Student Research | Exploring adaptive auditory abilities among socioeconomically disadvantaged children

David Fernandez/Courtesy

t UC Berkeley the voices of all Bears deserve to be heard. In the lab of student researcher and cognitive science and anthropology double major Keren Lev, this includes the voices of two virtual talking bears named Shiloh and Taylor, created by Lev and her summer research team.

Lev, a senior, is part of a small, ever-evolving team of researchers at the Language and Cognitive Development Lab — a lab that was partly funded by Berkeley’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program, or SURF. In the past year, Lev, her lab partner Lourdes Michelle Marizcal and their team have undertaken a project that gauges the retention and responsiveness of lower-income children versus their higher-income peers. They do this by using two talking bears and a dichotic listening test, a type of psychological test that plays two auditory accounts simultaneously.

“(The question is), which one will they listen to?” Lev explained.

Children from schools in the Bay Area are asked by the two talking bears — voiced by Lev and Marizcal — to listen to one particular story out of two nursery tales played simultaneously. After the tales are played, the two bears return to ask the children questions about their experience, compiling data that goes into a demographic survey. They repeat this a number of times. If a child demonstrates an ability to pick up details from both stories, Lev and her team take this into account.

“The human mind is plastic. … It’s resilient and beautiful, especially when (you) don’t have everything handed to (you).”

— Keren Lev

The team has an intriguing hypothesis — that while higher-income children will only attend to the story they were asked to listen to, children from lower-income families will attend to both. Their goal is to try to figure out whether or not children from lower-income households develop better auditory reception and general awareness.

“(This experiment) definitely shows you a different side of cognitive thinking,” Lev said.                 

When explaining the inspiration behind the project, Lev mentioned that she and Marizcal come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. She also added that the group’s adviser, campus doctoral candidate and brainchild of the project Monica Ellwood-Lowe, had experience working with diverse groups of children, and sought a way to highlight the unique skills that children acquire when forced to adapt to adverse circumstances.

According to Lev, many research projects underscore the weaknesses of lower-income students rather than illuminate their hidden strengths and talents.   

“The human mind is plastic. … It’s resilient and beautiful, especially when (you) don’t have everything handed to (you),” Lev added.

Though her team’s findings have been promising, Lev admitted that this project has encountered its fair share of obstacles and confounding variables. Although they have yet to prove their hypothesis on auditory adaptation, she and her team are hopeful that they will arrive at a conclusion by the end of the spring.

When reflecting on her SURF experience and her team, Lev was humbled and grateful for the opportunity to contribute and continue to work on this project.

“(The project) has given me insight into the differences in people,” she said. “I always thought there was perhaps a correct way of doing something. That’s not always true.”

Lev encourages her peers to explore their interests through research and to pursue their own ideas. The fascinating results gathered from her work as a SURF fellow show student-driven research to be an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening experience, one that has shaped her understanding of intelligence and success.

She also argues that the educational system often projects a poor reflection of students’ skills and assets, and that the ability to navigate certain disadvantages — whether economic or social — can be a major indicator of an individual’s intellectual capability and sense of ambition.

“It’s always detrimental to let some things define you,” Lev commented. “The human mind is powerful.”

Contact Kristen Hull at [email protected]