Sunday, January 20, 2013

We are what we simulate: A Review of Bergen's Book “Louder than Words”

Flying pig drawing book cover by Benjamin K. Bergen
For quite some time I have had two specific concerns on my mind. One of them, in fact, concerns my memory. My memory can be encyclopedic for names and dates (I know who wrote what book or which director made what film when) but ask me to describe what my bathroom looks like or to give details about everyday objects I use and I will draw a blank (literally, I'd draw a blank page!).

My second problem is that I feel guilty about not enjoying detailed descriptions of settings. I have seen other friends and lovers of fiction rave and drool about how Victor Hugo gives such an incredibly vivid image of the sewage system spanning five pages or thereabouts. I am sorry that those descriptions do not stimulate my mind nor fire any neurons on my part. At best, they make me yawn and that is in no way meant as a deterrent or criticism of the aforementioned author.

In fact, that may be the reason why I never attempted to read Les Misérables and why I enjoy Dostoevsky, for instance, who tends to be rather low on physical descriptions (at least if my memory is to be trusted, see concern one). But again I used to feel guilty because I know I ought to salivate over the expansive imagery used in novels, sewers or not. That is until I read Bergen's book.

I cannot recommend this book any more strongly (in the sense that there are no words strong enough to express my support, and not in the sense that there is nothing good to say about it!). Benjamin K. Bergen's Louder Than Words: The New Science Of How The Mind Makes Meaning examines language and meaning-making through what is called embodied simulation over the often vague and rather ill-defined concept of Mentalese.

Let us look at specific examples to illustrate the different approaches of the two theories. Let us assume you are learning French because you want to read Hugo's magnificent sewer description in its original French to be able to savor its full flavor. And you stumble upon a word that looks like nothing you have ever seen before, French or otherwise. What do you do?

The answer is evident: You look up the specific word in a dictionary. So you will find an English definition that is the equivalent of that French term. So far so good. But assuming English is your first and native language, how did you learn your own language in the first place? Did you look up definitions as well? But that is like not knowing any French and looking up a French word in a purely French dictionary. To put it in Bergen's words: What gives?

The explanation that I had been familiar with from my own share of university psych classes was the following: There is a thought language called Mentalese that defines and decodes words and expressions being used in our first, native language. It is like a dormant language program embedded in the brain waiting for the acquisition of language to turn it on. But then what do we use to decode the Mentalese words with? We use a definition of a definition of a definition ad infinitum (or rather ad absurdum).

And hence, embodied simulation steps in to fill in the void. It means we decode the words we find with the help of images we have in our mind. So when we read a sentence, we imagine it in our minds in order to make sense of it. When, for example, “the cat jumps on the table” we see in our mind's eye the properties of what constitutes a cat (of course the image is colored and shaped by our own idiosyncratic tendencies, which are made up of our own previous experiences on the subject).

Then we imagine the action of jumping (something we are probably familiar with since childhood) and we see the table (the place where the cat arrives made of glass, wood or what-have-you). Replace the cat with jabberwocky (cat = jabberwocky) and you might not get as clear an image unless you are familiar with the works of Monty Python and/or Lewis Carroll.

It is rather amazing how as our brain is in the process of simulating, the same neurons associated with respective actions become excited (but do not fire). It is like the state of REM sleep, where we imagine actions, but our bodies do not act upon them.

It also explains why athletes who visualize scoring goals or bowling strikes tend to score more goals and bowl more strikes when in action! As we are mentally rehearsing, our muscles do the same and we are ready to turn our mental picture into real action. (Interestingly, the reverse is true as well: visualizing that you fail will increase your chances of failure!). So better to visualize a knock-out performance before your next job interview and romantic date, and you just might get the job and the girl!

But language can be tricky, as Bergen demonstrates as well. Let us look at the word “clubbing.” Now I tend to think of a pouncing room with sweaty people dancing their hearts out, but others might be thinking of getting hit by a club. It turns out that when there is conflicting information, our brains tend to adjust the information and the context at hand.

Bergen looks at a number of metaphors, and he actually uses the idea of “clubbing the reader over the head.” In this scenario, nobody gets hurt, physically-speaking at least. So while we first simulate the unpleasant fact of being hit on the head with a club-like object, the brain corrects the statement and understands that this is not meant to be taken literally. That is also why idiomatic expressions, such as clubbing someone over the head can bring about veritable headaches for those who are learning English as a second or foreign language.

Louder than Words is filled with a number of scientific studies testing this embodied simulation hypothesis. We also learn about cultural differences since the relationship between words and actions can become a completely different experience across cultures. For example, while Westerners would wait (and simulate the act of waiting) in a sitting position, the Chinese prefer to squat instead. So the simple and commonplace act of waiting depends on cultural contexts and takes on different proportions or stances in one's mind's eye.

Language is a very personal experience and not an objective means of communication. Our previous experiences, both personal and cultural, strongly influence how we make meaning of words and expressions. And this explains why reading (simulating all those words into actions in one's mind) sometimes tires me, why having dreams about work exhaust me and why I should log them as extra hours or overtime.

For all the so-called multi-taskers out there, the brain cannot do two things at once, the same way, as Bergen puts it, the mouth cannot chew and whistle at the same time! Since the mere thought - and by extension simulation - of something puts your neurons on alert, ready to fire at any moment, it also makes talking on cellphones (hands-free or not) or even simply worrying about an issue a hazardous undertaking while driving.

This also gives us useful knowledge about language learning and teaching, for example, why foreign students may have difficulty understanding certain concepts even after looking them up in their own language. I strongly recommend this book for language teachers and educators out there. It also gave me an interesting glimpse of the scientific process and rigors, even though my bruised head smarted afterwards, metaphorically speaking.

All in all, this book is definitely worth its salt (and I haven't even touched upon its wit, humor and its recurring analogy of "flying pigs" -- for a glimpse see the book cover above). If you want stimulating and intelligent reading, go no further. You will find out if you are a visualizer or a verbalizer (I am a verbalizer and I assume “great brains simulate alike”) and it might just help you to avoid pitfalls and manipulation of language so that we can make sure that we are communicating more effectively in our daily lives.

Because, in fact, we are what we speak and words can have tremendous impact on our lives. They are not only used for the purposes of this post, but they also help us to make heads and tails of the world. Words can start and end wars and crusades, relationships and marriages, and may lead to success and failure in our professional world. In other words, let us not underestimate the power and influence of words nor take their meaning-making lightly.


Vincent said...

I like your review. And I'm pretty sure I would hate the book.

Arashmania said...

Thanks, Vincent. Is neuroscience not your cup of tea then?

It used to be anathema to me for two reasons:

One, I do not think that the brain is all there is to being human, and

Two, I used to find all the neuron talk rather confusing.

But Benjamin K. Bergen's book as well as Daniel Bor's excellent "Ravenous Brain" not only explain things very well but they make it quite interesting through the use of well-chosen and -timed humor.

And most importantly, both are humble in their views on science, something that is indeed refreshing and goes a long way.

Vincent said...

Science generally is not my cup of tea; but I'm interested in the life-stories of Newton, Feynman and those who contributed to chaos theory. This may be due to the excellent writing of James Gleick who has written about them all. And I also like to learn about the achievements of the great Victorian engineers.

I have two fascinating books by the neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio. But science itself is outside my sphere of interest. That's all.

And I well understand the pull of your erstwhile reasons for the anathema.