Language as a cognitive technology:

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Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby wolfhnd on December 12th, 2014, 1:43 am 

The Pirah˜a, an Amazonian hunter-gatherer tribe, lack words
for numbers and are unable to complete simple matching tasks
when the tasks require memory for exact quantities (Gordon,
2004; Frank et al., in press). Here we show that American participants
perform similarly to the Pirah˜a when asked to execute
the same kinds of matching tasks under verbal interference.
These results provide support for the hypothesis that number
words act as a “cognitive technology”: a method for quickly
and efficiently storing information via abstraction. We review
a variety of other evidence supporting this proposal from the
domains of color, navigation, and theory of mind.


http://langcog.stanford.edu/papers/fran ... number.pdf

This is the next topic I know nothing about I want to discuss :-)
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby wolfhnd on December 12th, 2014, 3:19 am 

I notice this effect of language on completing task when I was in the kitchen If I cleared all conscious thoughts from my head while baking I did alright until I needed to measure something at which point verbal representation of quantities were impossible to suppress. This little thought experiment was something I had done many times before I read this paper. Interestingly when your read you don't seem to be as likely to actually verbalize you thoughts as when you preform measuring tasks.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby Eclogite on December 12th, 2014, 7:24 am 

Since we're working on anecdotes, on the rare occasions when I am in the kitchen I would assess quantities in terms of a little bit more, or a lot more; not, two tablespoons, or five grams, or twice as much as I've already added. That would suggest your experience cannot be extrapolated to the rest of the population.

NB: I think doing science by anecdotes is as productive as reciting Hiawatha in the presence of a dead aardvark.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby wolfhnd on December 12th, 2014, 12:15 pm 

"NB: I think doing science by anecdotes is as productive as reciting Hiawatha in the presence of a dead aardvark."

That is a really good point.

I'm not doing the science however the researchers are. The anecdote was just something I through out there to demonstrate how interesting a topic it is on a personal level. It also was a way to address a feeling I got when I read the article. The first thing I thought when reading it was how will the Pirah feel when they or their descendants read the article. It's reminiscent of the controversy over IQ test. The answer to that might be that their language enhances other cognitive abilities that Bostonians fail at. One of the problems with social science is that whatever you study or the findings some group is going to be offended. My hey this is something I have always been interested in may do nothing to deflect critiques of cultural bias and exploitation but I thought it was a good way to start.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby Braininvat on December 12th, 2014, 2:12 pm 

It doesn't come as any surprise that number words are cognitive tools. On a personal level, I've noticed that when I do old house renovation (a pastime for most of my adult life), I often work faster now when I completely avoid language tools. For example, cutting a piece of moulding, I often just hold a piece by the opening or space where it will go, and mark with a pencil where the cut will go, completely bypassing the tape measure and the number of inches. I also have ceased to use a spirit level, and just trust my eye. Perhaps this is akin to experienced chefs who can abandon measuring cups and such, as they develop intuitive knowledge. Language tools are often best when a novice, then can be set aside later.

I still use number words in one area, of course, which is ordering more building materials. You always need a few more square feet, or lineal feet, of stuff than you think. If the work becomes too stressful, one can always recite Longfellow to a dead aardvark.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby wolfhnd on December 12th, 2014, 3:29 pm 

one can always recite Longfellow to a dead aardvark.
Braininvat you made me laugh

The best teachers are those with a good sense of humor.



I think you also make a good point in that we use the tools (or invent tools) we need. I'm sure Forest will come along and point out that people with few possessions have little need to count.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby Forest_Dump on December 12th, 2014, 5:22 pm 

wolfhnd wrote:I'm sure Forest will come along and point out that people with few possessions have little need to count.


A good point and worth thinking about. This topic actually is also related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that, in fact language structures thought. I don't think there are any "hard" linguistic determinists any more but I do think there is much of value in a softer version.

Eclogite wrote:I think doing science by anecdotes is as productive as reciting Hiawatha in the presence of a dead aardvark.


Actually I think anecdotal evidence (i.e., an observation of something of interest) is actually the first step prior to forming an hypothesis followed by attempting to gather a statistically robust sample of relevant data that can then be tested. I remember a friend of mine telling me about a radical therapy that (coincidentally?) ended up with his son being cured of a life-threatening condition. After telling me his son ended up being cured he looked at me an almost apologized because it wasn't very scientific (but this was not some kind of faith healing thing). I told him that all science was about was trying to find out if this could be some kind of fluke or, if not (determined by, usually, enough anecdotal examples) why it worked. I know many traditionalist healers who are using native medicines that have been in use for generations, if not centuries. Some of them have even been found to contain chemicals that do, in fact, have medicinal properties. Anecdotal means that it hasn't been looked at much yet.

Not sure what this has to do with archaeology though. But I am no purist.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby wolfhnd on December 12th, 2014, 6:24 pm 

Not sure what this has to do with archaeology though. But I am no purist.


