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Apr
15th
Fri
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Evolution of Language tested with genetic analysis


                                   Human Migration, National Geographic

Evolutionary Babel was in southern Africa

"Where did humanity utter its first words? A new linguistic analysis attempts to rewrite the story of Babel by borrowing from the methods of genetic analysis – and finds that modern language originated in sub-Saharan Africa and spread across the world with migrating human populations.

Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand designed a computer program to analyse the diversity of 504 languages. Specifically, the program focused on phonemes – the sounds that make up words, like “c”, “a”, and “tch” in the word “catch”.

Earlier research has shown that the more people speak a language, the higher its phonemic diversity. Large populations tend to draw on a more varied jumble of consonants, vowels and tones than smaller .

Africa turned out to have the greatest phonemic diversity – it is the only place in the world where languages incorporate clicks of the tongue into their vocabularies, for instance – while South America and Oceania have the smallest. Remarkably, this echoes genetic analyses showing that African populations have higher genetic diversity than European, Asian and American populations.

This is generally attributed to the "serial founder" effect: it’s thought that humans first lived in a large and genetically diverse population in Africa, from which smaller groups broke off and migrated to what is now Europe. Because each break-off group carried only a subset of the genetic diversity of its parent group, this migration was, in effect, written in the migrants’ genes.

Dr. Mark Pagel sees language as central to human expansion across the globe.

“Language was our secret weapon, and as soon we got language we became a really dangerous species, he said.

— Nicholas Wade, Phonetic Clues Hint Language Is Africa-Born, NYT, Apr 14, 2011.

Mother language

Atkinson argues that the process was mirrored in languages: as smaller populations broke off and spread across the world, human language lost some of its phonemic diversity, and sounds that humans first spoke in the African Babel were left behind.

To test this, Atkinson compared the phoneme content of languages around the world and used this analysis to determine the most likely origin of all language. He found that sub-Saharan Africa was a far better fit for the origin of modern language than any other location. (…)

"It’s a compelling idea," says Sohini Ramachandran of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who studies population genetics and human evolution. "Language is such an adaptive thing that it makes sense to have a single origin before the diaspora out of Africa. It’s also a nice confirmation of what we have seen in earlier genetic studies. The processes that shaped genetic variation of humans may also have shaped cultural traits.”

Ferris Jabr, Evolutionary Babel was in southern Africa, New Scientist, 14 April 2011. (Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1199295)


             Out of Africa (Map source: The Mother of All Languages, WSJ.com, Apr 15, 2011)

Language universality idea tested with biology method

                   
(The study challenges the idea that the “language centres” of our brains are the sole driver of language)

A long-standing idea that human languages share universal features that are dictated by human brain structure has been cast into doubt.

A study reported in Nature has borrowed methods from evolutionary biology to trace the development of grammar in several language families.

The results suggest that features shared across language families evolved independently in each lineage.

The authors say cultural evolution, not the brain, drives language development.

At the heart of both studies is a method based on what are known as phylogenetic studies.

Lead author Michael Dunn, an evolutionary linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, said the approach is akin to the study of pea plants by Gregor Mendel, which ultimately led to the idea of heritability of traits. (…)

He inferred the existence of some kind of information transfer just from knowing family trees and observing variation, and that’s exactly the same thing we’re doing.”

Family trees

Modern phylogenetics studies look at variations in animals that are known to be related, and from those can work out when specific structures evolved.

For their studies, the team studied the characteristics of word order in four language families: Indo-European, Uto-Aztec, Bantu and Austronesian.

They considered whether what we call prepositions occur before or after a noun (“in the boat” versus “the boat in”) and how the word order of subject and object work out in either case (“I put the dog in the boat” versus “I the dog put the canoe in”).

The method starts by making use of well-established linguistic data on words and grammar within these language families, and building “family trees” of those languages.

"Once we have those trees we look at distribution of these different word order features over the descendant languages, and build evolutionary models for what’s most likely to produce the diversity that we observe in the world," Dr Dunn said.

The models revealed that while different language structures in the family tree could be seen to evolve along the branches, just how and when they evolved depended on which branch they were on.

We show that each of these language families evolves according to its own set of rules, not according to a universal set of rules,” Dr Dunn explained.

"That is inconsistent with the dominant ‘universality theories’ of grammar; it suggests rather that language is part of not a specialised module distinct from the rest of cognition, but more part of broad human cognitive skills.”

The paper asserts instead that “cultural evolution is the primary factor that determines linguistic structure, with the current state of a linguistic system shaping and constraining future states”.

However, co-author and evolutionary biologist Russell Gray of the University of Auckland stressed that the team was not pitting biology against culture in a mutually exclusive way.

We’re not saying that biology is irrelevant - of course it’s not,” Professor Gray told BBC News.

"But the clumsy argument about an innate structure of the human mind imposing these kind of ‘universals’ that we’ve seen in cognitive science for such a long time just isn’t tenable."

Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard University, called the work “an important and welcome study”.

However, Professor Pinker told BBC News that the finer details of the method need bearing out in order to more fully support their hypothesis that cultural boundaries drive the development of language more than biological limitations do.

The [authors] suggest that the human mind has a tendency to generalise orderings across phrases of different types, which would not occur if the mind generated every phrase type with a unique and isolated rule.

"The tendency may be partial, and it may be elaborated in different ways in differently language families, but it needs an explanation in terms of the working of the mind of language speakers."

— Jason Palmer, Science and technology reporter, Language universality idea tested with biology method, BBC News, 14 April 2011.

Evolution of Language Takes Unexpected Turn

"The findings “do not support simple ideas of the mind as a computer, with a language processor plugged in. They support much-more complex ideas of how language arises.” (…)

 One school of thought, pioneered by linguist Noam Chomsky, holds that language is a product of dedicated mechanisms in the human brain. These can be imagined as a series of switches, each corresponding to particular forms of grammar and syntax and structure.

Such a system would account for why, of the nearly infinite number of languages that are possible — imagine, for instance, a language in which verb conjugation changes randomly; it is possible — relatively few actually exist. Our brains have adapted to contain a limited, universal set of switches.

A limited set of linguistic universals is exactly what was described by the late, great comparative linguist Joseph Greenberg, who empirically tabulated features common to language. He made no claims as to neurological origin, but the essential claim overlapped with Chomsky’s: Language has universals.

If you speak a subject-verb-object language, one in which “I kick the ball,” then you likely use prepositions — “over the fence.” If you speak a subject-object-verb language, one in which “I the ball kicked,” then you almost certainly use postpositions — “the fence over.” And so on.

“What both these views predict is that languages should evolve according to the same set of rules,” said Dunn. “No matter what the language, no matter what the family, if there are two features of language that are somehow linked together structurally, they should be linked together the same way in all languages.”

That’s what Dunn, along with University of Auckland (New Zealand) computational linguist Russell Gray, set out to test.

Unlike earlier linguists, however, Dunn and Gray had access to powerful computational tools that, when set to work on sets of data, calculate the most likely relationships between the data. Such tools are well known in evolutionary biology, where they’re used to create trees of descent from genetic readings, but they can be applied to most anything that changes over time, including language.

     

In the new study, Dunn and Gray’s team created evolutionary trees for eight word-order features in humanity’s best-described language groups — Austronesian, Indo-European, Bantu and Uto-Aztecan. Together they contain more than one-third of humanity’s 7,000 languages, and span thousands of years. If there are universal trends, say Dunn and Gray, they should be visible, with each language family evolving along similar lines.

That’s not what they found.

“Each language family is evolving according to its own set of rules. Some were similar, but none were the same,” said Dunn. “There is much more diversity, in terms of evolutionary processes, than anybody ever expected.”

In one representative example of divergence (diagram above), both Austronesian and Indo-European languages that linked prepositions and object-verb structures (“over the fence, ball kicked) tended to evolve preposition and verb-object structures (“over the fence, kicked ball.”) That’s exactly what universalism would predict.

But when Austronesian and Indo-European languages both started from postposition, verb-object arrangements (“the fence over, kicked ball”), they ended up in different places. Austronesian tended towards preposition, verb-object (“over the fence, kicked ball”) but Indo-European tended towards postposition, object-verb (“the fence over, ball kicked.”)

Such differences might be eye-glazing to people unaccustomed to diagramming sentences, but the upshot is that the two language families took opposite trajectories. Many other comparisons followed suit. “The things specific to language families trumped any kind of universals we could look for,” said Dunn.

“We see that there isn’t any sort of rigid” progression of changes, said University of Reading (England) evolutionary linguist Mark Pagel, who wasn’t involved in the study. “There seems to be quite a lot of fluidity. That leads me to believe this isn’t something where you’re throwing a lot of parameter switches.”

Instead of a simple set of brain switches steering language evolution, cultural circumstance played a role. Changes were the product of chance, or perhaps fulfilled as-yet-unknown needs. For whatever reason, “the fence over, ball kicked” might have been especially useful to Indo-European speakers, but not Austronesians.

There is, however, still room for universals, said Pagel. After all, even if culture and circumstance shapes language evolution, it’s still working with a limited set of possibilities. Of the six possible combinations of subject, verb and object, for example, just two — “I kicked the ball” and “I the ball kicked” — are found in more than 90 percent of all languages, with Yoda-style “Kicked I the ball” exceedingly rare. People do seem to prefer some structures.

“What languages have in common is to be found at a much deeper level. They must emerge from more-general cognitive capacities,” said Dunn.

What those capacities may be is a new frontier for investigation. As for Dunn, his team next plans to conduct similar analyses on other features of language, searching for further evolutionary differences or those deeper levels of universality.”

“This can be applied to every level of language structure,” he said.

Brandon Keim, Evolution of Language Takes Unexpected Turn, Wired.com, April 14, 2011.

