In the 1998 action-comedy Rush Hour, a frustrated Chris Tucker asks a stoic Jackie Chan, “Do you understand the words that are comin’ out of my mouth?” Of course Jackie understands him perfectly well, and the pair go on to kill the bad guy and save the girl (spoiler alert!). And while the line serves for a simple laugh in the movie, in real life it begs a deeper question: how does anyone understand the words that are coming out of Chris Tucker’s mouth? Or anyone mouth? Like in a scientific sense, how does language work? How does a bizarre set of vocal cord vibrations or splotches of ink on a page (or pixels on a screen) get converted into something that means something?
This is essentially the question posed in the new book Louder Than Words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning. The author, Benjamin Bergen, is a cognitive scientist at the University of California-San Diego. As long as we’re talking about meaning, you might wonder what “cognitive scientist” means. Cognitive science belongs in a Venn diagram with psychology and neuroscience, with each complementing the others. Whereas psychology is the study of behavior, and neuroscience is the study of the brain, cognitive science is the study of the mind.
So how does the mind make meaning from words? Bergen answers this question simply yet thoroughly. The mind makes meaning from words through the use of embodied simulation. That is, when you’re listening to someone speak, your brain simulates the language just like a video game can simulate shooting Nazis, or exploring Azeroth. As far as the book is concerned, I’m not spoiling anything for you here. Bergen introduces the concept of embodied simulation in the first chapter, and for the rest of the book carries the reader through all the latest research. To explain the embodied simulation hypothesis briefly he writes, “Maybe we understand language by simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things that the language describes.”
To give you a better understanding of embodied simulation I’ll give an example. While the following two sentences are fairly similar, “You threw the ball to the catcher” and “The pitcher threw the ball to the catcher”, your brain simulates them in different ways. In the first you are the subject throwing the ball. So your brain simulates what it would be like to experience that: the ball starts out large and gets smaller as it travels away from you. However, if you are just a passive observer, then your brain simulates the ball as staying the same size, but moving from left to right between the pitcher and catcher. Scientists can demonstrate that your brain is engaging in different simulations, by your reaction times on various tasks.
So to understand words about actions, we activate the parts of our brain required to perform those actions. To understand words about objects moving, we activate the parts of the brain that perceive motion. To understand words about sound and music (e.g. The Sound of Music) we activate … well you get the idea.
In addition, as Bergen explains further, it’s not just words that convey meaning. Grammar also influences meaning. Thus the precise order of words in a sentence effects the brain’s embodied simulation. Among other experiments, Bergen describes a series of cross-cultural experiments that elegantly display this effect.
As a scientist-writer myself (not just a science writer), I appreciate when other scientists attempt to share their knowledge directly with the people. While the cutting edge of science can be difficult to understand, the job is often made more difficult through poorly formed sentences, inept examples, and incomplete explanations. Fortunately, as might be expected of a language researcher, Bergen is an excellent writer. In Louder Than Words he demonstrates that even cutting edge science can be made clear and understandable to everyone.
In addition to his words, his passion and excitement for the subject are also clear, and shine off the page. With humor, and a bit of quirkiness, he walks the reader through an understanding of the scientific literature. He gives dozens of examples of actual experiments and carefully explains their results and implications. So while the book contains a lot of actual science, it would be totally approachable by a non-scientist.
Too often books about science, and in particular the brain, purport to be the cure for all ills. Furthermore, they may attempt to explain everything, and thus lack specific depth into anything. Louder Than Words does not aim to encompass all of human experience. It takes the reader deep into one specific area, which is truly how science is conducted. Bergen does not simplify the science; he clarifies it. By the end you get the feeling that you know all there is to know about embodied simulation, and how the mind makes meaning.
I will admit that at a few times I found it a bit repetitive, but I chalk that up to the fact that I’ve been studying neuroscience for almost 15 years. Regardless, the book is entertaining and informative throughout, and ends with an intriguing epilogue on cell phones and driving. I’d hazard a guess that if you appreciate the playful, yet educational tone of this blog, then you’ll likely enjoy Benjamin Bergen’s approach to the science of language and the mind.
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