More research on language and perception

I just read an interesting article in New Scientist: “What’s in a name?: the words behind thought.” Ideas about the relationship between language and cognition have flip-flopped over the years, most recently reflecting Chomsky’s assertions that language is hardwired, and all languages have a single underlying structure. Very simply put, in other words, we’re born to communicate.  Lately, research has suggested that it’s perhaps not quite so simple (no surprise there—this is science after all, so the more we know, the more we open up the vast area of what we don’t know).

The article quotes Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University, who says, “On average, 70 per cent of our total verbal experience is in our head.” (The article doesn’t say much about how this statement is arrived at, unfortunately, but I still find it fascinating to think about.) Since this use of language is not involved in communicating with others, what’s going on?

The article mentions research with babies showing that their ability to categorize objects is heightened when they learn a category name—in other words, language contributes to learning.  Boroditsky believes that language helps us focus: “It’s like a guidebook that has been developed by thousands of people before you, who have figured out what is important for us to survive and adapt to our environment.”

The article also mentions a study by Russell Hurlburt, in which he asked 3 autistic subjects to record the form of their thoughts when they heard a (random) beep—80 per cent of their thoughts were verbal.  Three autistic subjects are not necessarily a representative sample of humanity, but it’s still an interesting result.

Other research is showing a clear connection between the words we use and what we see. For example, hearing words for vertical movement (climb, rise, or drip) increased viewers’ ability to detect movement in a display of moving dots.

So all these results give us a small window from which we can explore the power of language to shape our perception and our experience. The basic premise of hypnosis is to use the power of language to shape our perception—most often, to change a perception—and our ability to visualize the change we want to embrace.  I guess we are on the right track!

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