The Open Mind

Cogito Ergo Sum

The Co-Evolution of Language and Complex Thought

with 17 comments

Language appears to be the most profound feature that has arisen during the evolution of the human mind.  This feature of humanity has led to incredible thought complexity, and also provided the foundation for the most simplistic thoughts imaginable.  Many of us may wonder how exactly language is related to thought and also how the evolution of language has affected the evolution of thought complexity.  In this post, I plan to discuss what I believe to be some evolutionary aspects of psycholinguistics.

Mental Languages

It is clear that humans think in some form of language, whether it is accomplished as an interior monologue using our native spoken language and/or some form of what many call “mentalese” (i.e. a means of thinking about concepts and propositions without the use of words).  Our thoughts are likely accomplished by a combination of these two “types” of language.  The fact that young infants and aphasics (for example) are able to think, clearly implies that not all thoughts are accomplished through a spoken language.  It is also likely that the aforementioned “mentalese” is some innate form of mental symbolic representation that is primary in some sense, supported by the fact that it appears to be necessary in order for spoken language to develop or exist at all.  Considering that words and sentences do not have any intrinsic semantic content or value (at least non-iconic forms) illustrates that this “mentalese” is in fact a prerequisite for understanding or assigning the meaning of words and sentences.  Complex words can always be defined by a number of less complex words, but at some point a limit is reached whereby the most simple units of definition are composed of seemingly irreducible concepts and propositions.  Furthermore, those irreducible concepts and propositions do not require any words to have meaning (for if they did, we would have an infinite regress of words being defined by words being defined by words, ad infinitum).  The only time we theoretically require symbolic representation of semantic content using words is if the concepts are to be easily (if at all) communicated to others.

While some form of mentalese is likely the foundation or even ultimate form of thought, it is my contention that communicable language has likely had a considerable impact on the evolution of the human mind — not only in the most trivial or obvious way whereby communicated words affect our thoughts (e.g. through inspiration, imagination, and/or reflection of new knowledge or perspectives), but also by serving as a secondary multidimensional medium for symbolic representation. That is, spoken language (as well as its subsequent allotrope, written language) has provided a form of combinatorial leverage somewhat independent of (although working in harmony with) the mental or cognitive faculties that innately exist for thought.

To be sure, spoken language has likely co-evolved with our mentalese, as they seem to affect one another in various ways.  As new types or combinations of propositions and concepts are discovered, the spoken language has to adapt in order to make those new propositions and concepts communicable to others.  What interests me more however, is how communicable language (spoken or written) has affected the evolution of thought complexity itself.

Communicable Language and Thought Complexity

Words and sentences, which primarily developed in order to communicate instances of our mental language to others, have also undoubtedly provided a secondary multidimensional medium for symbolic representation.  For example, when we use words, we are able to compress a large amount of information (i.e. many concepts and propositions) into small tokens with varying densities.  This type of compression has provided a way to maximize our use of short-term and long-term memory in order for more complex thoughts and mental capabilities to develop (whether that increase in complexity is defined as longer strings of concepts or propositions, or otherwise).

When we think of a sentence to ourselves, we end up utilizing a phonological/auditory loop, whereby we can better handle and organize information at any single moment by internally “hearing” it.  We can also visualize the words in multiple ways including how the mouth movements of people speaking those words would look like (and we can use our tactile and/or motor memory to mentally simulate how our mouth feels when these words are spoken), and if a written form of the communicable language exists, we can actually visualize the words as they would appear in their written form (as well as the aforementioned tactile/motor memory to mentally simulate how it feels to write those words).  On top of this, we can often visualize each glyph in multiple formats (i.e. different sizes, shapes, fonts, etc.).  This has provided a multidimensional memory tool, because it serves to represent the semantic information in a way that our brain can perceive and associate with multiple senses (in this case through our auditory, visual, and somatosensory cortices).  In some cases, when a particular written language uses iconic glyphs (as opposed to arbitary symbols), the user can also visualize the concept represented by the symbol in an idealized fashion.  Associating information with multiple cognitive faculties or perceptual systems means that more neural network patterns of the brain will be involved with the attainment, retention, and recall of that information.  For those of us that have successfully used various pneumonic devices and other memory-enhancing “tricks”, we can clearly see the efficacy and importance of communicable language and its relationship to how we think about and combine various concepts and propositions.