See also:

☞ Andis Kaulins, Principles of Historical Language Reconstruction, AABECIS, Feb 24, 2010.
Researchers Synthesize Evolution of Language
Evolution of Language Parallels Evolution of Species
Gut Bacteria, Language Analysis Solve Pacific Migration Mystery
Cultural Evolution Could Be Studied in Google Books Database
Human-Chimp Gene Comparison Hints at Roots of Language
Mark Changizi on how we read
Mark Changizi, The Topography Of Language, Science 2.0, Sep 17, 2009.
A brief history of writing
Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals, Word-Order Research, Basic Vocabulary Database
The Tree of Life: Tangled Roots and Sexy Shoots. Tracing the genetic pathway from the first Eukaryotes to Homo sapiens.
The Genographic Project ☞ A Landmark Study of the Human Journey

Apr
14th
Thu
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Language and Your Brain (infographic)


                                                            (Click image to enlarge)

"For decades, research into the brain basis of language was limited to the study of the effects of neurological disease and brain lesions on human language processing and production. Nowadays, however, new techniques are allowing researchers to create a picture of a normal brain at work processing language - helping to shed light on the mysteries of language and the brain."

Language and Your Brain, Voxy Blog, Apr 5, 2011.

Apr
4th
Mon
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The conduit metaphor

Marten van Valckenborch, Tower of Babel (c.1600)
“Alleviating social and cultural difficulties requires better communication. And the problem that faces us is, how do we improve our communication? It will not do to set out posthaste to “solve the problem” of inadequate communication. The most pressing task is rather to start inquiring immediately about how that problem presents itself to us.” — (Michael J. Reddy, The Conduit Metaphor - A case of Frame Conflict in Our Language about Language, (pdf) 1979)
The Conduit metaphor operates whenever people speak or write as if they “insert” their mental contents (feelings, meanings, thoughts, concepts, etc.) into “containers” (words, phrases, sentences, etc.) whose contents are then “extracted” by listeners and readers. Thus, language is viewed as a “conduit” conveying mental content between people.

The Conduit metaphor paradigm states that communication failure needs explanation, because success should be automatic. Conversely, the toolmakers paradigm states that partial miscommunication is inherent and can only be fixed by continuous effort and extensive verbal interaction. (Wiki)
“The conduit metaphor is leading us down a technological and social blind alley. That blind alley is mass communications systems coupled with mass neglect of the internal, human systems responsible for nine-tenths of the work in communicating. We think we are “capturing ideas in words,” and funneling them out to the greatest public in the history of the world. But if there are no ideas “within” this endless flood of words, then all we are doing is replaying the myth of Babel—centering it, this time, around a broadcasting tower.” — (Michael J. Reddy, The Conduit Metaphor - A case of Frame Conflict in Our Language about Language, (pdf) 1979)
(tnx jamreilly)
Apr
2nd
Sat
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John Shotter on encounters with ‘Other’ - from inner mental representation to dialogical social practices

                
                                      
M. C. Escher, Relativity (july 1953)

"It is then that the reader asks that crucial question, ‘What’s it all about?’ But what ‘it’ is, is not the actual text… but the text the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his [or her] own." Jerome Seymour Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986, p.37.

"Only in the stream of thought and life do words have meaning." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H.V. Wright (Eds.). Oxford: Blackwell, 1981, no.173.

One of our tasks in understanding an Other, is to do justice to the uniqueness of their otherness. But this is not easy, for, as we shall see, it is in how they express themselves in dialogically structured events that occur between us only in unique, fleeting moments, that we can grasp who and what they are. (…)

In his review of George Steiner's essay ('A new meaning of meaning,' in TLS, 8th Nov, 1985), he comments that such a stance in art, is

"a belief that meaning (or meanings) lies in the work of art, embodied, incarnate, a real presence… It is a faith in meaning incarnate in the work of art that captures the ‘immensity of the commonplace’, that changes our very construction of reality: ‘poplars are on fire after Van Gogh’… The literary artist, it would follow from this argument, becomes an agent in the evolution of mind - but not without the co-option of the reader as his fellow author.”

Crossing boundaries

Almost all of us are now members of more than a single active culture. Thus the experience of having to ‘cross’ cultural boundaries, of having continually to ‘shift one’s stance’, of having to view one’s surroundings, fleeting aspect by fleeting aspect rather than perspectively (Wittgenstein, 1953), to make sense of what is happening around us while being ourselves in ‘motion’, so to speak, has now become a ‘normal’ activity. But what, as academics and intellectuals, must we do in the new dialogical, aspectival circumstances in which we now live, to pay attention to ‘the practices of Self’? Can we just apply our old and well tried methods to this new topic of study? Or must we, if we are to grasp the nature of such practices, invent some new methods, act in some new and different ways? (…)

Milan Kundera's comments - to do with us only very recently coming to a realization of the strangeness of the ordinary, the strangeness of the present moment in all its concreteness - are of crucial importance to us. For presently, as he points out:

"When we analyze a reality, we analyze it as it appears in our mind, in memory. We know reality only in the past tense. We do not know it as it is in the present, in the moment when it’s happening, when it is. The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting".

Similarly, Jerome Seymour Bruner (1986, p.13) remarks that what he calls the paradigmatic or logico- scientific mode of thought, "seeks to transcend the particular by higher and higher reaching for abstraction, and in the end disclaims in principle any explanatory value at all where the particular is concerned".

What Kundera and Bruner are reminding us of here, is not only that our current intellectual methods are monological and individualistic, and that as moderns we only really fully alive when set over against our surroundings all alone, but that we also import into our accounts of what happens around us, mythic abstractions of our own making. Positioning ourselves as if observers from afar of someone playing a back and forth, turn taking game - tennis say - we fail to realize that we are the other players in the game, that others act in response to how we act. Lacking any intellectual grasp of the relation of their activity to ours and to the circumstances we share with them, we try to explain what we observe of their activities as if originating solely from within them as self-contained individuals. Ignoring the ‘calls’ of their surrounding circumstances to which they ‘answer’, we invent mythic entities located inside them somewhere that, theoretically, we suppose causes them to act as they do (Wittgenstein, 1953), and set out to prove our theories true. (…)

As I see it, only if we institute a third, dialogical revolution of a kind that calls all our previous methods into question, and suggests wholly new intellectual practices and institutions to us, can we begin to fashion forms of inquiry that will do justice to the uniqueness of the being of Others. (…)

Psychology technicalized and demoralized

In attempting to bring ‘mind’ back into psychology, Bruner didn’t want just to add “a little mentalism” to behaviorism, but to do something much more profound: he wanted to discover and describe "what meaning-making processes were implicated" in people’s encounters with the world; its aim was “to prompt psychology to joining forces with its sister interpretative disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences”.

Indeed, although he admits that "we were slow to fully grasp what the emergence of culture meant for human adaptation and for human functioning" - to contrast with what he calls computationalism - he goes on to outline in this and in his latest book, The Culture of Education), a "second approach to the nature of mind - call it culturalism. It takes its inspiration from the evolutionary fact that mind could not exist save for culture." As he remarks in Acts of Meaning:

"What was obvious from the start was perhaps too obvious to be fully appreciated, at least by us psychologists who by habit and by tradition think in rather individualist terms. The symbolic systems that individual used in constructing meaning were systems that were already in place, already ‘there’, deeply entrenched in culture and language. They constituted a very special kind of communal tool kit whose tools, once used, made the user a reflection of the community… As Clifford Geertz puts it, without the constituting role of culture we are ‘unworkable monstrosities… incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture.”

The ‘movements’ at work in our dialogic encounters with an Other

To refer to issues he has brought to our attention, let me now return to Bruner’s  account of narrative modes of thought in his ‘Two modes…' (…) In the story, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of a stone bridge, describing it stone by stone. But Kublai Khan gets impatient and seeks what some of us would now call ‘the bottom line’, and asks what supports the stones? ‘The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,’ Marco answers, ‘but by the line of the arch that they form.’ Then ‘Why do you speak to me of the stones?,’ Kublai Khan demands. ‘Without stones there is no arch,’ Polo replies - for the arch is ‘in’ the relations between the stones. And as Bruner goes on to point out, in their reading of the story, the reader goes from stones to arches to the significance of arches to some broader reality - goes back and forth between them in attempting finally to construct a sense of the story, its form, its meaning. Sometimes in reading stories, we can attend from the relations among their particularities to something much more general. But, what kind of textual structures allow or invite such a move? How is the sense of a more general significance achieved? And ‘in’ what does that more general significance consist?

It is only in our reading of texts of a narrative kind, Bruner maintains, that we can encounter others or othernesses that are strange and novel to us. In reading such texts, individuals begin to construct what Bruner a ‘virtual text’ of their own - where it is as if readers

were embarking on a journey without maps… [Where] in time, the new journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with the reader’s sense of the ordinary… [This] is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his [or her] own' (Bruner, 1986, pp.36-37).

To repeat: It is the way in which such texts ‘subjunctivize reality’ - or traffic ‘in human possibilities rather than settled certainties,’ as he puts it (Bruner, 1986, p.26) - that makes the co-creation of such virtual worlds between authors and their readers possible. (…)

As he points out, the existence of conventions and maxims that are constitutive of a normative background to our activities, ‘provides us with the means of violating them for purposes of meaning more than we say or for meaning other than what we say (as in irony, for example) or for meaning less than we say (Bruner, 1986, p.26).

This background, and the possibility of us deviating from it, is crucial to his whole approach. Indeed, he emphasizes it again in Acts of Meaning, where he comments on his efforts to describe a people’s ‘folk psychology’ as follows: ‘I wanted to show how human beings, in interacting with one another, form a sense of the canonical and ordinary as a background against which to interpret and give narrative meaning to breaches in and deviations from ‘normal’ states of the human condition' (Bruner, 1990, p.67).

It is the very creation of indeterminacy and uncertainty by the devices people use in their narrative forms of thought and talk, that make it possible for them to co-create unique meanings between them as their dialogical activities unfold. ‘To mean in this way,’ suggests Bruner, ‘by the use of such intended violations… is to create ‘gaps’ and to recruit presuppositions to fill them. Indeed, our own unique responses to our own unique circumstances are ‘carried’ in the subtle variations in how we put these constitutive forms of response to use, as we bodily react, and thus relate ourselves, to what goes on around us. This is what it is for us to perform meaning. And we ‘show’ our understanding of such ‘performed meanings’ in our ways of ‘going on’ with the others around us in practice - to put the matter in Wittgenstein’s (1953) terms. I shall call the kind of meaning involved here, that are only intelligible to us against an already existing background of the activities constitutive of our current forms of life, joint, first-time - or only ‘once occurrent’ (Bakhtin, 1993, p.2) - variational meanings, that are expressive of the ‘world’ of an unique ‘it’ or ‘I’. (…)

In exploring the problem of how it is possible to perform meaning in practice, of how, say, the process of intending might work, Wittgenstein suggests that we might feel tempted to say that such a process ‘can do what it is supposed to only by containing an extremely faithful picture of what it intends.’ But having said this much, he goes on to point out:

"That that too does not go far enough, because a picture, whatever it may be, can be variously interpreted; hence this picture too in its turn stands isolated. When one has the picture in view by itself it is suddenly dead, and it is as if something had been taken away from it, which had given it life before… it remains isolated, it does not point outside itself to a reality beyond.

