Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 11/1/2012
Do the words joy and happiness mean the same thing? The metaphors we use for these two words certainly imply distinct meanings. According to cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen, we’re more likely to talk about happiness as an object of acquisition (We search for happiness) and joy as something poured into a container (I’m filled with joy).
Author of the new book Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning, Bergen outlines a clever and relevant case for an emerging cognitive theory of language and explores whether we simulate virtual experiences and not just abstract mental symbols when we communicate.
“We actually simulate all the time. You do it when you imagine your parents’ faces or fixate in your mind’s eye on that misplayed poker hand. You’re simulating when you imagine sounds in your head without any sound waves hitting your ears, whether it’s the bass line of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army or the sound of screeching tires. And you can probably conjure up simulations of what strawberries taste like when covered with whipped cream or what fresh lavender smells like. You can also simulate actions.”
Bergen’s research team at the Language and Cognition Lab at the University of California, San Diego uses a range of measurements in reaction times, eye gaze and hand movements along with brain imaging to observe how the mind makes meaning.
In the Louder Than Words, Bergen talks about the findings of one experiment in which he asks three different groups of people to answer a question printed as a caption under a picture:
What emotion is the person experiencing?
Bergen and his team sought to test the idea that we might perform embodied simulations when thinking about the two words. One of the observed groups was actively engaged in filling containers with liquid—drinking at cafes, bars, restaurants. A second group was actively searching for something like a book in a library. A control group merely sat in a classroom neither drinking nor searching.
“What we found was that people who were drinking were far more likely to say that the person was experiencing joy. The searchers were more likely to say happiness. And people who were doing neither fell somewhere in between the two. The upshot is that the current state of people’s bodies affected the words they used.”
Cognitive psychologists and linguists as early as the 1970s considered whether meaning was something distinct from a language of thought. They theorized that instead of abstract symbols, meaning might be connected to our real world experiences.
Action-sentence compatibility experiments under Bergen’s direction have tested whether spoken words or written characters engage our vision and motor systems to simulate perceptions of things described in language.
Participants press a gray button to see a sentence and then a black or white button to indicate whether the sentence makes sense or not. A response requires motion in a particular direction toward or away from the body to push a black or white button with muscles driven by neurons in the motor cortex. Reading a sentence about a particular action (motion toward or away from the body) should lead a participant to respond faster when performing a compatible action.
Bergen argues that action-sentence compatibility experiments show that participants engage mental representations of locations of things described in the sentences.
Skeptics ask if Bergen’s methods actually register something other than meaning. Yet, his groundbreaking work and that of linguistics mentor George Lakoff might upend the way science talks about conveying meaning. Bergen is certainly showing how and when simulation occurs in our neural structures.
Louder Than Words by Benjamin K. Bergen is a worthwhile science read about the emerging work in a cognitive theory of language in graspable, amusing and relevant vernacular.
Category: Nonfiction, Neuroscience