By enhancing our memory, communicable language has served as an epistemic catalyst allowing us to build upon our previous knowledge in ways that would have likely been impossible without said language.  Once written language was developed, we were no longer limited by our own short-term and long-term memory, for we had a way of recording as much information as possible, and this also allowed us to better formulate new ideas and consider thoughts that would have otherwise been too complex to mentally visualize or keep track of.  Mathematics, for example, exponentially increased in complexity once we were able to represent the relationships between variables in a written form.  While previously we would have been limited by our short-term and long-term memory, written language allowed us to eventually formulate incredibly long (sometimes painfully long) mathematical expressions.  Once written language was converted further into an electro-mechanical language (i.e. through the use of computers), our “writing” mediums, information acquisition mechanisms, and pattern recognition capabilities, were further aided and enhanced exponentially thus providing yet another platform for an increased epistemic or cognitive “breathing space”.  If our brains underwent particular mutations after communicable language evolved, it may have provided a way to ratchet our way into entirely new cognitive niches or capabilities.  That is, by communicable language providing us with new strings of concepts and propositions, there may have been an unprecedented natural selection pressure/opportunity (if an advantageous brain mutation accompanied this new cognitive input) in order for our brain to obtain an entirely new and possibly more complex fundamental concept or way of thinking.

Summary

It seems evident to me that communicable language, once it had developed, served as an extremely important epistemic catalyst and multidimensional cognitive tool that likely had a great influence on the evolution of the human brain.  While some form of mentalese was likely a prerequisite and precursor to any subsequent forms of communicable language, the cognitive “breathing space” that communicable language provided, seems to have had a marked impact on the evolution of human thought complexity, and on the amount of knowledge that we’ve been able to obtain from the world around us.  I have no doubt that the current external linguistic tools we use (i.e. written and electronic forms of handling information) will continue to significantly alter the ongoing evolution of the human mind.  Our biological forms of memory will likely adapt in order to be economically optimized and better work with those external media.  Likewise, our increasing access to new types of information may have provided (and may continue to provide) a natural selective pressure or opportunity for our brains to evolve in order to think about entirely new and potentially more complex concepts, thereby periodically increasing the lexicon or conceptual database of our “mentalese” (assuming that those new concepts provide a survival/reproductive advantage).

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17 Responses

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  1. It is clear that humans think in some form of language, whether it is accomplished as an interior monologue using our native spoken language and/or some form of what many call “mentalese” (i.e. a means of thinking about concepts and propositions without the use of words).

    That’s not at all clear to me. I’m inclined to think it is mistaken.

    For sure, our use of language enlarges the scope of thought. So language has a role, though I think it to be an indirect one.

    Neil Rickert

    March 23, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    • That’s not at all clear to me. I’m inclined to think it is mistaken.

      So you do not believe that humans think in some form of language (e.g. “mentalese” with wordless concepts and propositions)?

      If you do not believe that we think in some form of language (mentalese or otherwise) then what alternative way of thinking do you think we utilize?

      Lage

      March 23, 2014 at 3:25 pm

      • So you do not believe that humans think in some form of language (e.g. “mentalese” with wordless concepts and propositions)?

        No, I don’t. I’d see that we think in terms of motor actions, and speech is only one of many forms of motor activity. I do not believe that there is any such thing as “mentalese” (or “language of thought” as Fodor calls it).

        Neil Rickert

        March 23, 2014 at 3:45 pm

      • “think in terms of motor actions”.
        What exactly do you mean by this?

