The reason this is all interesting is in the context of how the field is changing how it thinks about language; is it magical, or merely interesting? If the former, language becomes a unique human cognitive capacity that requires specific neural mechanisms that serve language and nothing else. If the latter, language becomes an integrated part of our cognitive systems and we should expect it to show these connections to other capacities.
The weight of evidence right now I think favours the latter view. In fact, one whole strand of embodied cognition (Shapiro’s ‘conceptualisation’ hypothesis strand) explicitly pursues these connections between language and other capacities, for example Lakoff’s work on metaphors being grounded in action. Language, while still phenomenal in what it can do, is not different in kind to the rest of cognition.
The field is still very much at the ‘functional model’ stage of developing explanations, however. The research mostly just catalogues linguistic differences and cognitive differences and works to map those onto each other in a fairly metaphorical, word-association kind of way (e.g. politics is talked about in terms of left and right wing so this should connect to physical movements to the left and the right). Our ecological questions has become, what kind of mechanism might allow this kind of cross-talk, and as I’ve been chatting to students I’ve been connecting a few dots for myself. This post sketches the outline of a mechanistic, ecological research programme for attacking the fascinating problem of the relationship between language and thought.
Our ecological approach grounds all explanations of the structure in behaviour at the level of ecological information and our interactions with that information. Other things that can structure behaviour happen (e.g. the formation of ecological neural representations) but all of those work the way they do because of the ecological way we perceive and act in the world.
Sabrina has been chipping away at the annoying problem of language for a long time (see the 'Language' posts listed here). Other ecological attempts go looking for linguistic affordances, which frankly never works at any level other than the functional, metaphorical level seen in the work above. Sabrina’s key move (Golonka, 2015 and this post) is to go to information alone and see if it can do things that might support something like language. Turns out, yes, it can.
Ecological information is complex structure in an energy array that is specific, though not identical, to the dynamical process that created it. Sabrina’s insight is that there are actually two ways for an organism to use these structures. The first is law-based. If you use that structure as if it were about the dynamical process that created it, then you can select, coordinate and control your actions in real time to complement that dynamic. This is the kind of real time action control we ecological types normally study. The second is convention-based. If you use that structure as if it were about anything other than the dynamical process that created it, then you can select but not control actions with respect to that thing. She describes this as convention based because typically, the only way this works is that there are enough organisms who agree to use the information that way to make it pan out. You can’t have a language community of one person; no functional behaviour happens when no one else respects the same conventions.
Language, therefore, like everything else, is a behaviour shaped by our use of information (primarily convention-based use). This view immediately makes language the same in kind as things like perception and action; it’s all behaviour shaped by our interactions with the very real ecological information in which we are densely embedded. This provides the only existing unitary framework for analysing language as embodied and enacted, as well as figuring out (beyond mere metaphor and description) how language and thought are related and interwoven.
Cognitive capacities are connected to the extent that the underlying mechanisms use and interact with the same information. I’ve argued this in a recent empirical paper (Snapp-Childs, Wilson & Bingham, 2015) showing that the extent of transfer of learning is explained by overlap in information and the details of the differing stability of the two task dynamics. Information governed whether transfer happened by being the necessary ‘thing in common’, and then there were consequences dictated by some of the details.
From this mechanistic ecological stance,
- Of course language and the rest of cognition can be interconnected because they are all the same type of thing; behaviour shaped by our use of ecological information
- The nature of those interconnections will be shaped by the informational overlap between tasks, and
- The details of the interconnected behaviours will depend on the details of the dynamical mechanisms implementing the cognitive activities, and in particular on the details and differences in how the overlapping information is being used by the two dynamics
This, I propose, is a decent first draft of an ecological research programme into the relationship between language and thought, and given that this field has documented many interesting connections without every successfully explaining any of them, I also propose that this research programme has a lot to offer the field.