Now one says: ‘Of course, it is not the picture itself that intends, but we who use it to intend something’. But if this intending, this meaning, is in turn something that is done with the picture, then I cannot see why it has to involve a human being. The process of digestion can also be studied as a chemical process, independently of whether it takes place in a living being. We want to say ‘Meaning is surely essentially a mental process, a process of conscious life, not of dead matter’…

And now it seems to us as if intending could not be any process at all, of any kind whatever. - For what we are dissatisfied with here is the grammar of process, not with the specific kind of process. - It could be said: we should call any process ‘dead’ in this sense’ (no. 236). ‘It might almost be said,’ he adds: 'Meaning moves, whereas a process stands still”.

Meaning as movement

In other words, instead of meaning being a cognitive process of statically ‘picturing’ something, Wittgenstein sees it here in a quite different light: as part of an ongoing, dynamic, interactive process in which people as embodied agents are continuously reacting in a living, practical way, both to each other and to their circumstances.

Thus, even as a person is speaking, the bodily and facial responses of the others around them to what they say, are acting back upon them to influence them moment by moment in their ‘shaping’ of their talk as it unfolds. In such circumstances as these, we are inevitably doing much more than merely talking ‘about’ something; we are continuously living out changing ‘ways of relating’ ourselves to our circumstances, of our own creation; or as Wittgenstein (1953) would say, we are creating certain, particular ‘forms of life’.

Thus, in practice, as we tack back and forth between the particular words of a strange, newly encountered, meaning- indeterminate story or text, and the whole of the already ongoing, unsayable, dynamic cultural history in which we all are, in different ways, to some extent, immersed, we perform meaning. In so doing, in ‘bridging the gaps’ with the responsive movements we make as we read, we creatively ‘move’ over what Bruner (1986) calls the ‘landscapes’ of a ‘virtual text.’ And what is general in our reading, what we can ‘carry over’ from what we do as we read into the doing of other activities, are these responsive ‘ways of moving’ of our own spontaneous creation - ways of ‘orchestrating’ our moment by moment changing relations to our past, our future, the others around us, our immediate physical surroundings, authorities, our cultural history, our dreams for the future, and so on, relating ourselves in these different directions perceptually, cognitively, in action, in memory, and so on (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986). We can ‘carry over’ into new spheres of activity what is ‘carried in’ our initial ways of bodily responding to a text in the first place.

Viewed in this way, as calling out from us possibly quite new, first-time responsive movements, rather than as being about something in the world, such meaning indeterminate texts can be seen as a special part of the world, an aspect of our surroundings to which we cannot not - if we are to grasp their meaning for us - relate ourselves in a living way. So, although such texts may seem to be not too different from those presented as being ‘about’ something - that is, from texts with a representational-referential meaning that ‘pictures’ a state of affairs in the world - their meaning cannot be found in such a picturing. We must relate ourselves to them in a quite different way.

For their meaning is of a much more practical, pre-theoretical, pre-conceptual kind: to do with providing us with way or style of knowing, rather than with a knowledge or ‘picture’ of something in particular. To put it another way: in its reading, such texts are exemplary for not of a certain way of going on. It is exemplary for a new way of relating ourselves to our circumstances not before followed; it provides us with new poetic images through which, possibly, to make sense of things, not images or representations of things already in existence.

Concerning the creative effects of certain styles or genres of writing on us, or works of art in general, Susan Sontag (1962) has written:

To become involved with a work of art entails, to be sure, the experience of detaching oneself from the world. But the work of art itself is also a vibrant, magical, and exemplary object which returns us to the world in some way more open and enriched…

Raymond Bayer has written: ‘What each and every aesthetic object imposes on us, in appropriate rhythms, is a unique and singular formula for the flow of our energy… Every work of art embodies a principle of proceeding, of stopping, of scanning; an image of energy or relaxation, the imprint of a caressing or destroying hand which is [the artist’s] alone’. We can call this the physiognomy of the work, or its rhythm, or, as I would rather do, its style (p.28).

Where the function of such a ‘moving’ form of communication is, not only to make a unique other or otherness we have not previously witnessed, present to us for the very first time, but to provide us with the opportunity to embody the new ‘way of going on’ that only it can call out from us. But to do this, to come to embody its ‘way’, we must encounter and witness its distinct nature in all its complex detail. If we turn too quickly merely to its explanation, not only do we miss what new it can teach us, but the turn is pointless: for, literally, we do not yet know what we are talking about.

As this stance toward meaning as living, only once occurrent, joint, variational movement, is still very unfamiliar to us, let me explore its nature yet a little more: Remarking further about the living nature of meaning, Wittgenstein (1981) comments that he wants to say that When we mean something, it’s like going up to someone, it’s not having a dead picture (of any kind)’. We go up to the thing we mean (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.455).

For instance, as we view, say, a picture such as Van Gogh's Sunflowers, we can enter into an extended, unfolding, living relation with it, one that ebbs and flows, that vacillates and oscillates, as we respond to it in different ways. What we sense, we sense from inside our relations to it: ‘It is as if at first we looked at a picture so as to enter into it and the objects in it surrounded us like real ones; and then we stepped back, and were now outside it; we saw the frame and the picture was a painted surface. In this way, when we intend, we are surrounded by our intention’s pictures, and we are inside them' (1981, no.233).

Indeed, he says elsewhere: It often strikes is as if in grasping meaning the mind made small rudimentary movements, like someone irresolute who does not know which way to go - i.e., it tentatively reviews the field of possible applications (Wittgenstein, 1981, no.33).

The novelist John Berger (1979) has also written about the act of writing in a similar fashion:

The act of writing is nothing except the act of approaching the experience written about; just as, hopefully, the act of reading the written text is a comparable act of approach. To approach experience, however, is not like approaching a house. ‘Life’, as the Russian proverb says, ‘is not a walk across an open field’. Experience is indivisible and continuous, at least within a single lifetime and perhaps over many lifetimes. I never have the impression that my experience is entirely my own, and it often seems to me that it preceded me. In any case experience folds back on itself, refers backwards and forwards to itself through the referents of hope and fear; and, by the use of metaphor, which is at the origin of language, it is continually comparing like with unlike, what is small with what is large, what is near with what is distant. And the act of approaching a given moment of experience involves both scrutiny (closeness) and the capacity to connect (distance).

The movement of writing resembles that of a shuttle on a loom: repeatedly it approaches and withdraws, closes in and takes its distance. Unlike a shuttle, however, it is not fixed to a static frame. as the movement of writing itself, its intimacy with the experience increases. Finally, if one is fortunate, meaning is the fruit of this intimacy.” (John Berger, 1979, p.6, my emphases).

(…)

Describing (and explaining?) the dialogical: ‘the difficulty here is: to stop’

Although such a way of looking for the fleeting, only once occurrent details of our interactions is not easy to implement, it is of the crux. For, as he puts it, the problems we face are not empirical problems to be solved by giving explanations: ‘they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in spite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have already known (no.109) - but which so far, has passed us by in our everyday dealings with each other unnoticed.

Thus, as Wittgenstein (1953) sees it, although not easily accomplished, the task is not to imagine, and then to empirically investigate possible ‘mechanisms’ within us responsible for us being able to mean things to each other, but to describe how we in fact do do it in practice. Indeed, to repeat Kundera’s (1993) remark above:an event as we imagine it hasn’t much to do with the same event as it is when it happens (p.139) - for we can only theorize events as distinct upon their completion, after they have made one or another kind of sense, once they have an already achieved meaning. Something incomplete, something that we are still in the middle of, something that we are still involved in or ‘inside of’, cannot properly be described in a theoretically distinct way.

Thus, if we still nonetheless attempt to do so, we will miss out - or better, we will tend to overlook - many of its most significant details; and in so doing, we will find ourselves puzzled as to how we do in fact manage the doing of meaning between us. There must - we will say to each other - be something else that we have missed, something hidden in what we do when we mean things to each other, that needs discovering and explaining. But, suggests Wittgenstein (1953), in asking and answering his own question: ‘How do sentences do it [i.e., manage to represent something]? - Don’t you know? For nothing is hidden”. (…) There are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call ‘symbols’, ‘words’, ‘sentences’. And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but types of language, new language-games, as we say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten.

Once we go beyond the confines of established language-games, we are once again in the realm of the indeterminate, where are meanings are ambiguous and can only be made determinate by us ‘playing them out’, so to speak, within a practice. Our language-games cannot themselves be explained, as they are the bases in terms of which all our explanations in fact work as explanations. (…)

Instead of a theoretical, explanatory account of their workings, we need first to come to a practical understanding of the joint, dialogical nature of our lives together. And if we are to do that, if we are to see, as Bruner puts it, the ways in which we ‘violate’ the norms of our institutions, then, we also must violate the norms of our institutions.”

