Sydney Lamb

The Neurocognitive Basis of Language

(Benjamins, 1999)

Excerpts from the first chapter:



There are two problems with illusion in linguistics: the use of fictions when it is not necessary ... and the use of fictions by people who do not recognize that what they are doing constitutes a fiction.

William J. Sullivan

Some years ago I asked one of my daughters, as she sat at the piano, "When you hit that piano key with your finger, how does your mind tell your finger what to do?" She thought for a moment, her face brightening with the intellectual challenge, and said, "Well, my brain writes a little note and sends it down my arm to my hand, and then my hand reads the note and knows what to do." Not too bad for a five-year old. She was at that time learning how to play a very simple beginner's tune on the piano, one note at a time.
     I think we can all agree right away that this theory has problems. Sarah too agreed as soon as I started asking her questions about it -- like "Does your brain have little pieces of paper in there, and a little pencil? Does your hand have little eyes inside to read the note? How does the note travel down your arm?" Of course, in interpreting her statement we can give her the benefit of assuming that she was speaking metaphorically -- just as contemporary cognitive scientists commonly do when theorizing about what our minds are doing to make our mouths produce speech. And, what may be a little surprising to you, their metaphors are often hardly more sophisticated than that of this five year old. They too might be excused on the grounds that they are speaking metaphorically -- their descriptions can be taken as qualified by "as if": It is as if the brain were writing a little message, and so forth -- as if qualifying every such statement. But if we really want to understand how the brain works, the "as if" mode of talking about it will not do; it excuses us from thinking the hard thoughts about what is really going on in there. It is, in short, a cop-out.
     Do contemporary cognitive scientists really describe the operation of the brain in this way? The answer is: yes, many do -- including highly respected ones. And not just cognitive scientists; it is also common practice even among neurologists, neuroscientists, and psychologists. This mode of theorizing is seen in their statements about such things as lexical semantic retrieval, and in descriptions of mental processes like that of naming what is in a picture, to the effect that the visual information is transmitted from the visual area to a language area where it gets transformed into a phonological representation so that a spoken description of the picture may be produced. Such phraseology can readily be found in current issues of such fine scientific journals as Brain and Language and Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, and in widely used and highly respected handbooks of neuroscience. It is easy to find nothing wrong with such ways of talking about mental operations -- you may be wondering why I am taking exception at all. If so, I ask you to look at these phrases once again and think about what they imply: information being represented as symbols, put in places from which they can be later retrieved, moved from one place to another. It is the theory of the five-year-old expressed in only slightly more sophisticated terms. This mode of talking about operations in the brain is obscuring just those operations we are most intent in understanding, the fundamental processes of the mind.

The Transparency Illusion
A serious problem in cognitive explorations, in both linguistics and psychology, is the elusiveness of the mind. Looking at the history of these fields, whose practitioners have often been drawn to them by their initial curiosity about the mind, one can get the impression that the mind takes an active role in obfuscating their explorations by deflecting them away from it and toward other phenomena, external phenomena. We can appreciate this problem through a distinction which is of the utmost importance to our exploration yet which is so little recognized that our language doesn't even have a term for it. Accordingly we may refer to it as ‘The Distinction Which Has No Name’. As we have as yet no way of talking about it directly in our language, we can approach it in the terms of some related distinctions.
     You may recall a time in early childhood when you wondered how all those little people got into the TV set. But if you look inside the TV set you don't find any little people. I don't remember this since I belong to an earlier generation -- for me it was the radio. But I remember watching our little kitten Max the first time he noticed some people on the TV screen. He jumped up on top of the TV set and curved his neck around so that he could look into the back of the set -- but since it was covered he was unable to see the little people. Similarly we shouldn't be misled by descriptions of analytical linguistics to suppose that we will find such things as little words and little syntactic rules and little sounds inside people's brains -- no more than we will find little people there, even though we can of course visualize people.
     This problem of having no way to talk directly about ‘the distinction which has no name’ exists because one of the functions of our minds is to make themselves as invisible as possible. They ‘try’, as it were, to make us think that they don't exist, that they represent reality directly. They ‘want’ us, as it were, to deal with reality directly, to ignore the fact that they intervene. The enormous amount of information processing that makes it possible for us to recognize objects presented to our sense organs is ordinarily outside our conscious awareness; we are aware only of the end results of all that complex perceptual processing. Thus an important aspect of the functioning of our minds is to make themselves as transparent as possible, keeping us from realizing that we are dealing directly only with them, our cognitive systems, and only indirectly, and through them, with reality. This is the transparency illusion. A window or a pair of glasses functions best when it is as invisible as possible. The person who wants to study windows must therefore make a special effort to look at the window rather than through it.
     We can see the power of the transparency illusion in magazine articles and public television programs purportedly on the mind which are really devoted almost entirely to phenomena external to the mind, as if an article purporting to be on how television works turned out instead to be about how TV writers and directors and producers do their jobs in the TV studio, and what audiences do when watching TV programs in their living rooms or bedrooms while munching popcorn and operating their remote control devices; but with no mention of electronics. Similarly, many of the papers one hears nowadays at meetings purportedly on cognitive linguistics are analyses of data just like those of decades past, rather than attempts to tell us something about what the cognitive system is which makes human linguistic processing possible. Despite their ‘cognitive’ label, they are actually papers on analytical linguistics.

    What is in the brain, rather, is whatever it takes to activate the muscles which control the speech- producing mechanism in order to execute and coordinate the various movements which will cause them to make the appropriate sound waves. Clearly we are talking about something far more complicated than a vending machine.
     It is more like a TV set. The TV set may appear to a cat or to a young child to have little people inside, but there are no little people in there. Similarly, the linguistic system in your mind does not have little words that it uses when you speak, nor any little rules for combining them, nor any lexical entries, nor does it change the f in knife to v when you say knives. Those things might well be in the model constructed by a five year old child, and we might well be proud of the child who constructed such a model. But we are no longer five year old children. We can do better than that.

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