Saturday 25 March 2017

Language, thought and the ecological approach; A Purple Peril

As part of a class on cognitive psychology, I give a seminar in which we talk about the research on the relationship between language and thought. In particular, I show this great talk by Lera Boroditsky as a starting point. She talks about the kind of research in this area, and talks about results such as how we linguistically interact with space and time affecting how we physically interact with these things. For example, some languages like English use an egocentric frame of reference when talking about space (e.g. describing things as being to the left or right, where the origin of this space is the speaker). Other languages use a geocentric frame of reference (e.g. describing things as being to the south of you). In order to be able to speak and understand the language, you therefore have to be able to remain oriented in space, and speakers of these kinds of languages have been shown to be capable of impressive feats of dead reckoning previously thought impossible in humans. 

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.