John Shotter, Emeritus Professor of Communication in the Department of Communication, University of New Hampshire, Towards at third revolution in psychology: From inner mental representation to dialogical social practices

See also:

The Relativity of Truth - a brief résumé, Lapidarium
Map–territory relation - a brief résumé, Lapidarium

Mar
30th
Wed
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Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning

                      
                                                       Vladimir Kush, Atlas Of Wander

"The way we talk about complex and abstract ideas is suffused with metaphor. In five experiments, we explore how these metaphors influence the way that we reason about complex issues and forage for further information about them. We find that even the subtlest instantiation of a metaphor (via a single word) can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve social problems like crime and how they gather information to make “well-informed” decisions. Interestingly, we find that the influence of the metaphorical framing effect is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as influential in their decisions; instead they point to more “substantive” (often numerical) information as the motivation for their problem-solving decision. Metaphors in language appear to instantiate frame-consistent knowledge structures and invite structurally consistent inferences. Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes, metaphors have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues. We find that exposure to even a single metaphor can induce substantial differences in opinion about how to solve social problems. (…)

Even fleeting and seemingly unnoticed metaphors in natural language can instantiate complex knowledge structures and influence people’s reasoning in a way that is similar to the role that schemas, scripts, and frames have been argued to play in reasoning and memory. (…)

We find that the metaphors were most effective when they were presented early in the narrative and were then able to help organize and coerce further incoming information. (…)

Through analogical transfer in this way, systems of metaphors in language can encourage the creation of systems of knowledge in a wide range of domains. Our reasoning about many complex domains then can be mediated through these patchworks of analogically-created representations. A final question is how strong the influence of metaphorical framing really is? Focusing on a real-world social issue like crime allows us to compare the effects of metaphor we observe in the lab with the opinion differences that exist naturally in the population. People with different political affiliations hold different opinions on how to address societal problems like crime. (…)

Analysis reveals a striking effect of metaphor as measured against real-world differences in opinion that exist in the population and impact policy-making. Interestingly, we found that self-identified Republicans were also less likely to be influenced by the metaphors than were Democrats and Independents. (…)

The studies presented in this paper demonstrate that even minimal (one-word) metaphors can significantly shift people’s representations and reasoning about important real-world domains. These findings suggest that people don’t have a single integrated representation of complex issues like crime, but rather rely on a patchwork of (sometimes disconnected or inconsistent) representations and can (without realizing it) dynamically shift between them when cued in context.

Metaphor is incredibly pervasive in everyday discourse. By some estimates, English speakers produce one unique metaphor for every 25 words that they utter. Metaphor is clearly not just an ornamental flourish, but a fundamental part of the language system. This is particularly true in discussions of social policy, where it often seems impossible to “literally” discuss immigration, the economy, or crime. If metaphors routinely influence how we make inferences and gather information about the social problems that confront us, then the metaphors in our linguistic system may be offering a unique window onto how we construct knowledge and reason about complex issues. (…)

We find that metaphors can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve complex problems and how they gather more information to make “well-informed” decisions. Our findings shed further light on the mechanisms through which metaphors exert their influence, by instantiating frame-consistent knowledge structures, and inviting structurally-consistent inferences. Interestingly, the influence of the metaphorical framing is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as an influential aspect in their decisions. Finally, the influence of metaphor we find is strong: different metaphorical frames created differences in opinion as big or bigger than those between Democrats and Republicans.”

Paul H. Thibodeau, Lera Boroditsky, Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA, Published: February 23, 2011.

Mar
6th
Sun
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The Process of Abstracting according to S. I. Hayakawa

"The concept, so defined, is precisely that abstraction which it is necessary to make if we are to discover the basis of our common understanding of that reality which we all know. On a day which is terribly long to me and abominably short to you, we meet, by agreement, at three o’clock, and thus demonstrate that we have a world in common."
C. I. Lewis, Mind and the World Order, Dover, 1956, p. 80.

“As words are not the objects they represent, structure – and structure alone – becomes the only link that connects our verbal processes with the empirical data.”Alfred Korzybski

"Insight into human symbolic behavior and into human interaction through symbolic mechanisms comes from all sorts of disciplines: not only from linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and cultural anthropology, but from attitude research and public opinion study, from new techniques in psychotherapy, from physiology and neurology, from mathematical biology and cybernetics. How are all these separate insights to be brought together? (…) I have examined the problem long enough to believe that it cannot be done without some set of broad and informing principles such as is to be found in the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski.”

S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991, Chapter 10.

Introduction:
Hayakawa’s version starts with a real live animal, Bessie the cow. Bessie lives at a farm, together with a lot of other cows and animals. (…)

This simple two-line statement is already full of abstractions. Starting its analysis with the initial subject, this abstracting begins with the use of the word “Bessie”. In fact, being a real live animal, Bessie is made up of numerous components, that are in constant interaction through an even greater number of processes, leading to ever changing behavior of the entirety. All this diversity is called “Bessie”, and by doing this, we have in fact dropped almost all detail of all of these components and processes. What we mean by “Bessie” is a limited number of visible, audible, and behavioral traits that are fairly constant, and will lead us to remember Bessie during intervals we are not in contact with her. This is the process of abstraction run by our sensory systems, and the associated basic processing and interpretation schemes of the brain. (…)

The second abstraction in the introductory section is the word “cow”. The visible, audible and behavioral traits that characterize the entity “Bessie”, also apply for a substantial part to some other entities, while they don’t apply to almost all others. Since these entities with common characteristics are of some importance to us humans, we have given this category of entities a name: “cow”. Bessie is one example from this category. In the category “cow”, some of Bessie’s characteristics have been lost, that is: all of the characteristics that distinguish her from other cows (perhaps now you already can guess the value of the remark “All humans are unique”, to be discussed further on). With some imagination one can also visualize this category of  “cows” in the illustration above, as one of the things the occupants in the cubicles on the left side are busy with - the occupants/cubicles being the separate processes that constitute our higher thinking.

The next steps should now be fairly clear - they have been collected by Hayakawa in his archetypal version of the abstraction ladder. First comes the collection of all animals living on the farm, gathered in the more general and abstract term “livestock”. Again many of the characteristics of Bessie are left out when characterizing her as “livestock”. Subsequent steps are “farm assets”, which takes out everything pertaining to her being alive, “assets”, which drops her bonds with the location, the farm, and finally “wealth”. The last one is also known as “money”, the level that many people think of as being the most or even only real one, and which in fact is the most unreal one, as the entire process of abstraction shows. The financial crisis of 2008 is a potent illustration of this - what seemed to be real, “money in the bank”, vanished without a trace. (…)

The important thing about the knowledge of the ladder of abstractions, now almost obvious,  is that what may be true as a rule between things at the same level of abstraction, almost certainly isn’t true when one changes the level of the entities in the rule. For example, going back to the farm one might formulate the rule that putting cow with cow (if the latter is a male specimen) leads to more cows. However, applying the rule to livestock or farm animals, will in general not lead to more farm animals, and in some unfortunate cases to less.”

The ladder of abstractions

See also: Kenneth G. Johnson, General Semantics: An Outline Survey, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Mar
5th
Sat
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Mark Changizi on How To Put Art And Brain Together

                    

"What initially looks like neuroscientific principles being used to explain artistic phenomena is, more commonly, suspect brain principles being used to explain artistic phenomena that may not exist. (A second common approach to linking art and the brain sciences goes in the other direction: to begin with a piece of art, and then to cherry-pick principles from the brain sciences to explain it.) (…)

We are, indeed, woefully ignorant of the brain, but we can make progress in explaining art. Here is the fundamental insight I believe we need: the arts have been culturally selected over time to be a “good fit” for our brain, and our brain has been naturally selected over time to be a good fit to nature …so, perhaps the arts have come to be shaped like nature, exactly the shape our brain came to be highly efficient at processing. For example, perhaps music has been culturally selected to be structured like some natural class of stimuli, a class of stimuli our auditory system evolved via natural selection to process. (See Figure 1.)

If the arts are as I describe just above – selected to harness our brains by mimicking nature – then we can pursue the origins of art without having to crack open the brain. We can, instead, focus our attention on the regularities found in nature, the regularities which our brains evolved to competently process. (…)

With the brain put on the shelf, the goal is, instead, to analyze nature, and use it to explain the structure of the arts. Is this really possible? And isn’t nature just as complicated as the brain, or, at any rate, sufficiently complicated that we’re headed for despair?

No. Nature is filled with simple regularities, many of them having physics or mathematical foundations. And although it may not be trivial to discover them, our hopes should be far greater than our hopes for unraveling the brain’s mechanisms. Our presumption, then, is that our brains evolved to “know” these regularities of nature, and if we, as scientists, can unravel the regularities, we have thereby unraveled the brain’s competencies. What regularities from nature am I referring to? For the remainder of this piece, I’ll give you three brief examples from my research. Only one is explictly about the arts, but all three concern the cultural evolution of human artifacts, and how they harness our brains via mimicking nature. (See Figure 2.)

The first concerns the origins of writing, and why letters are shaped as they are. Our visual systems evolved for more than a hundred million years to be highly competent at visually processing natural scenes. One of the most central features of these natural scenes was simply this: they are filled with opaque objects strewn about. And that is enough to lead to visual regularities in nature. (…)

The second concerns the origins of speech, and why speech sounds as it does. Our auditory systems evolved for tens of millions of years to be highly efficient at processing natural sounds.

Although nature consists of lots of sounds, one of the most fundamental categories of sound is this: solid-object events. Events among solid objects, it turns out, have rich regularities that one can work out. For starters, there are primarily three kinds of sound among solid objects: hits, slides and rings, the latter occurring as periodic vibrations of objects that have been involved in a physical interaction (namely a hit or a slide). Just as hit, slides and rings are the fundamental atoms of solid-object physical events, speech is built out of hits, slides and rings – called plosives, fricatives and sonorants. For another starter example, just as solid-object events consist of a physical interaction (hit or slide) followed by the resultant ring, the most fundamental simple structure across language is the syllable, most commonly of the CV, or consonant-sonorant form. (…)

Written and spoken language look and sound like fundamental aspects of nature: opaque objects strewn about and solid-objects interacting with one another, respectively. Writing thereby harnesses our visual object-recognition mechanisms, and speech harnesses our event-recognition mechanisms. Neither opaque objects nor solid objects are especially evocative sources in nature, and that’s why the look of most writing and the sound of most speech is not evocative. (…)

Music – the third cultural production I have addressed with a nature-harnessing approach – is astoundingly evocative. What kind of story could I give here? A nature-harnessing theory would have to posit a class of natural auditory stimuli that music has culturally evolved to mimic, but haven’t I already dealt with nature’s sounds in my story for speech? In addition to general event recognition systems, we probably possess auditory mechanisms specifically designed for the recognition of human behavior. Human gait, I have argued, has signature patterns found in the regularities of rhythm. Doppler shifts of movers have regularities that one can work out, and these regularities are found in music’s melodic contours. And loudness modulations due to proximity predict how loudness is used in music. (…)

Many other aspects of the arts are potentially treatable in a similar fashion. For example, color vision, I have argued is optimized for detecting subtle spectral shifts in other people’s skin, indicating modulations in their emotion, mood or state. That is, color vision is a sense designed for the emotions of other people, and it is possible to understand the meanings of colors on this basis, e.g., red is strong because oxygenated hemoglobin is required for skin to display it. The visual arts are expected to have harnessed our brain’s color mechanisms via using colors as found in nature, namely principally as found on skin. Again, the strategy is to understand art without having to unravel the brain’s mechanisms.

