Why We 'Grasp' The Truth, 'Dodge' Questions, And 'Fall' In Love

Jon Hamilton has a very interesting segment on NPR about how the brain interprets language:

“Just a few decades ago, many linguists thought the human brain had evolved a special module for language. It seemed plausible that our brains have some unique structure or system. After all, no animal can use language the way people can.

But in the 1990s, scientists began testing the language-module theory using ‘functional’ MRI technology that let them watch the brain respond to words. And what they saw didn’t look like a module, says Benjamin Bergen, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, and author of the book Louder Than Words.

‘They found something totally surprising,’ Bergen says. ‘It’s not just certain specific little regions in the brain, regions dedicated to language, that were lighting up. It was kind of a whole-brain type of process.’

If someone read a sentence like, ‘the shortstop threw the ball to first base,’ parts of the brain dedicated to vision and movement would light up, Bergen says. ‘The question was, why?’ he says. ‘They’re just listening to language. Why would they be preparing to act? Why would they be thinking that they were seeing something?’

The answer that emerged from this research is that when you encounter words describing a particular action, your brain simulates the experience, Bergen says.

‘The way that you understand an action is by recreating in your vision system what it would look like to perceive that event and recreating in your motor system what it would be like to be that shortstop, to have the ball in your hand and release it,’ Bergen says.

The brain appears to be taking words, which are just arbitrary symbols, and translating them into things we can see or hear or do, Bergen says . . .

‘What we actually say when we talk about meaning is, do you see what I mean? Is my point crystal clear? Maybe, let’s shed a little light on the subject,’ Bergen says. What we’re doing, he says, is extending our physical experiences—in this case things we’ve seen—by turning them into metaphors.

We use this sort of metaphor all the time in conversation, Bergen says. We ‘grasp’ the truth. We ‘dodge’ questions. We ‘fall’ in love . . .

What’s amazing is that people have been able to do so much with language using the same basic brain structures found in monkeys and apes, Bergen says.

‘What evolution has done is to build a new machine, a capacity for language, something that nothing else in the known universe can do,’ he says. ‘And it’s done so using the spare parts that it had lying around in the old primate brain.'” (Read more here.)

I love the notion of the brain as a metaphor-making machine: we take abstract ideas and ground them in the senses and movements of our bodies.

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