Language and thought: A Jaynesian Perspective

Over at Enowning, there is a link to the Edge profile of Lera Boroditsky, a psychologist at Stanford who is kicking ass and taking names when it comes to providing empirical support for the thesis that language significantly influences the nature of cognition and thinking. According to this thesis, even grammatical oddities and quirks of syntax and culture can have profound effects on cognition. This Whorfian thesis has been around for many decades but the psychological and philosophical establishment is only now starting to fully integrate these findings into theoretical frameworks for understanding the mind. It is my contention that acknowledging the significance that language has for re-shaping mental landscapes will radically alter the entire philosophical approach to the study of consciousness and its evolutionary development. Instead of studying consciousness as a “thing” in the brain which is delineated from other non-conscious bits of brain, this linguistic shift will require we study the development of consciousness as a process of interaction between a brain and a meaningful, linguistically saturated environment. The unique mode of being we associate with humanity as “conscious” will be recognized as a resultant from our linguistic scaffolding and the powers of metaphor and reflexive introspective that come with such cognitive augmentation (can you tell I am a fan of Clark?).

On the Edge bio page, Boroditsky goes over some of the empirical research she has done to support a weak form of the Whorfian hypothesis. My favorite example was anthropological work with the aboriginal Kuuk people in northern australia. These people do not have an egocentric reference frame within their cognitive toolkit and instead utilize cardinal-directional terms for orienting themselves in space.

Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space. This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like ” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past “Hello.”

The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English). Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities. Because space is such a fundamental domain of thought, differences in how people think about space don’t end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations. Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space.

I find such research to be a powerful empirical support of the basic Jaynesian hypothesis that changes in language, culture, and metaphor have profound psychological ramifications. For Jaynes, languge is not just an organ of communication, but also, an organ of perception. Languages creates new objects of perception and shifts our attention to abstract features of the environment in order to augment cognitive skill. Furthermore, Jaynes speculates that the development of language would provide a scaffolding for rapid psychological development without the need for corresponding genetic changes in the neurophysiology. Modern studies in brain plasticity provide empirical support for this hypothesis.

Where Jaynes makes a radical break is of course when he speculates that a useful sife-effect of vocal communication would have been the development of temporally delayed auditory hallucinations. Instead of needing to stay within ear-shot, the social chieftan could have controlled his tribe remotely through repeated hallucinatory commands. We could imagine a tribe member sitting by himself away from everyone else dilligently working on a task that would have otherwise exhausted his small attention span because of an overwhelming auditory hallucination compelling him to keep working on his task. If you don’t think auditory hallucinations are behaviorally compelling, ask a schizophrenic.

The communication network necessary for the development of civilization is now established and complex social control is born. It is only a hop skip until dead chieftans have overriding hallucinatory control and the ubiquitous phenomenon of burying food and material possessions with kings and chiefs finally comes under the explanatory umbrella. God-kings and gods are birthed and the basic God-Man hierachical framework of all religion is formed. This is the bicameral mind. We would be wise to recognize this pattern of hallucinatory control throughout our religious history. Moses, Abraham, Socrates, Joan of Arc, prophets, shamans, and madmen all fit into the bicameral mold.

Also, I think this ties in perfectly with Robert Sapolsky’s recent lectures on the link between religion and schizotypal thinking.


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Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

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