One of the morals I want to convey is that you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to take a brain-based approach to art. The brain’s competencies can be ferreted out without going inside, by carving nature at its joints, just the joints the brain evolved to carve at. One can then search for signs of nature in the structure of the arts. My hope is that via the progress I have made for writing, speech and music, others will be motivated to take up the strategy for grappling with all facets of the arts, and cultural artifacts more generally.”

Mark Changizi, cognitive scientist, author, How To Put Art And Brain Together, Science 2.0, March 4th 2010. (Picture source)

See also:

Mark Changizi on how we read
Are We “Meant” to Have Language and Music? How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man
Mark Changizi, Music Sounds Like Moving People, Science 2.0, Jan 10, 2010
Mark Changizi, Can Art and Brain Be Put Together?, Psychology Today, April 5, 2011.
Mark Changizi on Humans, Version 3.0.

Feb
26th
Sat
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The essential difference between Western and Native American views of reality

Nancy Maryboy, Ph.D., a Dine/Cherokee cosmologist from Arizona says; “The Western view looks at ego, self and the boundaries between self and other while Native languages talk about relationships and process. That’s why Native people introduce themselves by clan.”

Another significant difference is that Native languages are verb based, while English is structured on nouns”.

The laws of motion form the foundation of Western physics. Western science has simply failed to discover the underlying order inherent in the periodicity or circularity of motion due to its obsession with things (nouns) versus the process (verbs) of things.

“Nouns are snapshots of a flowing reality,” Alford said. A person from a noun-based language such as English is programmed to watch dancers, he explained, while a person with a verb-based perspective would see or feel the experience of dancing.
Feb
24th
Thu
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Map–territory relation- a brief résumé

         

     René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe)

"If words are not things, or maps are not the actual territory, then, obviously, the only possible link between the objective world and the linguistic world is found in structure, and structure alone.
The only usefulness of map or a language depends on the similarity of structure between the empirical world and the map-languages.”

Alfred Korzybski, Science & Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Institute of GS, 1994, p.61.

"The map–territory relation describes the relationship between an object and a representation of that object, as in the relation between a geographical territory and a map of it. Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that “the map is not the territory,” encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. For example, the pain from a stone falling on one’s foot is not the actual stone, it’s one’s perception of the stone; one’s opinion of a politician, favorable or unfavorable, is not that person; and so on. A specific abstraction or reaction does not capture all facets of its source — e.g. the pain in one’s foot does not convey the internal structure of the stone, you don’t know everything that is going on in the life of a politician, etc. — and thus may limit an individual’s understanding and cognitive abilities unless the two are distinguished. Korzybski held that many people do confuse maps with territories—that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself—in this sense. (…)

Gregory Bateson, in “Form, Substance and Difference" from Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), elucidates the essential impossibility of knowing what the territory is, as any understanding of it is based on some representation:

"We say the map is different from the territory. But what is the territory? Operationally, somebody went out with a retina or a measuring stick and made representations which were then put on paper. What is on the paper map is a representation of what was in the retinal representation of the man who made the map; and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps. The territory never gets in at all. […] Always, the process of representation will filter it out so that the mental world is only maps of maps, ad infinitum."

Neil Gaiman retells the parable in reference to storytelling in Fragile Things:

"One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory."

Korzybski’s dictum “the map is not the territory” is also cited as an underlying principle used in neuro-linguistic programming, where it is used to signify that individual people in fact do not in general have access to absolute knowledge of reality, but in fact only have access to a set of beliefs they have built up over time, about reality. So it is considered important to be aware that people’s beliefs about reality and their awareness of things (the “map”) are not reality itself or everything they could be aware of (“the territory”). The originators of NLP have been explicit that they owe this insight to General Semantics.” — (Wiki)

Erik Evens in The Linguistic Metaphor:

"Korzybski’s General Semantics offered a view that human knowledge is limited by two main factors: the structure of the human nervous system, and the structure of human languages. He maintained that people cannot experience the world directly, but only through their “abstractions” - nonverbal impressions derived from data detected and transmitted by the senses and the nervous system, and verbal indicators derived from language. (…)

Here’s a story about Alfred Korzybski that’s amusing, and worth repeating because it’s illustrative of some of these ideas:  One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he suddenly interrupted the lesson in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row, if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. “Nice biscuit, don’t you think”, said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously. After a while he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog’s head and the words “Dog Cookies”. The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to throw up, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the bathroom.

"You see, ladies and gentlemen", Korzybski remarked, "I have just demonstrated that people don’t just eat food, but they also eat words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter." It seems his prank aimed to illustrate how some human suffering originates from the confusion or conflation of linguistic representations of reality, and reality itself.

The Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte illustrated the concept of “perception always intercedes between reality and ourselves”   in a number of paintings including a famous work entitled The Treachery of Images, which consists of a drawing of a pipe with the caption, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“This is not a pipe”).” — (Wiki)

The painting is not a pipe, but rather an image of a pipe, which was Magritte’s point: "The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture "This is a pipe," I’d have been lying!" — (Harry Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images. p. 71.)

Alfred Korzybski:

"I use the map-territory relationship because the characteristic are general for all existing forms of representation which include the structure of language.
We observe

1) That a map-language is not the territory-fact, etc.,

2) Map-language covers not all the characteristic of territory-fact,

3) Forms of representation are self-reflexive in the sense that an ideal map would include the map of the map, etc., and in language we can speak about language.

These three premises are child-like in their simplicity, and yet involve a flat denial of the fundamental present, yet very ancient, unrevised, harmful premises. The third premise has been historically entirely neglected except partially in mathematics.
This self-reflexiveness of language, however, is on the botton of most human difficulties in daily life as well as in science. (…)

As we have seen, for maximum predictability, we must have a map-language similar in structure to the territory-facts. The next crucial problem is to investigate empirically whether our present map-language is similar in structure to the territory-facts. We know empirically that “space” and “time” do not exist separately, otherwise they can not be divided, and so the facts are non-elementalistic. We know, on the other hand, that verbally we can separate or split thein into ficticious elements which do not exist as such. In other words, that the structure of the existing language is elementalistic where the facts are non-elementalistic. This goes much farther. Thus, in actual life we can not split “body” and “mind” “emotions” and “intellect”, etc., while verbalistically we can do that quite happily, and speculate uselessly on these split fictions. We conclude that this elementalistic language is not similar in structure to a non-elementalistic world and ourselves.

Let us analyze further. We find that every “chair”, “match”, “house”, “horse”, “man”, etc., is different, while the old language of intensional structures has only verbal definitions for verbal fictions called, say, “man”, “chair”, etc., emphasizing similarities and disregarding differences. By extension we have only actual chair1, chair2, etc., Smith1, Smith2, etc. which are actualities, not verbal fictions and verbal definitions. We conclude that the structure of the old accepted language being elementalistic an dintensional is not similar in structure to the facts of life and ourselves. This is a conclusion reached by inspections of facts of ordinary life and scientific work and also linguistic facts concerning structure of language which have been entirely neglected in the past.

The conclusions we must draw from these obvious observations are startling and extremely far-reaching, involving fundamentally the future of mankind and civilization.

Because the structure of the present language is definitely and empirically not similar in structure to facts of life and ourselves, proper evaluation and so predictability in our human affairs is thouroughly impossible except by accident.

Another more serious consequence of the neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic chaos is due to the lack of a science of man by which I mean the lack of application of standard scientific methods to the affairs of man. With our present intensional verbalistic attitutes which follow the structure of language, agreement between individuals and groups is in principle impossible. With a change to extensional orientation, strictly connected with the extensionalization of the structure of language, disagreement becomes impossible. (…) We must make a serious analysis of the neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic factors involved in our present situation and that realization may, perhaps, help us stop the suicide of our world.”

Alfred Korzybski, Collected Writings, 1920-1950, Institute of General Semantics, 1990, p. 275-276.

Heiner Benking:

"We have to be able to talk about the same things with words which are grounded. (…) We need to see terms and concepts in their context. (…) We can construct frames-of-reference as a schemata to visually reference and share diverse but inter-connected positions, focuses, ranges and horizons, in order to develop not only common grounds but a tolerance for alternate ways of seeing our different levels and scopes. By adequate and open conversation, we can create a common ground. In this way every player can discover his own place in the general panorama and understand better what he does and what he could and should do, or not do.” We can use the cybernetic tools to order our data-base.  But he warns that we should not let us stray in a “virtual cyberspace” in a mainly and merely technical sense, with no relevance to real situations. Scales and proportions and their consequences should be duly taken in account in our representation, as we construct a 3 dimensional space/time model.”International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics

[This note will be gradually expanded…]

See also:

The Relativity of Truth - a brief résumé, Lapidarium
Cognition / relativity tag on Lapidarium
John Shotter on encounters with ‘Other’ - from inner mental representation to dialogical social practices, Lapidarium
Philosophy of perception, Structural differentialRepresentative realism, List of cognitive biases, Emic and etic, Simulacra and Simulation, Social constructionism

Feb
23rd
Wed
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Mark Changizi on Humans, Version 3.0.


The next giant leap in human evolution may not come from new fields like genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, but rather from appreciating our ancient brains.

“Genetic engineering could engender marked changes in us, but it requires a scientific bridge between genotypes—an organism’s genetic blueprints—and phenotypes, which are the organisms themselves and their suite of abilities. A sufficiently sophisticated bridge between these extremes is nowhere in sight.

