How we extract meaning from language.
Our ability to use language is unique, suggests Bergen (Cognitive Science/Univ. of California, San Diego). Bird song may rival the tunes we sing in “speed and complexity,” and primates can learn a simple human vocabulary, but human speech is open-ended. We effortlessly extract meaning from verbal descriptions of nonexistent things such as “Martian anthropologists or vegetarian zombies” and discuss abstractions such as the meaning of meaning. The author describes research corroborating the “embodied simulation hypothesis,” the idea that understanding spoken or written language depends on our ability to imaginatively reconstruct mental images from the words we hear or see. In order to understand the meaning behind words, we use the same mental tools that allow us to react to our environment, reconstruct memories, plan future actions or imagine situations. Bergen gives the example of professional athletes who use visualization to hone their skills and compares this to the visualization necessary to understand language. Clever laboratory experiments show how recognition speed varies when seeing a picture of an object such as an egg and hearing a description of its use. Brain scans show the activation of different neural pathways when we hear a noun or verbal description. Similarly, Bergen shows that the use of metaphor and idiom to express abstractions also depends on visualization and the language of embodiment, from descriptive language such as “swallowing pride” and “grasping meaning” to idiomatic expressions like “you see what I mean” or “let's shine some light on the topic.”
An intriguing look at the brain mechanisms involved in the complexities of human communication.