        In order for us to have thoughts about things in our environment, we have to have some type of fundamental concepts related to one another by propositions that give meaning to what we think about. Otherwise, how are thoughts with meaning/understanding able to be accomplished? There’s some form of mental representation of these concepts and propositions, and they are arranged in a coherent syntactic way suggested by the existence of human beings’ innate language acquisition mechanisms as well as the existence of universal linguistic properties seen cross-culturally. Humans that are deaf that aren’t taught a language will invent their own. Those languages too have been seen to have the same universal linguistic properties as other languages. If these (at least partially) innate communicable linguistic properties exist, it suggests that the brain is wired to produce that language. If the brain is wired to produce it, then how can thought (somewhere in its causal process) exist without the linguistic properties needed to produce our language? Language is innate and comes easily to us because our brain is wired to understand it and think linguistically — whether we are referring to the interior monologue sense of thought, or the fundamental wordless language that likely exists as a prerequisite for communicable language.

        Lage

        March 23, 2014 at 4:32 pm

      • I think you have been reading too much philosophy.

        We accomplish things through our actions. All thought is thought about actions. Sometimes those actions are speech acts, but they are not limited to language.

        Neil Rickert

        March 23, 2014 at 4:42 pm

      • We accomplish things through our actions. All thought is thought about actions. Sometimes those actions are speech acts, but they are not limited to language.

        I think that you are completely missing the point. It doesn’t matter what the thoughts are about. That’s not what we’re talking about in this discussion. What matters is whether that thought is in some way governed by, or naturally represented in some linguistic form. You’ve not addressed how innate language acquisition is possible without it being produced by language mediated thought processes.

        Lage

        March 23, 2014 at 4:55 pm

      • What matters is whether that thought is in some way governed by, or naturally represented in some linguistic form.

        That may be your a priori assumption. I cannot find any basis for it.

        Thought is just simulation, typically simulation of possible future behavior, and evaluation of that simulation. There’s no requirement of linguistic form as far as I can tell.

        Neil Rickert

        March 23, 2014 at 5:34 pm

      • I believe that you are simply missing the point. You still have not addressed how innate language acquisition is possible without it being produced by language mediated thought processes.

        Lage

        March 23, 2014 at 5:46 pm

      • That may be your a priori assumption. I cannot find any basis for it.

        The argument is whether or not we think in some kind of language. What evidence do you have that we don’t think in some form of a language? Also, how can you explain innate language acquisition mechanisms without linguistic mediated thought?

        Lage

        March 23, 2014 at 5:47 pm

      • You are asking me to prove a negative?

        A lot of my own thinking is non-linguistic.

        I have no idea why you think that language acquisition requires linguistic mediated thought.

        Neil Rickert

        March 23, 2014 at 8:05 pm

      • A lot of my own thinking is non-linguistic.

        Give me one example of a thought that doesn’t involve some representation of concepts and propositions.

        I have no idea why you think that language acquisition requires linguistically mediated thought.

        Simply because thought involves our conscious perception of the world, and an innate language acquisition mechanism implies that our conscious perception of reality is mediated by the same structure. The fact that the brain produces a communicable language and has to have a way to assign meaning to that communicable language implies that there must be a linguistic prerequisite prior to the production of communicable language (otherwise how can we have meaning and understanding of said communicable language?). If all thoughts involve concepts and propositions, then all thought involves language. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that all thought involves communicable language (although it can as per interior monologue). It simply means that all thoughts have to at least involve some wordless form of language that assigns meaning to the concepts and propositions that we often subsequently put into a worded form. Thus, we think using some kind of language (even if it is a wordless form of concepts and propositions).

        Lage

        March 23, 2014 at 8:28 pm

      • Give me one example of a thought that doesn’t involve some representation of concepts and propositions.

        “A thought” does not make sense to me. Thinking is a process, an action, not a collection of objects.

        As an example, my thinking about infinite dimensional Hilbert spaces is geometric, not propositional.

        The fact that the brain produces a communicable language and has to have a way to assign meaning to that communicable language implies that there must be a linguistic prerequisite prior to the production of communicable language (otherwise how can we have meaning and understanding of said communicable language?).

        I don’t see that as any kind of argument.

        By isolating thinking to the brain (instead of the whole person), and by treating the brain as if it were a mindless mechanism, you have created a false account.