And machine-enhancement is part of our world even today, manifesting in the smartphones and desktop computers most of us rely on each day. Such devices will continue to further empower us in the future, but serious hardware additions to our brains will not be forthcoming until we figure out how to build human-level artificial intelligences (and meld them to our neurons), something that will require cracking the mind’s deepest mysteries. I have argued that we’re centuries or more away from that. (…)

There is, however, another avenue for human evolution, one mostly unappreciated in both science and fiction. It is this unheralded mechanism that will usher in the next stage of human, giving future people exquisite powers we do not currently possess, powers worthy of natural selection itself. And, importantly, it doesn’t require us to transform into cyborgs or bio-engineered lab rats. It merely relies on our natural bodies and brains functioning as they have for millions of years.

This mystery mechanism of human transformation is neuronal recycling, coined by neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, wherein the brain’s innate capabilities are harnessed for altogether novel functions.

This view of the future of humankind is grounded in an appreciation of the biologically innate powers bestowed upon us by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. This deep respect for our powers is sometimes lacking in the sciences, where many are taught to believe that our brains and bodies are taped-together, far-from-optimal kluges. In this view, natural selection is so riddled by accidents and saddled with developmental constraints that the resultant biological hardware and software should be described as a “just good enough” solution rather than as a “fine-tuned machine.”

So it is no wonder that, when many envisage the future, they posit that human invention—whether via genetic engineering or cybernetic AI-related enhancement—will be able to out-do what evolution gave us, and so bootstrap our species to a new level. This rampant overoptimism about the power of human invention is also found among many of those expecting salvation through a technological singularity, and among those who fancy that the Web may some day become smart.

The root of these misconceptions is the radical underappreciation of the design engineered by natural selection into the powers implemented by our bodies and brains, something central to my 2009 book, The Vision Revolution. For example, optical illusions (such as the Hering) are not examples of the brain’s poor hardware design, but, rather, consequences of intricate evolutionary software for generating perceptions that correct for neural latencies in normal circumstances. And our peculiar variety of color vision, with two of our sensory cones having sensitivity to nearly the same part of the spectrum, is not an accidental mutation that merely stuck around, but, rather, appear to function with the signature of hemoglobin physiology in mind, so as to detect the color signals primates display on their faces and rumps.

These and other inborn capabilities we take for granted are not kluges, they’re not “good enough,” and they’re more than merely smart. They’re astronomically brilliant in comparison to anything humans are likely to invent for millennia.

Neuronal recycling exploits this wellspring of potent powers. If one wants to get a human brain to do task Y despite it not having evolved to efficiently carry out task Y, then a key point is not to forcefully twist the brain to do Y. Like all animal brains, human brains are not general-purpose universal learning machines, but, instead, are intricately structured suites of instincts optimized for the environments in which they evolved. To harness our brains, we want to let the brain’s brilliant mechanisms run as intended—i.e., not to be twisted. Rather, the strategy is to twist Y into a shape that the brain does know how to process. (…)

There is a very good reason to be optimistic that the next stage of human will come via the form of adaptive harnessing, rather than direct technological enhancement: It has already happened.

We have already been transformed via harnessing beyond what we once were. We’re already Human 2.0, not the Human 1.0, or Homo sapiens, that natural selection made us. We Human 2.0’s have, among many powers, three that are central to who we take ourselves to be today: writing, speech, and music (the latter perhaps being the pinnacle of the arts). Yet these three capabilities, despite having all the hallmarks of design, were not a result of natural selection, nor were they the result of genetic engineering or cybernetic enhancement to our brains. Instead, and as I argue in both The Vision Revolution and my forthcoming Harnessed, these are powers we acquired by virtue of harnessing, or neuronal recycling.

In this transition from Human 1.0 to 2.0, we didn’t directly do the harnessing. Rather, it was an emergent, evolutionary property of our behavior, our nascent culture, that bent and shaped writing to be right for our visual system, speech just so for our auditory system, and music a match for our auditory and evocative mechanisms.

And culture’s trick? It was to shape these artifacts to look and sound like things from our natural environment, just what our sensory systems evolved to expertly accommodate. There are characteristic sorts of contour conglomerations occurring among opaque objects strewn about in three dimensions (like our natural Earthly habitats), and writing systems have come to employ many of these naturally common conglomerations rather than the naturally uncommon ones. Sounds in nature, in particular among the solid objects that are most responsible for meaningful environmental auditory stimuli, follow signature patterns, and speech also follows these patterns, both in its fundamental phoneme building blocks and in how phonemes combine into morphemes and words. And we humans, when we move and behave, make sounds having a characteristic animalistic signature, something we surely have specialized auditory mechanisms for sensing and processing; music is replete with these characteristic sonic signatures of animal movements, harnessing our auditory mechanisms that evolved for recognizing the actions of other large mobile creatures like ourselves.

Culture’s trick, I have argued in my research, was to harness by mimicking nature. This “nature-harnessing” was the route by which these three kernels of Human 2.0 made their way into Human 1.0 brains never designed for them.

The road to Human 3.0 and beyond will, I believe, be largely due to ever more instances of this kind of harnessing. And although we cannot easily anticipate the new powers we will thereby gain, we should not underestimate the potential magnitude of the possible changes. After all, the change from Human 1.0 to 2.0 is nothing short of universe-rattling: It transformed a clever ape into a world-ruling technological philosopher.

Although the step from Human 1.0 to 2.0 was via cultural selection, not via explicit human designers, does the transformation to Human 3.0 need to be entirely due to a process like cultural evolution, or might we have any hope of purposely guiding our transformation? When considering our future, that’s probably the most relevant question we should be asking ourselves.

I am optimistic that we may be able to explicitly design nature-harnessing technologies in the near future, now that we have begun to break open the nature-harnessing technologies cultural selection has built thus far. One of my reasons for optimism is that nature-harnessing technologies (like writing, speech, and music) must mimic fundamental ecological features in nature, and that is a much easier task for scientists to tackle than emulating the exhorbitantly complex mechanisms of the brain.

And nature-harnessing may be an apt description of emerging technological practices, such as the film industry’s ongoing struggle to better design the 3D experience to tap into the evolved functions of binocular vision, the gaming industry’s attempts to “gameify” certain tasks (exemplified in the work of Jane McGonigal), or the drive within robotics for more emotionally expressive faces (such as the child robot of Minoru Asada).

Admittedly, none of these sound remotely as revolutionary as writing, speech, or music, but it can be difficult to envision what these developments can become once they more perfectly harness our exquisite biological instincts. (Even writing was, for centuries, used mostly for religious and governmental book-keeping purposes—only relatively recently has the impact of the written word expanded to revolutionize the lives of average humans.)

The point is, most science fiction gets all this wrong. While the future may be radically “futuristic,” with our descendants having breathtaking powers we cannot fathom, it probably won’t be because they evolved into something new, or were genetically modified, or had AI-chip enhancements. Those powerful beings will simply be humans, like you and I. But they’ll have been nature-harnessed in ways we cannot anticipate, the magic latent within each of us used for new, brilliant Human 3.0 capabilities.”
Mark Changizi (cognitive scientist, author), Humans, Version 3.0., SEED.com, Feb 23, 2011 See also: Prof. Stanislas Dehaene, "How do humans acquire novel cultural skills? The neuronal recycling model", LSE Institute | Nicod, (Picture source: Rzeczpospolita)
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Professor George Lakoff: Reason is 98% Subconscious Metaphor in Frames and Cultural Narratives



Notes: Metaphor and Embodiment

In Metaphors We Live By George Lakoff, a linguist, and Mark Johnson, a philosopher, suggest that metaphors not only make our thoughts more vivid and interesting but that they actually structure our perceptions and understanding.

"We are neural beings, (…) our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything - only what our embodied brains permit. (…) The Mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.”

Philosophy In The Flesh” - A talk with George Lakoff, EDGE 3rd Culture, 3.9.1999

"We think with our brains. There is no other choice. Thought is physical. Ideas and the concepts that make them up are physically “computed” by brain structures. Reasoning is the activation of certain neuronal groups in the brain given prior activation of other neuronal groups. Everything we know, we know by virtue of our brains. Our physical brains make possible our concepts and ideas; everything we can possibly think is made possible and greatly limited by the nature of our brains. (…)

Each neuron has connections to between 1,000 and 10,000 other neurons. (…) The flow of neural activity is a flow of ions that occurs across synapses – tiny gaps between neurons. Those synapses where there is a lot of activity are “strengthened” – both the transmitting and receiving side of active synapses become more efficient. Flow across the synapses is relatively slow compared to the speed of computers: about five one-thousandths of a second (5 milliseconds) per synapse. A word recognition task – Is the following word a word of English? – takes about half a second (500 milliseconds). This means that word recognition must be done in about 100 sequential steps. Since so much goes into word recognition, it is clear that much of the brain’s processing must be in parallel, not in sequence. This timing result also shows that well-learned tasks are carried out by direct connections. There is no intervening mentalese.”

— George Lakoff in Raymond W. Gibbs, Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, Chapter I: The Neural Theory of Metaphor, Cambridge University Press 2008, p. 18.

"Primary metaphorical thought arises when a neural circuit is formed linking two brain areas activated when experiences occur together repeatedly. Typically, one of the experiences is physical. In each experiment, each subject has the physical experience activating one of the brain regions and another experience (e.g., emotional or temporal) activating the other brain region for the given metaphor. The activation of both regions activates the metaphorical link. Thus, if the metaphor is Future Is Ahead and Past Is Behind, thinking about the future will activate the brain region for moving forward. If the metaphor is Affection is Warmth, holding warm coffee will activate the brain region for experiencing affection.”

George Lakoff, Why “Rational Reason” Doesn’t Work in Contemporary Politics, BuzzFlash.org, Feb 21, 2010

Metaphor as “imaginative rationality”

“Many of our activities (arguing, solving problems, budgeting time, etc.) are metaphorical in nature. The metaphorical concepts that characterize those activities structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality. This can begin to happen when we start to comprehend our experience in terms of a metaphor, and it becomes a deeper reality when we begin to act in terms of it. If a new metaphor enters the conceptual system that we base our actions on, it will alter that conceptual system and the perceptions and actions that the system gives rise to. Much of cultural change arises from the introduction of new metaphorical concepts and the loss of old ones. For example, the Westernization of cultures throughout the world is partly a matter of introducing the TIME IS MONEY metaphor into those cultures. (…)

It is reasonable enough to assume that words alone don’t change reality. But changes in our conceptual system do change what is real for us and affect how we perceive the world and act upon those perceptions.

