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


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