Language as a Neural Process

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The Hidden Metaphysics of Language

Language is obviously one of the most sophisticated cognitive skills that humans possess, and one of the most apparent differences between the human species and other animal species. No surprise, then, that language is often considered the main clue to the secrets of the mind. After all, it is through language that our mind expresses itself. It is with language that we can study the mind.

A few scientists believe that language is even more than a tool to speak: it is "thought" itself. In the 1950's, the American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf extended the view of his teacher, the German-born Edward Sapir, that language and thought influence each other. Language is used to express thought, but language also shapes thought. In particular, the structure of the language has an influence on the way its speakers understand the environment. Language influences thought because it contains what Sapir had called "a hidden metaphysics", which is a view of the world, a culture, a conceptual system. Language contains an implicit classification of experience. Whorf restated Sapir's view in his principle of "linguistic determinism": grammatical and categorial patterns of language embody cultural models. Every language is a culturally-determined system of patterns that creates the categories by which individuals not only communicate but also think.

The American psychologist Katherine Nelson, whose studies focus on the stages of cognitive development in a child, has discovered that language is crucial to the formation of the adult mind: language acts as the medium through which the mind becomes part of a culture, through which the shared meanings of society take over the individualistic meanings of the child's mind. Society takes over the individual mind, and it does so through language. The ultimate goal of our mind, since we were born, through our studying, working, making friends, writing books, etc., is to be social.

This brings back to mind Lev Vygotsky's theory of the mediating language: that language provides a semiotic mediation of knowledge and therefore guides the child's cognitive growth. In general, cognitive faculties are internalized versions of social processes. This also implies, incidentally, that cognition developed in different ways depending on the cultural conditions.

Human language and animal language

It is often claimed that language is "the" exclusive feature of humans. Language is actually quite widespread in Nature in its primitive form of communication (all animals communicate and even plants have some rudimentary form of interaction), although it is certainly unique to humans in its human form (but just like, say, chirping is unique to birds in its "birdy" form). Is human language really so much more sophisticated than other animals' languages?

Birds and monkees employ a sophisticated system of sounds to alert of intruders. The loudness and the frequency are proportional to the distance and probably to the size of the intruder. Human language doesn't have such a sophisticated way of describing an intruder. Is it possible that human language evolved in a different way simply because we became more interested in other things, than in describing the size and distance of an intruder?

Language is very much a mirror image of the cognitive capabilities of the animal. One can notice that there are three levels of human language: the "what", the "where", the "why".

What are you doing is about the present. Where are you going is about the future. Why are you going there is about the relationship between past and future.

These are three different steps of communication. Organisms could communicate simply in the present, by telling each other what they are doing. This is what most machines do all the time when they get connected. Living organisms also move. Bees dance to other bees in order to communicate the position of a location. Humans certainly exploit motives all the time. Without a motive a description is incomplete. It is common in Southeast Asia to greet people by asking "what are you doing?" The other person will reply "I am rowing the boat". The next question will be "where are you going?"And the last question will be "why are you going there?" With these three simple questions the situation has been fully analyzed, as far as human cognition goes.

This does not mean that there could not be a fourth level of communication, that we humans simply don't exhibit because it is beyond our cognitive capabilities.

There are other features that are truly unique to humans: clothes, artifacts, and, first and foremost, fire. Have you ever seen a lion wear the fur of another animal? light a fire to warm up? build a utensil to scratch its back? Why humans do all of these things? Are they a consequence of our cognitive life, or is our cognitive life a consequence of these skills?