The idea that metaphor is just a matter of language and can at best only describe reality stems from the view that what is real is wholly external to, and independent of, how human beings conceptualize the world—as if the study of reality were just the study of the physical world. Such a view of reality—so-called objective reality— leaves out human aspects of reality, in particular the real perceptions, conceptualizations, motivations, and actions that constitute most of what we experience. But the human aspects of reality are most of what matters to us, and these vary from culture to culture, since different cultures have different conceptual systems.

The reason we have focused so much on metaphor is that it unites reason and imagination. Reason, at the very least, involves categorization, entailment, and inference. Imagination, in one of its many aspects, involves seeing one kind of thing in terms of another kind of thing—what we have called metaphorical thought. Metaphor is thus imaginative rationality. Since the categories of our everyday thought are largely metaphorical and our everyday reasoning involves metaphorical entailments and inferences, ordinary rationality is therefore imaginative by its very nature. Given our understanding of poetic metaphor in terms of metaphorical entailments and inferences, we can see that the products of the poetic imagination are, for the same reason, partially rational in nature.

Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally: our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness. These endeavors of the imagination are not devoid of rationality; since they use metaphor, they employ an imaginative rationality.

An experientialist approach also allows us to bridge the gap between the objectivist and subjectivist myths about impartiality and the possibility of being fair and objective. (…) Truth is relative to understanding, which means that there is no absolute standpoint from which to obtain absolute objective truths about the world. This does not mean that there are no truths; it means only that truth is relative to our conceptual system, which is grounded in, and constantly tested by, our experiences and those of other members of our culture in our daily interactions with other people and with our physical and cultural environments.”

George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

See also:

George Lakoff on metaphors, explanatory journalism and the ‘Real Rationality’
James Geary, metaphorically speaking, TED.com, Dec 2009
☞ Paul H. Thibodeau, Lera Boroditsky, Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA
☞ Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion: How the Brain Creates Identity, May, 2012

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Mark Changizi on how we read

                               

Writing was invented only around five thousand years ago, far too recently to have affected our brains. In fact, most of us don’t have to look back more than several generations to find ancestors who couldn’t read.

How, then, do we have reading areas for a brain that didn’t evolve to read?

Stanislas Dehaene, neuroscientist and author of Reading in the Brain, argues that our brains have undergone “neuronal recycling,” where writing has shaped itself over time to be easy on our visual systems.

And what’s the trick to getting writing to fit into our illiterate visual system?

In my own research I have suggested how it happened: culture shaped letters to look “like nature.” Oliver Sacks describes the research this way:

"Such a redeployment of neurons is facilitated by the fact that all (natural) writing systems seem to share certain topological features with the environment, features that our brains have evolved to decode. Mark Changizi and his colleagues at Caltech examined more than a hundred ancient and modern writing systems, including alphabetic systems and Chinese ideograms, from a computational point of view. They have shown that all of them, while geometrically very different, share certain topological similarities. (This visual signature is not evident in artificial writing systems, such as shorthand, which are designed to emphasize speed more than visual recognition.) Changizi et al. have found similar topological invariants in a range of natural settings, and this is has led them to hypothesize that the shapes of letters “have been selected to resemble the conglomerations of contours found in natural scenes, thereby tapping into our already-existing object recognition mechanisms.”

(…) Reading and writing is a recent human invention, going back only several thousand years, and much more recently for many parts of the world. We are reading using the eyes and brains of our illiterate ancestors. (…)

Good Listening

That’s what good listeners do. They rewind the story if needed, or forward it to parts they haven’t heard, or ask for greater detail about parts. And good communicators tend to be those who are able to be interacted with while talking. (…)

Even though we (arguably) evolved to speak and listen, but didn’t evolve to read, there is a sense in which writing has allowed us to be much better listeners than speech ever did. That’s because readers can easily interact with the writer, no matter how non-present the writer may be. Readers can pause the communication, skim ahead, rewind back to something not understood, and delve deeper into certain parts. We listeners can, when reading, manipulate the speaker’s stream of communication far beyond what the speaker would let us get away with in conversation. (…)

When one’s eyes are free, people prefer to read stories rather than hear them on tape, and the market for books on tape is miniscule compared to that for hard copy books. We humans have brains that may have evolved to comprehend speech, and yet we prefer to listen with our eyes, despite our eyes not having been designed for this! (…)

When we speak there are typically only a small number of people listening, and most often there’s just one person listening (and often less than that when I speak in my household). For this reason spoken language has evolved to be a compromise between the mouth and ear: somewhat easy for the speaker to utter, and somewhat easy for the listener to hear. In contrast, a single writer can have arbitrarily many readers, or “visual listeners.” If cultural evolution has shaped writing to minimize the overall efforts of the community, then it is the readers’ efforts that will drive the evolution of writing because there are so many of them. That’s why as amazing, as writing may be, it is a gift to the eye more than a gift to the hand. For example, a book may take six months to write, but it may take only six hours to read. That’s a good solution because there are usually many readers of any given book. (…)

Harness the Wild Eye

Just as horses didn’t evolve to be ridden, eyes didn’t evolve for the written. Your eyes reading these words are wild eyes, the same eyes and visual systems of our ancient preliterate ancestors. And yet, despite being born without a “bridle,” your visual system is now saddled with reading. We have, then, the same mystery as we find in horses: how do our ancient visual systems fit so well in modern reading-intensive society? (…)

Eyes may seem like a natural choice for pulling information stored on material, and indeed vision probably has inherent superiorities over touch or taste, just as horses are inherently better rides than rhinos. But just as horses don’t fit efficiently into culture without culture evolving to fit horses, the visual system couldn’t be harnessed for reading until culture evolved writing to fit the requirements of the visual system. We didn’t evolve to read, but culture has gone out of its way to create the illusion that we did. We turn next to the question of what exactly cultural evolution has done to help our visual systems read so well. (…)

Word and Object

Is there something beneficial about drawing objects for the words in writing? I suspect so, and I suspect that it is the same reason that animal-call symbols tend to be animal-call-like: we probably possess innate circuitry that responds specifically to animal-call-like sounds, and so our brain is better able to efficiently process a spoken word that means an animal call if the word itself sounds animal-call-like. Similarly, we possess a visual system designed to recognize objects and efficiently react to the information. If a word’s meaning is that of an object (even an abstract object), then our visual system will be better able to process and react to the written symbol for that object if the written symbol is itself object-like. (…)                                                                                                       

Our brains evolved to perceive objects, not object-parts, because objects are the clumps of matter that stay connected over time and are crucial to parsing and making sense of the world. Our brains naturally look for objects and want to interpret stimuli out there as objects, so using a single stroke for a word (or using a junction for a word) is not something our brains are happy about. Instead, when seeing the stroke-word sentence in (a) in the “rain in spain” figure, the brain will desperately try to see objects in the jumble of strokes, and if it can find one, it will interpret that jumble of strokes in an object-like fashion. But if it did this, it would be interpreting a phrase or whole sentence as an object, something that is not helpful for understanding a sentence: the meaning of a sentence is “true” or “false,” not any single word meaning. Using single strokes as words is, then, a bad idea because the brain is not designed to treat single contours as meaningful. Nor is it designed to treat object junctions as meaningful. That’s why spoken words tend to be written with symbols having a complexity no smaller than visual objects. (…)

If written words must be built out of multiple symbols, then to make words look object-like, make the symbols look like object parts. That’s what culture did. Culture dealt with the speech-writer dilemma by designing letters that look like the object parts found in nature, object junctions, in particular. That way written words will typically be object-like, so that again our visual system can be best harnessed for reading.”

Mark Changizi, The Man Who Mistook His Y for a Hat. Oliver Sacks and how we read, Psychology Today, July 15, 2010

The Topography Of Language

The Variety of Visual Signs

"The evolution of ornamentation, art, painting, and other non-linguistic visual signs (i.e., signs not part of language) has gone on unabated, diversifying into millions of non-linguistic symbols used over the ages, and occupying nearly all aspects of our lives, including pottery, body art, religion, politics, folklore, medicine, music, architecture, trademarks and traffic.


                                                       (Click image for larger size)

Writing (i.e., visual signs distinguished by use as a means of visually recording the content of spoken language) has also undergone an evolutionary explosion in variety. The earliest writing appeared several thousand years ago, and occurred independently in Sumer, Egypt and China (and much more recently in the Americas). These earliest linguistic visual signs were pictograms, evolving later to logograms (where a character denotes an object, idea or action), and a single logographic writing system (such as Chinese or Linear B) can have many thousands of distinct visual signs. It wasn’t until about 2000 years ago in Egypt that phonemic writing was invented and used, where each character stands for a constituent of speech rather than having a meaning as in logographic writing. Many hundreds of writing systems have evolved and diversified from this ancestor (e.g., Latin, Arabic, Avestan, Mongolian, Phags-pa), varying widely in geometrical shape and style, and in the aspects of speech the characters represent (e.g., alphabets represent consonants and vowels, abugidas represent just consonants, and syllabaries represent syllables).

Amongst both non-linguistic and linguistic signs, some visual signs are representations of the world­e.g., cave paintings and pictograms, respectively­and it is, of course, not surprising that these visual signs look like nature. It would be surprising, however, to find that non-pictorial visual signs look, despite first appearances, like nature. Although writing began with pictograms, there have been so many mutations to writing over the millenia that if writing still looks like nature, it must be because this property has been selectively maintained. For non-linguistic visual signs, there is not necessarily any pictorial origin as there is for writing, because amongst the earliest non-linguistic visual signs were non-pictorial decorative signs. The question we then ask is, Why are non-pictorial visual signs shaped the way they are?

