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Good Reads: Ben Bernanke, bilingualism, and a new study on God and civilization

Here's a survey of what's interesting in other magazines: a profile of 'the villain' Ben Bernanke, a look at the benefits of bilingualism, and a scientific explanation for society's need for God.

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In The New York Times, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee writes on how learning a second language at an early age makes your brain work better. Psychologists once worried that kids who lived in bilingual households faced obstacles that “hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.” Turns out they were right, and that very hindrance turns out to be an advantage.

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In a 2009 study led by Agnes Kovacs of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, 7-month-old babies exposed to two languages from birth were compared with peers raised with one language. In an initial set of trials, the infants were presented with an audio cue and then shown a puppet on one side of a screen. Both infant groups learned to look at that side of the screen in anticipation of the puppet. But in a later set of trials, when the puppet began appearing on the opposite side of the screen, the babies exposed to a bilingual environment quickly learned to switch their anticipatory gaze in the new direction while the other babies did not.

● And finally, here are a few words about God, or gods.

In New Scientist magazine – not your usual source for matters of evangelism – Ara Norenzayan writes that religion is a key ingredient for small hunter-gatherer societies to become larger civilizations. When you are related to everyone in your group, it is easy to resolve conflicts and to regulate behavior. But what if you live in a larger society, where you have no personal or tribal relationship with your neighbor?

For most civilizations, the answer was to form a common belief system, and most importantly, an all-knowing God who would ensure that everyone behaved themselves, even if their neighbor wasn’t watching.

…as groups expand in size, anonymity invades relationships and cooperation breaks down. Studies show that feelings of anonymity - even illusory, such as wearing dark glasses - are the friends of selfishness and cheating (Psychological Science, vol 21, p 311). Social surveillance, such as being in front of a camera or an audience, has the opposite effect. Even subtle exposure to drawings resembling eyes encourages good behaviour towards strangers (Evolution and Human Behavior, vol 26, p 245). As the saying goes, "watched people are nice people".

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