        We think. We do not assign meaning to language. Our experience and thoughts are full of meaning, and we express that with language. But it isn’t any kind of encoding process such as “assign meaning” might suggest. Maybe try Wittgenstein, and his idea that meaning is use.

        Neil Rickert

        March 24, 2014 at 9:10 am

      • “A thought” does not make sense to me.

        Then we will not be able to discuss this topic much at all.

        As an example, my thinking about infinite dimensional Hilbert spaces is geometric, not propositional.

        I would argue that your thoughts about geometry are propositional. What you are thinking about are propositions of geometry. Any thought you have is going to be propositional where you believe something to be the case about a subject/object.

        Lage

        March 24, 2014 at 10:05 am

      • I would argue that your thoughts about geometry are propositional.

        Mostly not. When I get to that degree of specifics, then I’m more likely to be thinking at least partly linguistically. But a lot of geometric thinking is exploring structure. For example, I might be thinking of motions.

        Neil Rickert

        March 24, 2014 at 11:05 am

      • Whether you are exploring structure, motion, etc., it is propositions about those aspects. It involves nothing but concepts and propositions, whether they are geometric/mathematical propositions or not.

        Lage

        March 24, 2014 at 11:39 am

  2. Paradoxically, language can be used to control and diminish thought; the frustrated “Prison House of Language” of Nietzsche, or for that matter, comedian George Carlin discussing the “devolution” of language (e.g. how a phrase that has a visceral effect on the listener, “shell shocked,” became over 50 years “post traumatic stress disorder,” something very clinical and sterile–and less alarming).

    But yes–as the Good Book says, “In the beginning there was the Word.”

    Or as I looked at in Terrence Malick’s American Eden myth “The New World”: http://nilesfilmfiles.blogspot.com/2011/06/everywhere-we-go-we-encounter-language.html

    Niles Schwartz

    March 25, 2014 at 11:21 am

    • Niles,

      First of all, thank you for reading and commenting on the post.

      Paradoxically, language can be used to control and diminish thought; the frustrated “Prison House of Language” of Nietzsche,

      I think that Nietzsche was mistaken here as his assertion (which appears to be linguistic determinism) was based on the false assumption that we exclusively think in our spoken language. If that were true, then it seems plausible that having a lack of words or understanding for certain concepts in that spoken language would indeed limit our thought (See variations of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis for example). What most researchers have found however, is that despite the many different spoken languages that exist cross-culturally, people seem to have a common understanding of the world based on a common pool of concepts, indicating that if thought is ultimately governed by any kind of language, it would likely be a universal language shared by all normal human beings. Language acquisition also appears to be innate, and this supports the case for an innate mental language as well since eventually during the ontogenic evolution of a human being (in an environment with strong communication pressures), thoughts have to become syntactically and semantically correlated to a spoken language that is culturally/environmentally inherited. If linguistic determinism was expanded to include a mental language (i.e. “mentalese”) as well, then I think that the concept as well as Nietzsche’s assertion would definitely have merit. I don’t doubt that the language we speak can place some limits on our thoughts (or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that language can “affect” our thoughts), but I think that ultimately it is our mentalese that sets the limit of thought through its innate and hard-wired lexicon of atomic or fundamental concepts.

      …comedian George Carlin discussing the “devolution” of language…

      Yeah, Carlin definitely pointed out how people’s power over spoken language can create strange never ending runaway effects, for example, when swear words become over-used and lose their taboo-induced efficacy and as a result new swear words have to be created. As for the “devolution” of language, I like what Carlin has said about how people euphemizing and trying not to offend others end up masking or changing the semantic content of what is spoken such that they end up communicating less of their intentions, and thus the primary communicative function of language has in many instances “devolved” (i.e. become less efficient). In these cases we can see how our power over spoken language (combined with the fact that there isn’t a one-to-one correlation between what we say and what we think) can often create complex consequences for subsequent thought, the evolution of the spoken language, and the relationship between the two.

      I’ll have to take a look at your post on Terrence Malick, as it sounds interesting. I’ll look at it sometime today for sure.

      Lage

      March 25, 2014 at 2:22 pm


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