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Stephen Pinker's Miracle of Language...and Writing?

Stephen Pinker's Instincts on Language

At the beginning of his book, The Language Instinct, Stephen Pinker demonstrates the amazing power of language with an example. He writes,

The [language] ability comes so naturally that we are apt to forget what a miracle it is. So let me remind you with some simple demonstrations. Asking you only to surrender your imagination to my words for a few moments, I can cause you to think some very specific thoughts:

When a male octopus spots a female, his normally grayish body becomes striped...

Cherries jubilee on a white suit? Wine on an alter cloth? Apply club soda immediately...

When Dixie opens the door to Ted, she is stunned, because she thought he was dead...

With just a handful of words, our brains are pulled hither and thither to far-off corners of a massive mental universe, and new content installed. For me, the Dixie and dead-Ted story from All My Children is old news, but a few of you may not have known Ted is alive. And now you know, just from a few words in the right order.

That kind of power doesn't happen unless our brains have been "designed" to do that, Pinker argues. The deeply malleable, blank-slate-ish brains the social sciences have long supposed we possess could never learn and do language as we can. Language is astoundingly complicated -- e.g., to this day we cannot build effective speech recognition machines -- and yet we are uncannily good at it: children learn it too quickly and easily, we all comprehend it too automatically and effortlessly, and it pervades our life too completely to be something we simply learn with general-purpose brains. And our brains, indeed, have long appeared to have specialized regions for language. The instinct for language is also indicated by its universality: language is found everywhere, and languages tend to share many common features.

And although Pinker may not extend these arguments to music -- he famously called music "auditory cheesecake" -- other researchers would, for example Stephen Mithen in his The Singing Neanderthal, pointing out that music is complex and yet we're creepily good at processing it, with seemingly specialized brain regions for it, and that music is found virtually everywhere, with certain fundamentally similar tendencies.

To my mind, Pinker's arguments are convincing that we are not the universal-learning machines we are often believed to be (something he has argued in all his books). And Pinker's arguments that language possesses all the hallmarks of design (and analogous arguments by others in the case of music) are highly persuasive.

Language and music, on the one hand, and the brain on the other, are designed to fit one another.

But there is a gnawing problem, one Pinker himself implicitly reveals on the first page of his book in the passage I quoted above: The octopus, club soda, and soap opera excerpts were written. My ability to comprehend Pinker's illustration -- and all his books, and, well, everything I have ever come to know and admire about him -- relied on reading and writing.

Why is reading a problem for language and music instincts? Because, like language and music, our ability to read also has the hallmarks of design. ...and yet we know we have no reading instinct.

We know there's no reading instinct because writing is too recent, having been invented only several thousand years ago, and not taking hold among a large fraction of the population until just a few generations ago. There's a good chance all or most of your great great great grandparents didn't read.

And yet, despite the fact that we cannot possibly have specialized reading mechanisms in our brains, reading has the same "instinct smell" as language and music. Reading is astoundingly complex -- e.g., to this day we cannot build effective handwriting recognition machines -- and yet we display machine-like proficiency at reading. Children learn to read at about twice the age they can comprehend speech, but their reading experiences are meager relative to that for speech, and, to put in some context, they're often reading before they're competent at pouring milk in cereal, wiping their bottoms, and even engaging in stereotypical ape behaviors like somersaults and monkey bars. Once learned, we read automatically and effortlessly, and it is arguably more pervasive in our lives today than speech.

Our brilliantly capable reading brains even appear to have regions specialized for reading (one called the "visual word form area"), something researchers like Stanislas Dehaene and Laurent Cohen, for example, discuss, and Dehaene takes up in his recent book, Reading in the Brain. The whiff of a reading instinct is also apparent in the near-universality of writing and reading. Writing is found in nearly every human society today, and there are strong universal tendencies across writing (e.g., in the number of strokes per character among phonemic writing systems like ours, and in the ways that strokes can interconnect to build characters, something I discussed in Chapter 4 of The Vision Revolution).

If we can appear to have a reading instinct without actually having one, perhaps the instinct-iness of language and music is an illusion. Perhaps the story of the origins of speech and music is the same as the story underlying our ability to read, whatever that story might be.

It does not escape Pinker's notice that his illustration of language's power is communicated to a reader, not a listener. He says in the paragraph following the octopus-soda-soap excerpts,

True, my demonstrations depended on our ability to read and write, and this makes our communication even more impressive by bridging gaps of time, space, and acquaintanceship. But writing is clearly an optional accessory; the real engine of verbal communication is the spoken language we acquired as children.

Writing is optional, Pinker says, but optional for what? Speech and writing serve distinct functions. As Pinker notes, writing, but not speech, can bridge space and time, giving writing a a power akin to a superpower (for example, if I'm dead when you're reading this, then you're not merely reading, but spirit reading!). And as I discuss in The Vision Revolution, writing serves functions that audio recordings (which can also bridge space and time) cannot, allowing the reader to interact and upload content so efficiently that it changed us from Homo sapiens to a universally programmable Homo turingipithecus. And these distinct functions of writing are not optional: recorded history and modern civilization depend on it!

At any rate, optional or not, we appear to be designed to read, and yet have no reading instinct. How is this possible?

The answer is that rather than our brains being designed for reading, reading is designed for our brains. Writing is a technology that has been optimized over time by the forces of cultural selection to be good for our visual system. We have no reading instinct. Instead, writing has a brain instinct, something neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene calls "neuronal recycling."

In particular, in my research and in my previous book, The Vision Revolution, I have put forth and provided evidence to support a specific theory (see here, here and also here) for how culture managed to shape writing for the brain: Writing was culturally selected to look in fundamental respects like nature, just the look our evolutionarily illiterate visual system is highly competent at processing. Writing doesn't have a brain instinct so much as a nature instinct.

For writing, then, the whiff of design is not because of an instinct. The designer is not natural selection, but cultural selection. The tight fit between reading and the brain is because reading bent for the brain, not the other way around. And the tight fit was achieved via what I call Nature-Harnessing, mimicking nature so as to harness evolutionarily ancient brain mechanisms for a new purpose.

And now we are poised to see the purpose of my upcoming book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Benbella, 2011)...

If cultural selection can give us writing shaped like nature that is thereby optimized for our visual system, and do so in just several thousand years, then imagine how well optimized for our brains speech and music may be if they have been culturally evolving for hundreds of thousands of years to be good for our auditory systems! What if writing, speech and music are all products of culture, but, consistent with the fact that we're not general-purpose machines, they are highly designed technologies shaped for our minds?

And, more specifically, what if, like writing, these two auditory capabilities -- speech and music -- have come to sound like nature, and thereby harness ancient highly efficient brain mechanisms that were never intended for language or music?

But what in nature might speech and music sound like? That's the topic of the book...

[For some hints, see (i) here, (ii) here, and (iii) here.]


Mark Changizi is Professor of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books, 2009) and the upcoming book Harnessed (Benbella Books, 2011). This piece is adapted from Harnessed.

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