A new study shows that “magical thinking” can be reduced by presenting and processing information in a second language.
Superstition is everywhere in our modern lives. Each Friday the 13th, nearly a billion dollars in business is avoided because people are afraid that it will be bad luck to do it that day. In the United Kingdom, traffic accidents increase dramatically on the same day, despite less traffic overall. Even for those of us who consider ourselves rational people, the effects of superstition can still hinder us. We know we have nothing to fear, but fear it anyway.
A new study shows us a way to bypass that part of our mind that worries about black cats and broken mirrors: speak in another language.
In one part of the study, Italian volunteers who were proficient in the German or English languages were asked to read about an event associated with bad luck, such as a breaking a mirror or walking under a ladder. They were then asked to rate how the event in the story made them feel, and how strongly it affected them.
While the scenario invoked negative feelings in nearly all of the subjects, the ones who read it in a foreign language noted a reduced level of negative feeling compared to those who read it in their native tongue.
The study was repeated with other languages to see if the effect also existed for events with a positive connotation, such as finding a four-leaf clover. Similar results were found, with the same reduction in the intensity of mood changes for those who read it in a foreign language. The effect held for all demographics studied, and the authors took steps to assure the readers would not misunderstand the texts and give false positives.
This study suggests that tendencies to “magical thinking” can be reduced by presenting and processing information in a second language. While it does not remove these tendencies, as the subjects still showed both positive and negative responses to certain phenomena, it was starkly reduced in every case. It supports the findings of previous studies that suggest memories are partly tied to the language they are made in, and adds evidence to the hypothesis that the part of the brain that processes information in a second language is more rational than the part that works in our native language.
Weird. What else happens to me if I do my thinking in a foreign language?
The authors of this study point out that other research has shown that people will make different choices when speaking a second language than when speaking in their native tongue. They are more willing to sacrifice a stranger to save five other people, will spend more time discussing embarrassing topics, are more tolerant of harmful behaviors, and more permissive of helpful behavior that has dubious motives. In all, they are more rational.
But, why would the choice of language have such an effect on behavior?
The authors of the study suggest that the part of our brains that processes our native language is more intuitive and less rational than the parts that focus on new languages. This idea, that our linguistic choices can have such an effect on our rationality, can be a little off-putting for those of us who like to suppose ourselves as rational people.
So, what can I do with this information?
The findings could have implications for language study and the neuroscience of how our brains process language. It might also be used to advantage in diplomacy and business, with negotiators selecting a language that will most benefit their rationality. It also means that next time you see a black cat crossing your path, you might do better to disregard it in a second language than try to shrug it off in your first.
The positive effect of bilingualism may be particularly beneficial for kids who grow up in low-income households, an environment that usually has negative effects on cognitive performance.
Developmental psychologists have long been interested in the effects of growing up in a bilingual family. Bilingual kids may have harder time performing at the level of their peers initially, especially if they have limited proficiency in the language of schooling. However, in the long-run, bilingualism may have a positive effect on some cognitive abilities.
One of these benefits is better development of executive functioning (EF). Executive functioning is a set of higher-order cognitive skills that help people manage themselves, specifically their thoughts and behaviors. These skills include, for example, inhibitory control, attention shifting and working memory. Bilingual experience has been associated with better development of EF skills and better development of EF skills has been associated with better academic outcomes.
A new study, published in the journal Developmental Science has shown that this positive effect of bilingualism may be particularly beneficial for kids who grow up in low-income households, an environment that usually has negative effects on EF performance.
The research focused particularly on inhibitory control (IC) - the ability to control natural or habitual reactions to stimuli in order to select a more appropriate response. Children with good inhibitory control are better able to pay attention and follow instructions.
The researchers collected data from 1,146 Head Start children (who are in transition from preschool to kindergarten), all from low-income families. They put them in three different groups - English monolingual, bilingual children from Spanish-speaking homes, and children who spoke only Spanish at the start of the study but became bilingual in the end.
The way inhibitory control was tested was via a pencil-tapping task. The task required the kid to tap with a pencil once for each time an examiner tapped twice and vice versa. To be successful in this task the child has to inhibit the response to imitate the examiner while also keeping the rules of the task in mind. The test was administered at the beginning of the study and then at 6 and 18 months.
The results of the study showed that bilingual children had higher inhibitory control at baseline, as well as steeper growth over time, compared to their English monolingual peers. Children who could only speak Spanish at the beginning had the lowest IC performance, but their rate of IC growth exceeded that of children who remained English monolingual and did not differ from that of their peers who started the study being bilingual.
Researchers hypothesize that the way bilingualism helps increase inhibitory control development is due to the cognitive demands of managing two languages. They explain that “during bilingual language production and processing, both language systems get activated, giving rise to cognitive conflict that has to be resolved by inhibiting the representation of the non-target language in order to favor the target language.”
Atika Khurana, the study’s co-author and a professor in the Department of Counselling Psychology and Human Services and scientist at the UO's Prevention Science Institute, said for The Independent:
“Inhibitory control and executive function are important skills for academic success and positive health outcomes and well-being later in life. The development of inhibitory control occurs rapidly during the preschool years. This study shows one way in which environmental influences can impact the development of inhibitory control during younger years.”
Canadian scientists discover how being bilingual creates advantages for the brain.
Scientists found a strong argument for learning another language - bilingual people have an “advantage” because they use less brain power to accomplish tasks, helping their brains to age better.
The study compared functional brain connections between monolingual and bilingual seniors and found brains of those who spoke two languages were more economical in how they processed information, utilizing fewer resources.
The study looked at performance of “interference control tasks” by the two groups. The tasks participants carried out involved concentrating on the color of objects while ignoring their positions. When focused on visual information (while ignoring spatial), brains of bilinguals used less circuitry. In contrast, monolingual brains engaged a number of brain regions to perform the given task, relying especially on brain areas located in the frontal lobe, which are responsible for visual and motor functions as well as interference control.
The Canadian researchers were led by Professor Ana Inés Ansaldo from the Université de Montréal.
"After years of daily practice managing interference between two languages, bilinguals become experts at selecting relevant information and ignoring information that can distract from a task. In this case, bilinguals showed higher connectivity between visual processing areas located at the back of the brain. This area is specialized in detecting the visual characteristics of objects and therefore is specialized in the task used in this study. These data indicate that the bilingual brain is more efficient and economical, as it recruits fewer regions and only specialized regions," said Dr. Ansaldo.
Another cognitive advantage of processing information differently is that bilinguals achieve the same results as the monolinguals without using the frontal areas of the brain, which are more susceptible to the effects of aging. This also helps bilinguals fight off degenerative diseases like dementia.
Dr. Ansaldo described the next stage for her research this way:
"We have observed that bilingualism has a concrete impact on brain function and that this may have a positive impact on cognitive aging. We now need to study how this function translates to daily life, for example, when concentrating on one source of information instead of another, which is something we have to do every day. And we have yet to discover all the benefits of bilingualism”.
Cover photo credit: Wikimedia Commons