Previous efforts at answering this question have primarily concentrated on the differences. In particular, some of the shape differences among different (non-pictorial) visual signs are due to the kind of writing implement used, whether impressions in clay tablets with a blunt reed, rounded writing on leaves, or the physical details of a modified feather-tip point. Little attention has been devoted to uncovering the similarities, however, and as we will see here, there are deeper visual regularities that hold across human visual signs, independent of the writing mechanism (regularities that are also found in nature).

It is as if someone had noticed that throat size causes male and female voices to sound differently, without noticing that male and female speech possesses a critical deeper regularity, namely that they utter the same set of phonemes, morphemes, words and sentences as one another (within a single language speaking community). We will find that, despite superficial differences in their shapes, visual signs appear to possess similar underlying “visual phonemes.” (…)

We have seen that human non-pictorial visual signs appear to possess a characteristic signature, and we have seen that this signature is not a result of chance. Before attempting to explain this signature, a natural first question is, Does this signature appear to be good for the eye, or good for the hand (or any other writing mechanism)? 

There are at least two reasons for expecting that visual sign shapes are designed (by cultural selection) for ease of reading, not ease of writing. First, visual signs are written once, but can be read many times. Second, writing speed is typically limited not by the motor system, but by the time taken for the writer to compose the sentence; that is, writing is not like talking, where we can talk effortlessly without feeling as if we are composing our thoughts. (…)

Natural to the Eye

The topological shapes of non-pictorial visual signs are, then, for the eye, not the hand. But we are still left with the question, Why does the eye like these shapes? Here is where the evolutionary, or ecological, hypothesis enters into the story. Because over millions of years of evolution our visual systems have been selected to be good at processing the conglomerations of contours occurring in nature, I reasoned that if visual signs have culturally evolved to be easy to see, then we should expect visual signs to have natural topological shapes.
Where are these topological shapes in nature? What were conglomerations of strokes for visual signs are now conglomerations of contours for natural scenes. Contours are the edges of objects (as seen by the eye), not, of course, strokes in the world. For example, an L occurs in the world when exactly two edges of an object meet at their endpoints, like an elbow. A T occurs in the world when the edge of an object goes behind another object in the foreground. A Y occurs, for example, at the inside corner of a rectangular room. (…)

(i) we wish to read words, not letters; and (ii) we have evolved to see objects, not object-junctions. In this light, we expect culture to select words to look like objects, so that words may be processed by the same area in visual cortex responsible for recognizing objects.

Logographic characters (e.g., Chinese) and non-linguistic symbols do tend to be more object-like, possessing many more than three strokes. For phonemic writing, however, there are severe limits to how closely words can match natural objects, for the manner in which letters combine is determined by speech. However, by having letters shaped like natural object-junctions—rather than natural contours or natural whole objects—written words become combinations of natural junctions, and thus more similar to objects and more easily processed by our visual system.

Evolution by natural selection is too slow to design our brains for reading, and so cultural selection has come to the rescue, designing (without any designer) visual signs for our brains. Because our visual systems have evolved to be good at perceiving natural objects, cultural evolution has created non-linguistic symbols, logographic symbols, and written words in phonemic writing that tend to be built out of object-junction-like constituents, and are thus object-like.

In particular, this explains why letters tend to have around three strokes and have the topological shapes they do. We expect that these insights will be useful in designing optimal alphabets or visual displays.

Because culture is capable of designing for the eye, the visual signs of our culture are a fingerprint of what our visual systems like. Akin to the linguistic study of the auditory productions humans make, the “visual linguistic” study of the visual productions people make is a currently under-utilized tool for vision research.

There is every reason to believe that the study of visual linguistics will aid traditional lab experiments on vision and brain design as much as linguistics has supplemented lab experiments on cognition.”

Mark Changizi, cognitive scientist, author, The Topography Of Language, Science 2.0, Sep 17, 2009.

See also: 

A brief history of writing, Lapidarium
☞ Maria Popova, A Visual History of the Alphabet, The Atlantic, Jun 21, 2011
☞ Mark Changizi, Are We “Meant” to Have Language and Music? How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man
Mark Changizi, Music Sounds Like Moving People, Science 2.0, Jan 10, 2010.
☞ Mark Changizi, How To Put Art And Brain Together
Mark Changizi on brain’s perception of the world
A brief history of writing, Lapidarium notes

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Blair Bolles on the development of human speech

“The most important breakthrough came when individuals trusted one another enough to share their thoughts and believe what somebody else told them. That milestone was passed about 2.5 million years ago. Attempts to teach sign language have been successful enough to show that apes are smart enough to learn a few hundred words and even put a couple of them together, but in the wild they never actually do it. And even when trained to use sign language, they use it only to manipulate their trainers or in response to a question. So it cannot be intelligence that keeps apes from using any language at all.

The problem appears to be that there is no benefit from sharing information. If I tell you what I know and you only give me hogwash in return, I lose, you win. Somehow our ancestors came to trust one another and reap the great benefits that come from sharing knowledge honestly. More than intelligence, more than syntax, that social change made language possible.” “
Blair Bolles in interview with T. DeLene Beeland, Why humans speak: It’s a matter of trust, The Charlotte Observer, Jul. 12, 2010 (via xixidu)
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A brief history of writing

                      
          (Photo: Babylonian legal tablet from Alalakh in its clay envelope, British Museum)

"True writing, or phonetic writing, records were developed independently in four different civilizations in the world. Writing systems developed from neolithic writing in the Early Bronze Age (4th millennium BC).  The invention of the phonetic system is roughly contemporary with the beginning of the Bronze Age in the late Neolithic of the late 4th millennium BC. The Sumerian archaic cuneiform script and the Egyptian hieroglyphs are generally considered the earliest writing systems, both emerging out of their ancestral proto-literate symbol systems from 3400–3200 BC with earliest coherent texts from about 2600 BC.

The history of human communication dates back to the earliest era of humanity. Symbols were developed about 30,000 years ago, and writing about 7,000. The early writing systems of the late 4th millennium BC are not considered a sudden invention. Rather, they were based on ancient traditions of symbol systems that cannot be classified as writing proper, but have many characteristics strikingly similar to writing. These systems may be described as proto-writing. They used ideographic and/or early mnemonic symbols to convey information yet were probably devoid of direct linguistic content. These systems emerged in the early Neolithic period, as early as the 7th millennium BC.” — (Wiki History of writing)

The world’s three main writing traditions: Afro-Asiatic, East Asian and American


                                                        (Click image to enlarge)

— from Steven R. Fischer, A History of Writing (pdf), Reaktion Books, 2001, p. 296-297.

 (Video: Early History of the Alphabet by Jennifer Ordonez & Tatiana Mirzaian)

"Most of us know, but often forget, that handwriting is not natural. We are not born to do it. There is no genetic basis for writing. Writing is not like seeing or talking, which are innate. Writing must be taught. (…)

About 6,000 years ago, the Sumerians created the first schools, called tablet houses, to teach writing. They trained children in Sumerian cuneiform by having them copy the symbols on one half of a soft clay tablet onto the other half, using a stylus. When children did this — and when the Sumerians invented a system of representation, a way to make one thing symbolize another — their brains changed. In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf explains the neurological developments writing wrought: “The brain became a beehive of activity. A network of processes went to work: The visual and visual association areas responded to visual patterns (or representations); frontal, temporal, and parietal areas provided information about the smallest sounds in words …; and finally areas in the temporal and parietal lobes processed meaning, function and connections.”

The Sumerians did not have an alphabet — nor did the Egyptians, who may have gotten to writing earlier. Which alphabet came first is debated; many consider it to be the Greek version, a system based upon Phoenician. Alphabets created even more neural pathways, allowing us to think in new ways (neither better nor worse than non-alphabetic systems, like Chinese, yet different nonetheless). (…)

Anne Trubek, Handwriting Is History, Miller-McCune Online, December 17, 2009.

"The invention of writing is only thousands of years old. In addition, for most of us, our grandparents, great grandparents or great great grandparents didn’t read at all. Writing is much too recent for our brains to have evolved to have reading mechanisms. (…)

The solution is that culture made writing easy on the eye, by shaping letters to be what the eye likes. The idea that culture shapes our artifacts to be good for us is not new. What’s new here is a specific hypothesis for what writing should look like in order to be good for us.

To be easy on the eye, writing needs to “look like nature,” just what our illiterate visual systems are fantastically competent at processing. The trick of that research direction was making this “writing looks like nature” idea rigorous, and coming up with ways of testing it. I show that there are certain signature visual patterns found in nearly any natural environment with opaque objects strewn about, and that these signature patterns are found in human writing. In short, writing has evolved so that written words look like visual objects.”

Mark Changizi, Everything We Knew About Human Vision is Wrong. Mark Changizi Tells Us Why, N e u r o n a r r a t i v e, May 5, 2010.

Language isn’t just an internal process. Rather, linguistic components overflow their boundaries in the mind and become concretized as artifacts. Writing is the most obvious of these boundary overflows, but every technology represents some sort of material fixation of a linguistic concept. In that sense, the materiality of human history is a story of how homo sapiens learned to speak with their hands, translate their language into artifact, and then engage in a conversation with these artifacts. This sets up a very interesting feedback loop, because the exteriorized linguistic object – the technology – produces ramifications of language, which in turn produce new technologies, etc., until the whole thing spirals completely out of control. And we’re already well past that point.” 

Mark Pesce, The Progressive Ingression of Intelligence into Matter | h+ Magazine

Stephen Fry on the science of language | BBC

"Stephen Fry explores linguistic achievements and how our skills for the spoken word have developed in a new five-part series for BBC Two. In Planet Word, Stephen dissects language in all its guises with his inimitable mixture of learning, love of lexicon and humour. He analyses how we use and abuse language and asks whether we are near to beginning to understand the complexities of its DNA.

From the time when man first mastered speech to the cyber world of modern times with its html codes and texting, Planet Word takes viewers on a journey across the globe to discover just how far humans have come when it comes to the written and spoken word.”

See also:

Mark Changizi on how we read
Mark Changizi, The Topography Of Language, Science 2.0, Sep 17, 2009.
The world’s three main writing traditions: Afro-Asiatic, East Asian and American (diagram)
☞ Maria Popova, A Visual History of the Alphabet, The Atlantic, Jun 21, 2011
☞ Mark Changizi, Are We “Meant” to Have Language and Music? How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man