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Our brains are exclusively tuned to the sound of WARnings

In Greek mythology, the Sirens were dangerous sea-nymphs living in cliffy and rocky islands. With their enchanting songs, these half-bird half-woman creatures lured ships to wreck on rocky shores and then killed the sailors. Even today, sirens lead to nothing but destruction. The wailing sound of air-raid sirens in Ukraine reminds us of the essential reality of Siren songs ‘warning for danger’. Even in peace, we hear public warning sirens if nothing but for testing, just like the ones echoing across the streets of the Netherlands on the first Monday of every month. But why are siren sounds so efficient to signal danger and what really happens in the brain when we hear an alarming sound?

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Talking to chatbots: the way of the future

With some melancholy one thinks of the time companies could be called by phone and an actual human would be available to answer your questions. Alas, those times are over. Phone numbers are getting harder to find, or they are simply absent. Progressively, direct human contact is replaced by “chatbots” which some companies lovingly call their “digital colleagues”. The Dutch post (PostNL), for example, boasts that their digital colleague “Daan” successfully handles over 160.000 queries per month. 

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Does using text-speak speed up communication? Perhaps not for the receiver!

The growing popularity of sending messages electronically has led to changes in the way people communicate. To increase the efficiency of their messages, people often abbreviate words or expressions, for example by combining letters with numbers, using acronyms, or removing vowels or letters altogether. For example, gr8 for “great,” ROFL for “Rolling On the Floor laughing” or msg for “message”. But does this also make reading faster for the receiving person? 

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How can we better understand each other when wearing a face mask?

Imagine you are traveling by train with your friends. You try to tell them what you did during the weekend. It’s quite crowded in the train. Next to you there’s another group of friends who are talking to each other, behind you there is a man who is on the phone, and in front of you, there’s a parent who is playing with a toddler. You enthusiastically try to tell your friends about the museum you visited this weekend. “Sorry, what are you saying?”, asks your friend with a questioning face. “Those face masks are so annoying!”

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Losing words on the tip of the tongue 

When you are having a conversation with someone, do you ever want to say a specific word, but for some reason, you cannot find it? You know that word, you can even picture it in your mind or you know its first letter, but still, you don’t manage to say it. Have you ever wondered why you can’t find that word and what happens in your brain while you’re desperately searching for it?

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Concept cells in the human brain and neural networks

Did you know that if you are a fan of Star Wars, in your brain there might be neurons that respond only to characters from the movie? Interestingly, some types of artificial brains that scientists generate with computers (called artificial neural networks) also spontaneously develop such neurons. What does it (and what does it not) tell us about the real brain? And what does it have to do with language?

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Words as Medicine

In recent decades developments and progress in medicine are strongly technology-driven. E-health, social robots, and AI are strong drivers of innovations in the clinic. However, all this should not detract from the crucial role that is played by the narratives in which the communication between the health professionals (doctors, nurses, etc.) and patients is embedded. Words are not harmless.

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Talking about numbers

Language is normally understood to be extraordinarily useful to humans, but we all share the experience of language getting in the way. Whether this be saying something we don’t mean, or failing, sometimes stubbornly, to agree to use the same words to refer to the same things. An interesting and informative case of this is the role of language in the wholesale kneecapping of historical developments in mathematics, and in the confusion of a sizable plurality of secondary school students.  How could language, the workhorse of human communication, hinder development in mathematics? 

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Language: the Hardest Problem of Science – Easy Peasy for any Child

One of the most difficult problems of science is where language comes from. Language ontogeny – how children can learn it? – and phylogeny – how did it emerge in evolution? – are still largely unsolved mysteries today. In a recent study, we attacked the issue in the lab, with surprising results.

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