingual? We are pretty awesome if you take that into consideration. This newfound research could have implications on how new words are taught in language courses across schools and how quickly we can discover language disorders in individuals.

Related Article: Rosetta Stone’s Possible False Claim

The study was composed of twenty-seven volunteers. The individuals’ brain structures were imaged before a word learning task and MRI was used to detect regions of the brain that were most active.

They found a strong relationship between the ability to remember words and the structure of arcuate fasciculus, which connects two brain areas: the territory of Wernicke, related to auditory language decoding, and Broca’s area, which coordinates the movements associated with speech and the language processing.

Participants who had higher success in learning new words had one thing in common: their arcuate fasciculus was more myelinated, which basically means that electrical signals moved more quickly back and forth than they did in other participants. You can think of it as a faster data transfer rate like (or unlike, depending on your provider) your internet.

All this means is that in order for our kids to learn new words and to continue to acquire new language skills, it is important that we speak to them orally rather than through text messages and Skype, unless you’re voice chatting that is.





A How To: Behavior Changes and Breaking Habits





Stanford University and their Persuasive Tech Lab have released a list of the top 10 mistakes in changing behavior. Great, now I know what I’m doing wrong. What I want to know next is more about what I can do instead of continuing to make the same mistakes.

So let’s take a look at the mistakes and some alternative solutions.

Mistakes in Behavior Change

1. Relying on willpower for long-term change (Imagine willpower doesn’t exist. That’s step 1 to a better future.)
2. Attempting big leaps instead of baby steps (Seek tiny success– one after another.)
3. Ignoring how environment shapes behaviors (Change your context & you change your life.)
4. Trying to stop old behaviors instead of creating new ones (Focus on action, not avoidance.)
5. Blaming failures on lack of motivation (Solution: Make the behavior easier to do.)
6. Underestimating the power of triggers (No behavior happens without a trigger. )
7. Believing that information leads to action (We humans aren’t so rational.)
8. Focusing on abstract goals more than concrete behaviors (Abstract: Get in shape. Concrete: Walk 15 min. today)
9. Seeking to change a behavior forever, not for a short time. (A fixed period works better than “forever”)
10. Assuming that behavior change is difficult. (Behavior change is not so hard when you have the right process.)

In my research for this I found some really interesting behavioral theories and behavior research. So, here’s the list of what I have found most effective and links to original sources so you can continue the investigation and find what works best for you.

Ways to Change Your Behavior

Take Baby Steps

Stanford University’s BJ Fogg works on behavior theory and founded the Persuasive Technology Lab to help him further his research into technology that can change behaviors for the better. Fogg has a program that he personally directs to help change behaviors. It’s free, and he runs a session every week. If you’re interested in joining a session head over to tiny habits. Fogg’s model for behavior change has three factors that affect behavior: motivation, ability, and triggers. The idea of the theory is basically to make target behaviors with high motivation easier to do. Set triggers to encourage positive behaviors and start with small habits.

You can train people, giving them more skills, more ability to do the target behavior. That’s the hard path. Don’t take this route unless you really must. Training people is hard work, and most people resist learning new things. That’s just how we are as humans: lazy.The better path is to make the target behavior easier to do.

So why are tiny habits and baby steps important? Big change is difficult, but small change is doable. Incremental changes have a history of working for groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and addiction recovery programs. Stanford’s Mobile Health recognizes that big changes often fail and organized an event in 2012 entirely dedicated to the idea of baby steps. Remember, if you want to change a habit, any change in that direction is better than no change at all. If you want to be a runner, no matter how slow you are when you start, you’re still running laps around the person on the couch. So start small, and as you continue, change will become easier and you can add to your goals. Self-regulation is a limited resource. If you regulate too much you quickly run out of endurance and become passive.

Don’t Multi-task

Research from the University of Utah proves that most of us are not very good at multi-tasking. We try so hard, but it doesn’t ever seem to work out in our favor. In the Harvard Business Review’s article Multitasking’s Real Victim, they note:

For the modern professional, multitasking is an immutable part of daily life. Yet 97% of us are hopeless at it.”

The article focuses on how the real victim of multitasking isn’t the individual doing it, but the others around them who suffer from that individual’s lack of productivity. They detail a list of activities that others can do to help multitasking obsessed individuals with their bad habit. Since multitasking isn’t effective, the most logical thing to do is focus your tasking on one activity. In The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time, Tony Schwartz states that focusing on one activity at a time and then taking a real break increases productivity. That is backed up by the compilation of research linked from another article in the New York Times. Do one thing at a time. It will increase your efficiency and make change easier to achieve.

Replace Bad Habits with Good Habits



Change the situation so that positive decisions are easier to make, or better yet, your only choice. If you’re removing certain foods from your diet, remove them from the house. Set yourself up for success. Fill your fridge with healthy foods you enjoy eating. If you’re quitting smoking, take up a new hobby during the times when you would have taken a smoke break; drink a cup of tea or challenge yourself with a crossword. Remember that making the new behavior as easy as possible is important to your success. Goals that are difficult to reach often fail.

Make a Plan

So now we know what types of goals can help us change our behaviors, but we need to make a realistic plan to get us to the finish line. Taking into account what we’ve learned so far: our plan should be focused; it should replace old behaviors with new positive behaviors; and it should be composed of small changes. Now at least we know what the plan should look like; it needs to go from the abstract to the concrete.

