Sunday, February 20, 2011

Language and the Mind

A direct link to the above video is at

"Research has been uncovering how language shapes even the most fundamental dimensions of human experience: space, time, causality and relationships to others."

- Lera Boroditsky, writing in the February 2011 issue of Scientific American, article "How Language Shapes Thought".

Last time, in Changing Your Brain, we explored whether it's possible for Imagining the Tenth Dimension's "new way of thinking about time and space" to actually re-wire people's brains. This time, let's explore the idea of how each of us have brain structures that make us unique individuals, and how those structures are influenced by our experiences, and by our language.

In entries like The Map and the Territory, Jumping Jesus, and Nothing is Real, we've looked at the ideas of Alfred Korzybski, who developed the science of General Semantics, which explores the relationship between our observed reality and the abstract constructs of language. There have been a number of articles I've come across which show some interesting tie-ins to these ideas, today we'll be looking at some of those links.

First, here's an article published last summer in the Wall Street Journal, about how different languages cause people to see the world differently: for instance, people who speak Japanese versus Spanish have a different sense of the concept of "blame".

A New Scientist article from around the same time talks about the notion advanced by Noam Chomsky in the 1960s that the brain is naturally wired for communication, and that language works as an extension of that ability. After five decades of pursuing that paradigm, researchers are now coming to terms with the fact that the opposite is true: language shapes the way the brain communicates, and different languages create different connections within the brain.

The current issue of Scientific American has an article on this subject as well, "How Language Shapes Thought", and that's where the illustration and quote that started off today's entry come from. Here's the opening paragraphs from that article, which was written by Lera Boroditsky (Lera is an assistant professor of cognitive psychology at Stanford University and editor in chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology. Her lab conducts research around the world, focusing on mental representation and the effects of language on cognition).
I am standing next to a five-year old girl in pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York in northern Australia. When I ask her to point north, she points precisely and without hesitation. My compass says she is right. Later, back in a lecture hall at Stanford University, I make the same request of an audience of distinguished scholars—winners of science medals and genius prizes. Some of them have come to this very room to hear lectures for more than 40 years. I ask them to close their eyes (so they don’t cheat) and point north. Many refuse; they do not know the answer. Those who do point take a while to think about it and then aim in all possible directions. I have repeated this exercise at Harvard and Princeton and in Moscow, London and Beijing, always with the same results.

A five-year-old in one culture can do something with ease that eminent scientists in other cultures struggle with. This is a big difference in cognitive ability. What could explain it? The surprising answer, it turns out, may be language.
Reading these articles makes one appreciate the gargantuan task Google Translate is attempting to tackle - being able to correctly translate one language to another, interpreting and even using idiomatic phrases, is so much more than just saying "this word in this language equals that word in that language". And yet, here's an article published last month about the latest demonstrations of Google Translate's "Conversation Mode", which will allow a person to speak into their phone and have the phone speak their words in another language, or to have the other person they want to speak with be able to use the device to translate their sentences into English.

Discussions of what happens when the brain is damaged add to the texture of this conversation. Here's a news article from a few years ago about people who suffer brain traumas and suddenly start speaking their native language with an accent. I've remarked before (in You Have a Shape and a Trajectory) that I thought it was interesting to watch my son Mark learning to speak different languages - the timbre of his voice changes, even his face changes somewhat, because of the different ways he positions his mouth and tongue whether he's speaking English, French, or Serbian. In a sense, he becomes a different person as he speaks these different languages.

Respected neuroscientist Dr. Adrian Owen, formerly of Cambridge and recently recruited to the University of Western Ontario (along with five of his research staff), headed up a team who were the first to communicate with patients in a persistent vegetative state using brain imaging. He also made a stir last year when he published a study showing that the popular "brain training videogames" do not, in fact, make people smarter. Dr. Owen is one of the most respected neuroscientists in the world, please keep that in mind as you watch him in this video called "Science of the Soul".

A direct link to the above video is at

So. Becoming fluent in another language gives us a window into another way of interfacing with reality, a different one from our own. Learning new things isn't just about broadening our horizons: it's about re-awakening our sense of wonder, which enhances our enjoyment of life. We're going to talk more about this next time with an entry called Novelty.

Enjoy the journey!

Rob Bryanton


TheRealJeffHall said...

We don't need to limit the scope of this discussion to what we might call "foreign languages". The language of mathematics is a different languange to normal everyday speak, regardless of the native tongue of the speaker.

Working with artists and musicians, I have discovered they too speak in a way that shows they have a different perception of things that I do, as a mathematician.

My percerptions of life and my reconition of "structure and form" in everyday things became enhanced as I trained for my Masters degree. I might speculate that your perception of the "rhythms and harmonies" of life became enhanced as you developed your musical skills?

This eclectic mix of human understanding and awareness is what adds to the richness of our culture and makes a society more balanced.

Jeff Hall

Jennifer Nielsen said...

Also, we have to remember that the meaning or the *state* which people map to specific words (in order to communicate without a direct sharing of state) is not the same thing as the word itself.

Language is like a code to represent states, which takes energy to formulate and which requires time to unfold, whereas the state each word describes is arguably "ideal" and separate from each word.

Jennifer Nielsen said...

We also have to remember that the meaning/state to which a word is mapped is not the same thing as the word itself. Language (the sharing of encoded info) requires energy and the dimension of time to unfold, whereas a state may be something more permanent and ideal.

Entanglement may represent a protolanguage--a communion, rather than a communication, based not on encoded information shared via time and space but rather on a priori shared energy states.

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