Embodied cognition – language

It is hard to overstate the importance of language – but some manage it. Language has a very big billing by some people – the singular mark of being human; the only medium of thought; the foundation of consciousness; the basis of social relations and more. This seems over the top to me, but language is still very, very important and we need to understand how it comes to be so.


As a school girl (along with millions of school children), the contradiction of ‘dictionaries’ occurred to me. We cannot define the meaning of all words using only words. What gives a word meaning is still an open question with many not too convincing answers. My own favourite answer is that most words get their meaning/s from their position in a web of words, by their relationships to other words. The web can be thought of as a mass of variously nested and overlapping metaphors/schema/maps. The foundation of this web has to be some pre-verbal concepts, some real structural relationships that form the pre-metaphors used to create all others. In other words, there must be points of ‘grounding’. The points of contact of language with non-linguistic reality have to be what young babies have, what they come with: the structure of their bodies, what they can sense, and the actions they can take. So the beginning of language (for the species and for every individual in it) has to be embodiment before culture can start to make its contribution.


There is little doubt that the particular language we speak can affect how we think. Whorf wrote:

We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.

Although the extent of this Sapir-Whorf effect is not agreed and variations from a strong to a weak form are found, the belief in some effect of language on thought and perception does not interfere with a belief in some embodiment. There is an effect of the physical body on language. Just because I am discussing embodiment here does not mean it is the only process involved.


Let us start with phonemes – the individual sounds of language. Mark Changizi has proposed that culture builds on what the brain is capable of and the brain has evolved the capabilities needed for living in the natural world. Here is part of an interview of Changizi by Lende (here):

(We can identify objects from their sound as well as look and feel. This is an adaptation to natural world.) For example, there are primarily three “atoms” of solid-object physical events: hits, slides and rings. Hits are when two objects hit one another, and slides where one slides along the other. Hits and slides are the two fundamental kinds of interaction. The third “atom” is the ring, which occurs to both objects involved in an interaction: each object undergoes periodic vibrations — they ring. They have a characteristic timbre, and your auditory system can usually recognize what kind of objects are involved. For starters, then, notice how the three atoms of solid-object physical events match up nicely with the three fundamental phoneme types: plosives, fricatives and sonorants. Namely, plosives (like t, k, p, d, g, b) sound like hits, fricatives (s, sh, f, z, v) sound like slides, and sonorants (vowels and also phonemes like y, w, r, l) sound like rings.

Even syllables are structured like solid object interactions. When we hit a bell, we hear the hit followed by the ring. The objects ring after the events of hits and slides, while the fundamental morphology of language is consonant-vowel syllable. Language uses the brains ability to derive meaning from the sound of objects by restricting language sounds to mimics of object sounds. This allows us to use part of the brain adapted for one purpose for a different but neurologically similar one.


What about the words that are formed from these phonemes? They may have their roots in onomatopoeia or the ‘bow-bow’ theory of language origin. Or perhaps synaesthesia is the first step to language, as put forward by Ramachandran and Hubbard in their 2001 paper, Synaesthisia – A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language. Asking people to guess which object had the name ‘kiki’ and which ‘bouba’, they found that 95% of people labelled the spiky object as kiki and the curvy one as bouba.


The classification of words is another possible area of embodiment. Does the brain have different processes for different types of words? Here is the abstract from Mestres-Misse, Rodriguez-Fornells, Munte (2009) Neural differences in the mapping of verb and noun concepts onto novel words:

A dissociation between noun and verb processing has been found in brain damaged patients leading to the proposal that different word classes are supported by different neural representations. This notion is supported by the facts that children acquire nouns faster and adults usually perform better for nouns than verbs in a range of tasks. In the present study, we simulated word learning in a variant of the human simulation paradigm that provided only linguistic context information and required young healthy adults to map noun or verb meanings to novel words. The mapping of a meaning associated with a new-noun and a new-verb recruited different brain regions as revealed by functional magnetic resonance imaging. While new-nouns showed greater activation in the left fusiform gyrus, larger activation was observed for new-verbs in the left posterior middle temporal gyrus and left inferior frontal gyrus (opercular part). Furthermore, the activation in several regions of the brain (for example the bilateral hippocampus and bilateral putamen) was positively correlated with the efficiency of new-noun but not new-verb learning. The present results suggest that the same brain regions that have previously been associated with the representation of meaning of nouns and verbs are also associated with the mapping of such meanings to novel words, a process needed in second language learning.