Your goals should be realistically achievable and manageable. They should include specific times and specific activities. If you want to quit a bad habit like biting your nails, replace it with a good habit. Your goal can look something like this: when I get the urge to bite my nails I will chew gum as a replacement activity. When I catch myself biting my nails I will do five push-ups. Making definitive goals allows you to see your progress take shape.

Activate Social Networks

Let others around you know what your new habits are so they can help remind and encourage you when you forget or when you feel the motivation is not strong enough. Having people to watch you and hold you accountable for the new behaviors is an important benefit of having a social network that you can take advantage of. Ten Ways to Get People to Change points out that:

Peers can set expectations, shame us or provide role models.

We can use our peers to help us achieve our goals. Let others around you know what your goals are and they will be inspired to see you succeed. They can help create a supportive environment to ensure that your desired habits flourish.


So basically what I’m saying is:

Decide what you want to change, and make a small, realistic, focused plan to get there. Replace your bad habits with good habits. Tell your friends and family about your plan and enlist their help. Most importantly, don’t give up. 

Remember, the key is to start small.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. ~Lao-tzu




Sources and Resources for Further Reading:

Stanford University: Top 10 Mistakes of Behavior Change

Stanford University’s Persuasive Tech Lab

BJ Fogg Tiny Habits

BJ Fogg

A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design

Mobile Health’s Baby Steps for Big Results

Senior News 50 and Better: Baby Steps to Lasting Change

Harvard Business Review: Multitasking’s Real Victims

Harvard Business Review: Ten Ways to Get People to Change

New York Times: Only a Few Can Multi-task

University of Utah: Supertaskers: Profiles in Extraordinary Multitasking Ability

Pub Med: Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?

Psych Central How To Change Your Drinking: A Harm Reduction Guide To Alcohol

Pinnacle Counseling: Addiction Recovery: Baby Steps

Harvard Business Review: The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time

New York Times: Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic

Forbes: The Secret to Breaking Bad Habits in the New Year

Wondergressive: Green Tea Powers

Bubble Boy Eat Your Heart Out: Bubble Dome Camping and Living


Have you ever gotten the question, “Do you live in a bubble?” That phrase has always frustrated me personally since it implies that I have no knowledge of topics or of the outside world, but now I fear it NOT!

BubbleTree has developed bubble tents, tree houses, lodges and huts which allow campers and nature enthusiasts alike to enjoy views from the inside of a transparent dome. Similar in design to the containment laboratory used in the new blockbuster film Thor, the spheres have an air renewal system that will keep the user comfortable and full of oxygen while they go about their daily indoor activities.

The very intelligent design of the bubble tent helps reduce noises of the outside world, allowing for the user to get a good night’s sleep, even if the bubble is set up next to roaring waves on a beach front. The inside however is created in such a shape that it will actually amplify noises through echoes, passionate lovers beware. BubbleTree talks about the technique and thought behind theses bubble creations:

Designed by Pierre Stephane Dumas, this approach is based on the following basis: Minimum energy, minimum materials, maximum comfort, and maximum interaction with the environment.

Want a life-sized snow globe? No problem. A 2 room suite with a bathroom while you bird-watch? They have you covered. Bringing your kids along? That bathroom is now a kids room instead. Silly, is it not? Check out some of these fancy French examples of ways these crafty bubble tents can be used! You may be even tempted to use your bubble hut in creative ways at a concert.

My question is when are they going to make these bad boys hover around and provide us consumers with a view of cities and landscapes, maybe with the use of propellers.. oh right, helicopters.

So the next time someone asks you if you live in a bubble, burst THEIR bubble and respond why yes, and the view is extraordinary. Bubble boy eat your heart out.







Rosetta Stone’s Possible False Claim


I cannot possibly count all of the language learning programs that are available. They vary in teaching methods, course length and difficulty. However, the one that stands out the most appears to be Rosetta Stone. Most have seen this program either in infomercials, online ads, or their local mall. One of the many claims Rosetta Stone puts out is that you will acquire your second or third language the same way as you learned your first, the same way as a child. They like to refer to this as dynamic immersion.

Depending on how you interpret this, the claim appears to be true. You will be bombarded with object and sound associations. For the most part you won’t bother with complicated grammar. You will have a full screen immersed environment in the target language for the ultimate dynamic immersion experience.

Unfortunately, as someone who speaks four languages and has tried this system, I can say that this is not worth the money that you have to shell out. You will not acquire a language the same way as you learned your first language.

The reason is simple. Adult brains are just not wired the same way as children. At birth, a baby has an average of about 100 billion neurons, which have yet to be interconnected together. As the baby grows and becomes a child, These neurons form networks with connections called synapses at a very high pace. Once the child reaches adolescence and soon after adulthood, these synapses become hard-wired and start to complete the neural structure.

It is in this period of rapid connection development when the human’s hearing ability and speed of learning is the most remarkable. Children are still able to pick up native sounds from their parents and learn to speak through mere copying, without learning any grammar whatsoever. Once you become an adolescent and an adult, your brain becomes hard-wired to your native language and the native sounds you first picked up. Speed of language acquisition gets dampened.

Rosetta Stone provides you the environment where you will learn your next language in a manner as you learned your first. However, that doesn’t mean that you will actually acquire it as a child would.

Personal Thought:

Immersing yourself in an environment where you can utilize the target language as well as USING it is the key to acquiring it. But you better know some basic syntax, grammar and rules first. Immerse and use.