To under­stand human nature, I focus on human lan­guage and what it can reveal about how we think. Unlike oth­er ani­mals, humans can com­mu­ni­cate an infi­nite num­ber of thoughts through lan­guage. And one rea­son that lan­guage is pow­er­ful is because we can use each of our words flex­i­bly, with sev­er­al dif­fer­ent meanings.

For exam­ple in English, chick­en” can label an ani­mal or meat, ham­mer” can label a tool or an action, and glass” can label a mate­r­i­al or an object made from that mate­r­i­al. And these are just exam­ples of more gen­er­al schemes through which we can com­mu­ni­cate many thoughts using a small­er set of words.

So these schemes reveal how we think, and how we can per­ceive the very same thing in dif­fer­ent ways. So for instance, when we call these chick­ens hun­gry,” we are think­ing of them as ani­mals. But when we refer to them as tasty,” we’re think­ing of them in terms of their meat. So in this way, flex­i­ble uses of words can reveal how we are con­stru­ing a par­tic­u­lar situation.

By fram­ing our per­spec­tives, flex­i­ble words can even shape how we behave. So for instance if we’re told that this patient is bat­tling” can­cer, the lan­guage of war might encour­age us to con­sid­er aggres­sive treat­ments for the can­cer. In con­trast, hear­ing that the patient is on a jour­ney” might actu­al­ly dis­cour­age short-term inva­sive treatments.

So because lan­guage reflects how we think, it can reveal how we frame impor­tant issues. So by under­stand­ing how peo­ple around the globe talk about ter­ror­ism, cli­mate change, or eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy, we can bet­ter under­stand their under­ly­ing assump­tions and bias­es. And this could lead to greater inter­na­tion­al consensus.

But to use lan­guage to reveal dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al per­spec­tives, we real­ly must first under­stand how lan­guages vary. There are rough­ly 6,500 lan­guages spo­ken in the world today, many of which have dis­tinct lines of ances­try. And so, these dif­fer­ent lan­guages could have very dif­fer­ent sys­tems of flex­i­bil­i­ty than English.

So, inter­est­ing­ly, work from my lab shows that although lan­guages do dif­fer from English in inter­est­ing ways, they nonethe­less share many of the same pat­terns of flex­i­bil­i­ty. This sug­gests that despite geo­graph­ic and cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences, speak­ers of all lan­guages may share a com­mon cog­ni­tive frame­work, mak­ing it pos­si­ble for us to under­stand one anoth­er’s perspectives.

And this cog­ni­tive frame­work, inter­est­ing­ly, is vis­i­ble not just in sim­i­lar­i­ties across lan­guages, but also in the evo­lu­tion of a sin­gle lan­guage. For exam­ple work from my lab has traced how English words have devel­oped new mean­ings through com­pu­ta­tion­al analy­ses of archives dat­ing back a mil­len­ni­um to Old English. 

And our mod­els show that words have devel­oped new mean­ings in sys­tem­at­ic ways that could reflect how we think. For exam­ple words that described con­cepts in the exter­nal world, like words for water, have been extend­ed through­out his­to­ry to describe more abstract con­cepts, as seen with stream­line,” gush,” or cas­cade.”

A young girl seated at a computer, next to a screenshot showing the path her gaze has taken

Now that we see the sys­tem­at­ic flex­i­bil­i­ty across lan­guages and through­out his­to­ry, we can ask whether this reveals some­thing very fun­da­men­tal about how we think. And if it does, it might even be present in young chil­dren. Even young chil­dren might find it intu­itive to use words flex­i­bly with these dif­fer­ent mean­ings. And so to study chil­dren’s under­stand­ing of flex­i­ble lan­guage, my lab uses eye-tracking tech­nol­o­gy which mon­i­tors where chil­dren look as they’re lis­ten­ing to lan­guage. So the red lines here indi­cate where the child is looking. 

And this method can give us insight into what chil­dren are think­ing in real time as they’re lis­ten­ing to lan­guage. Using meth­ods like this, my lab has shown that chil­dren antic­i­pate the dif­fer­ent uses of flex­i­ble words from a very young age. So after learn­ing that an action involv­ing a tool is called dax­ing,” chil­dren expect the tool itself to be called a dax.” This is sim­i­lar to how we can ham­mer with a ham­mer, or shov­el with a shovel.

Our stud­ies show that chil­dren under­stand many of the dif­fer­ent pat­terns of flex­i­bil­i­ty employed across lan­guages. They cre­ative­ly use words to label ani­mals and their meats, they use words to label objects and their mate­ri­als, space and time, and many more. And chil­drens’ ear­ly mas­tery of these schemes sug­gests that it might be nat­ur­al for the mind to link con­cepts in these ways. 

Four images showing a paperclip being used to remove a phone's SIM card, indicate the start of rolls of tape, pick a lock, and pit cherries

This cog­ni­tive flex­i­bil­i­ty, crit­i­cal­ly, could be foun­da­tion­al to our sophis­ti­ca­tion as a species. Our abil­i­ty to rede­fine the role of an object in dif­fer­ent con­texts allows us to see prob­lems in new ways and to come up with insight­ful solutions.

So to close, the study of flex­i­ble lan­guage and thought paves the way for many real-world appli­ca­tions. We can bet­ter under­stand the per­spec­tives of one anoth­er. We can find ways of pro­mot­ing chil­dren’s open-mindedness and cre­ativ­i­ty. One day, we could even build arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence that’s capa­ble of using and under­stand­ing cre­ative uses of lan­guage. Thank you, and I look for­ward to dis­cussing this with you all. 

Further Reference

Mahesh Srinivasan pro­file and Language and Cognitive Development Lab at University of Berkeley Psychology

2016 Annual Meeting of the New Champions at the World Economic Forum site