This Week in Research: Stephen King’s Wang, What Babies Remember

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Stephen King was one of the first writers to switch out his typewriter for a word processor — in his case, a Wang System 5 (what did you think we were talking about?). Back in the day, Mark Twain was the first to compose a novel on the newfangled typewriter. How do these typing technologies affect the way writers think and write? That’s just what English professor Matthew Kirschenbaum of the University of Maryland is trying to suss out. Kirschenbaum is interested in the history of writing in the digital age, and he’s bent on collecting early artifacts — like the floppy disks Frank Herbert used to save the sci-fi classic Dune, for example. As Friedrich Nietzsche noted, “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.” (Nietzsche used an early form of a typewriter used as a writing ball.) Kirschenbaum’s book, Track Changes:  A Literary History of Word Processing will be published by Harvard University Press in 2013; watch a lecture drawn from the book here.

Babies are funny little things. For a long time, the common belief was that infants under six months old had no sense of object permanence — meaning that once something was out of sight, it no longer existed. Recent research has complicated that idea, but the mystery still remains:  how do babies remember the world around them, and what details help them with remembering?  A study by Melissa Kibbe, a postdoctoral researcher in psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins fills in a few of the gaps.  When Kibbe and her co-researchers showed babies a triangular object, then hid the shapes behind a screen.  When the screen was taken away, the babies either saw the same shape, a different shape, or nothing at all.  The researchers were trying to measure how surprised the babies were, which they do by measuring the infant’s reactions — babies will look longer at something that is unexpected. When the shapes were swapped out, the babies hardly seemed to notice. But when the object vanished, the babies were surprised. According to Kibbe, this indicates that 6-month olds do have an awareness of object permanence… even if they don’t have an awareness (yet) of shapes.



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