The following research reminded me of trying to learn some Swahili and dealing with the idea of noun classes, many of them. Just, Cherkassly, Aryal, Mitchell (2010) A Neurosemantic Theory of Concrete Noun Representation Based on the Underlying Brain Codes identified three noun classes. (They were not counting people, abstracts etc. in the three.) Here is the abstract:

This article describes the discovery of a set of biologically-driven semantic dimensions underlying the neural representation of concrete nouns, and then demonstrates how a resulting theory of noun representation can be used to identify simple thoughts through their fMRI patterns. We use factor analysis of fMRI brain imaging data to reveal the biological representation of individual concrete nouns like apple, in the absence of any pictorial stimuli. From this analysis emerge three main semantic factors underpinning the neural representation of nouns naming physical objects, which we label manipulation, shelter, and eating. Each factor is neurally represented in 3–4 different brain locations that correspond to a cortical network that co-activates in non-linguistic tasks, such as tool use pantomime for the manipulation factor. Several converging methods, such as the use of behavioral ratings of word meaning and text corpus characteristics, provide independent evidence of the centrality of these factors to the representations. The factors are then used with machine learning classifier techniques to show that the fMRI-measured brain representation of an individual concrete noun like apple can be identified with good accuracy from among 60 candidate words, using only the fMRI activity in the 16 locations associated with these factors. To further demonstrate the generativity of the proposed account, a theory-based model is developed to predict the brain activation patterns for words to which the algorithm has not been previously exposed. The methods, findings, and theory constitute a new approach of using brain activity for understanding how object concepts are represented in the mind.


What is the use of words? Babel’s Dawn (here) has made an excellent case for words being similar to pointing. They steering the joint attention of the speaker and listener. But by analogy words point to concepts in our brains. Grossman and Johnson (2010), Selective prefrontal cortex responses to joint attention in early infancy, show its importance to communication:

Infants engaged in joint attention use a similar region of their brain as adults do. Our study suggests that the infants are tuned to sharing attention with other humans much earlier than previously thought. This may be a vital basis for the infant’s social development and learning. In the future this approach could be used to assess individual differences in infants’ responses to joint attention and might, in combination with other measures, serve as a marker that can help with an early identification of infants at risk for autism.


We now seem to be leaving phonics and semantics to enter grammar. It seems to me that the sequence we assume is natural to the brain, goal – plan- action – result – evaluation, when fitted to our actions and the actions of others makes the form of subject – verb – object or actor – action – result, a form fitted to our brains. But in what order? Here is the abstract for Goldin-Meadow, So, Ozyurek, Mylander (2008) The natural order of events: How speakers of different languages represent events nonverbally:

To test whether the language we speak influences our behavior even when we are not speaking, we asked speakers of four languages differing in their predominant word orders (English, Turkish, Spanish, and Chinese) to perform two nonverbal tasks: a communicative task (describing an event by using gesture without speech) and a noncommunicative task (reconstructing an event with pictures). We found that the word orders speakers used in their everyday speech did not influence their nonverbal behavior. Surprisingly, speakers of all four languages used the same order and on both nonverbal tasks. This order, actor–patient–act, is analogous to the subject–object–verb pattern found in many languages of the world and, importantly, in newly developing gestural languages. The findings provide evidence for a natural order that we impose on events when describing and reconstructing them nonverbally and exploit when constructing language anew.


So why is it humans who have developed such an amazing tool for communication? There are probably many reasons – the ability to trust other individual, need to replace/enhance a gestural form of communication, the abilities gained in mastering tool making, need to care for children that were not being carried and so on. One answer is the particular FOX2P gene that humans have. The FOX2P gene is a transcription factor, that is a gene that controls the use of many other genes. It is a very old developmental gene that helps to build the fetal heart, chest and the brain at least. All vertebrates have this gene and a similar gene is found in other animals (like bees). Our particular form of the gene is different from the form in chimps and is closer to the form in song birds, bats, cetaceans and importantly Neanderthals. What do these animals have in common? – sensorimotor coordination of sound production, plasticity of neural circuits allowing learning the vocal patterns/skills, and ability to handle sequences of sound. This gene appears to have started changing in humans at least 400 thousand years ago and have reached its present form around 100 thousand years ago. Humans with a fault in this gene (a very rare condition) have severe language problems.


In thinking about the embodiment of language, we can use language as a stand-in for all of our culture. Language appears to be the most extensive and basic of our cultural constructions. It is probably one of the oldest, maybe only beaten by tool making. The evolution of a cultural change is much faster than the evolution of genetic changes. So although it is clear that language involved both cultural and genetic changes, the order would be a cultural change first taking advantage of existing body structure followed by the culture forcing a fine-tuning of the body through conventional evolution. This can ratchet up immense cultural creations on a minimum of genetic change. The continual embodiment of the culture is the key to its quick elaboration.


This is the seventh in a series on embodied cognition. There is still one to come.

Here are the first six in the series:








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