Language changes minds

Language is a form of communication… but what is it exactly? The linguistic tradition of scholars like Noam Chomsky focuses on the mental processes of understanding language, thereby taking a "one-brain" view of communication. But communication, by definition, involves (at least) two participants, i.e. two brains. Communication (and language in particular) is a process between two brains. There is a neural process going on in one of the two brains and language is a means for that neural process to affect the neural process occurring in the other brain. Ultimately, "communication" is about one brain trying to replicate some kind of neural pattern into another brain. Language uses sounds (or written symbols) to induce such a mental replication. Those sounds (symbols) are structured in such a way as to interact with the neural process of the other brain and cause it to create a specific neural pattern (that’s what we call "understanding"). This is an error-prone process that requires a lot of interaction, due to the fact that each brain is slightly different. But the goal is to eventually transmit a neural pattern from one brain to another. That pattern could be a scene or a story, if we are "narrating" something, or it could be a belief if we are trying to "convince" of something, or a concept if we are trying to explain something, etc. It is a pattern that already exists in our brain and we want to recreate it in the brain of our interlocutor.

Needless to say, this implies that brains are capable of changing their neural patterns based on sounds/symbols. This is true of all species: bees’ brains must be capable of changing their neural patterns based on the dances of other bees. And must be willing to.

This complex interplay of brains must provide some significant evolutionary advantage if it appeared and became widespread among all species.

Naturally, once the pattern (a scene, a story, a concept) has been copied in the other brain, it takes on a life of its own because it interacts with the neural pattern that already inhabited that brain.

(Thought uses language too. Could thought be communication between the two cerebral emispheres? one trying to replicate neural patterns into the other?)

Communication may seem like a miracle: two beings that engage in changing each other’s brain. But it is actually the most natural phenomenon: one just has to think about life "top-down" and not "bottom-up". We tend to conceive life as many small beings making up societies and larger and larger entities (ecosystems) and eventually making up the Earth. It actually works the other way around: the Earth existed before life as we know it, and the Earth, at any point in time, is made of living components such as ecosystems, which are made of societies, which are made of individual beings. It is no surprise that all those ecosystems, societies and individuals are capable of communicating: they are merely "parts" of one giant organism, the Earth. Communicating is their natural state. They are "parts" of the same organism.

Language creates the mind

Two questions remain. The first one is: where does language come from? The second one is: how does language do what it does to our brain connections?

We can answer the first question by relating these findings to neurobiologists such as Gerald Edelman who believe that a mind is a particular set of connections in the brain: if language changes the mind, then it must be capable of changing the connections in the brain. Why would it do that? Because, as Baldwin noticed, species capable of learning are better at evolving. If language is such an efficient tool for learning that shapes an entire system of thought in a few years, then it must certainly be useful to survival and evolution.

Language is more than just sound. Language is sound (or vision, when you are reading) with a structure, and therefore packs more information than just sound. This was a crucial invention: that you can use sound as a vehicle to carry more information than the sound itself. The tip probably came from Nature itself: Nature speaks to us all the time. The noise of a river or the noise of an avalanche create concepts in our minds, besides the representation of those sounds. Brain connections are modified at two levels: first to reflect the stimuli of the noise, and then to reflect what we can derive from the noise. Our brain can learn at two levels: there is a noise in that direction, and it is a river (meaning, for example, water to drink). Stimuli modify connections both at the level of perception and at the level of concepts. Languageexploits this simple fact. (Yes, the same is true of cinema, but our bodies are not equipped with an organ to make images the way we are equipped with an organ to make sounds, and the invention of writing required a lot less technological knowledge than television or cinema, but in the future we may end up carrying our portable image-maker so that we can show what happened in images instead of telling it in words).

The second question is: how does language do what it does to our brain connections?

The answer may be that we are more poets than we think: in order to deliver feelings, poets use a vehicle called "metaphor". Metaphor is more pervasive than we think, and it may well be the foundation of language (some linguists even claim that all language is metaphorical). Metaphor is a powerful tool to shape a mind because it finds "connections" between things in the mind and the new connections enable the mind to "see" the world differently.

Numerous studies have been conducted on the way the mind creates language (from Chomsky's grammars to neurolinguistics). Unfortunately, very few studies follow the opposite direction: how does language create the mind (not from mind to language, but from language to mind).

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