Monday, January 23, 2006

Geometry Called Inherent Skill

Noam Chomsky, meet Pythagoras.

Scientists studying whether certain skills come naturally to the human brain have long been intrigued by humans' innate capacity for language. Last week, scientists extended this notion further -- to geometry.

The conceptual principles of geometry are inherent to the brain, according to their study. They found that children belonging to an Amazonian indigenous group called the Munduruku, who had little exposure to schools and mathematics, were just as competent at solving geometric puzzles as American children.

The Munduruku youngsters proved to be intuitively skilled in concepts such as topology, Euclidean geometry and basic geometrical figures, such as lines, parallels and right angles. However, Munduruku adults were outperformed on similar tests by American adults, a difference that the predominantly French researchers attributed to the advantage of education.

"Geometrical knowledge arises in humans independently of instruction, experience with maps or measurement devices, or mastery of a sophisticated geometrical language," the researchers wrote in a paper published in Friday's issue of Science. Beneath the "fringe of cultural variability" provided by education, they concluded, "core geometric knowledge, like basic arithmetic, is a universal constituent of the human mind."

-- Shankar Vedantam

Blacks' Tobacco Risk Revisited

African American youngsters who smoke may not catch the attention of stop-smoking programs because the scales used to measure nicotine dependence do not take into account racial differences in how adolescents smoke and metabolize nicotine, new research suggests.

Black teenagers in general smoke less than their white counterparts, but a study published last week shows that what seems like good news masks the fact that these youngsters take longer to metabolize nicotine -- meaning that they are at grave risk of becoming quickly addicted, said Eric T. Moolchan, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse's Teen Tobacco Addiction Treatment Research Clinic in Baltimore.

Because scales that are used to assess nicotine dependence are partially based on the numbers of cigarettes smoked, Moolchan said clinicians and researchers could be lulled into a false sense of security about the risks that tobacco smoking poses to black youngsters. The scientist's conclusion was based on a study he and other researchers published last week in the journal Ethnicity and Disease, which found that adolescent blacks metabolize nicotine more slowly than whites. That might also explain why they smoke fewer cigarettes, he said.

"The biggest implication is if one is using measures of dependence based on measures of consumption, then there is inappropriate exclusion from treatment of those who metabolize slower, in this case African Americans," said Moolchan, who added that the study would help guide efforts underway to reduce smoking among teenagers.

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