Linguistics got dumped in the same forum as archaeology.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby wolfhnd on December 12th, 2014, 6:56 pm 

I went and tried some of these nonverbal cognitive tests (I'm really smart BTW ;-) ) and I can see right away that when they say that they are culturally neutral they are not. If the study in the OP was not in mind it may not have been so stark but I found myself using math to solve a lot of the problems. I guess they assumed that math skills were culturally neutral. Mind you I didn't take just any old internet test I researched them enough to find ones the "expert" considered to be reliable. You hear a lot of people criticizing these test but I' firmly in the other camp. I think they are a great teaching tools and I firmly reject the idea that tests are designed to suppress cultural diversity and imagination. I'm just not sure that the test they gave were in fact culturally neutral and I would account for the reduce performance of the Bostonians at least in part on cognitive load.

While it is interesting to compare people from different cultures what we need is a test that measure changes in the cognitive abilities of individuals based on changes to their verbal skills.

The analogy that comes to mind is a computer. You have the hardware comparable to the brain, the computer language comparable with written language, and the program comparable with all the experiences a person has. The first two have a fixed logic that influences how the computations will be preformed but place only modest limitations of what it can do. Different languages can of course be used to get the same result even if the hardware is the same. The question is if the languages themselves are robust enough to do equally well at solving the problem. The skill of the programmer or teacher will never the less be an important factor. The analogy doesn't completely break down because in the case of humans the teacher is experience or that it is somewhat random because a computer program can work perfectly well if it contains "junk code".

I'm going to look for some other interesting studies.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby wolfhnd on December 12th, 2014, 10:27 pm 

I have read a couple more papers and leave it to say that the field of linguistics is very contentious both internally and externally.

From a cultural perspective intuition tells us that the more information you have available the more likely some piece of it is going to be useful in solving a particular problem. The size of an individual's vocabulary is also likely going to increase as the amount of unique experience the individuals has increases. Written language is one of several technologies that grossly increases the number of experiences a person can have. Linguistic skill however may not be directly correlated with quantitative experience and vocabulary. Just like with junk in a computer code there is a qualitative aspect to the individual brain and experience that effects computational results. Each individual is also likely to have access to a variety of languages including mathematics, art and symbolism, sign and facial expression, and others. So the definition of what is linguistical is also questionable. In other words what constitutes the computational language the individual has access to may be more than our traditional definition of language. In any case the qualitative and quantitative experience that an individual has is most likely more important than language as a cognitive technology. The cognitive ability to solve a wide range of problems may be only marginally inheritant in a language's own logic.

Language is certainly a technology but it is the craftsman access to a variety of tools and his skill in using them that determines the scope and quality of the work. You couldn't build a space ship with a rock hammer no matter how smart you are so yes culture is relevant to problem solving. It isn't clear however that language directly effects cognitive ability in any meaningful way. Language is the way you get information in not the way you get meaningful computations out.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby wolfhnd on December 12th, 2014, 11:09 pm 

This topic actually is also related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that, in fact language structures thought. I don't think there are any "hard" linguistic determinists any more but I do think there is much of value in a softer version.


I have no doubt that language structures thought just not in the way people think of it. Language must be constrained by both physiological and cultural influences in other words it doesn't exist in a vacuum. It both acts on the individuals that make up a culture and is in turned acted on by those individuals. As a structure language is very fluid. It is also very fluid in the way it restrains though as it is built up by the experiences of many individuals and is transmitted and mutated constantly in unpredictable ways. I would think of language as structure for thoughts more as a balloon than a box. In expands and contracts in relationship to the number of experiences it can convey or the number a culture allows to be conveyed. Which is somehow proportional to the number of experiences that it's supporting culture is exposed to or invents.

Swam intelligence is kind of relevant here > the collective awareness of a population is effected by the number of members in the population, times the intelligence of the individuals, times there ability to experience their environment, times some other limiting factors. Small groups of humans would probably never have developed Quantum Physics for example. Language increase the quantity of experiences if not the quality and as Forest suggested is softly deterministic.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby wolfhnd on December 13th, 2014, 1:51 am 

I though I was done with this but I can't get it out of my head. Now I'm looking at Feral Children. Doesn't help because there is no way to test them due to their inability or unwillingness to interact with people.

The literature is all over the board on language's ability to enhance cognition. If Descartes had no language would he exist? I guess I will just add it to the list of unanswered questions. Take my meds and go to sleep.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby Eclogite on December 14th, 2014, 9:42 am 

wolfhnd » Sat Dec 13, 2014 12:51 am wrote: If Descartes had no language would he exist?
Of course he would. You don't need language to think.

Tesco ergo sum. .... I shop, therefore I am.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby wolfhnd on December 14th, 2014, 5:36 pm 

no language no credit card

he would just be another nameless soul wandering in the non materialistic void like a Pirah in his jungle.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby wolfhnd on December 14th, 2014, 6:30 pm 

Here is the question Eclogite>

Do you think that, assuming they are of equal intelligence, at any instant our resident, celebrity, physicist, Lincoln is able to hold a more complex thought than a Pirah?

It's kind of a trick question because I'm guessing the answer is no because it is not in the mechanics of the brain. Conversely I will assert that what makes Lincoln's non instantaneous mental workings appear to be on a higher order of "intelligence" is that they are. Pinker got it wrong there are many ghosts in the machine but a lot of them are dead ghost. What I'm trying to illustrate is that what the experimenters in the OP are trying to measure doesn't exist in the brain. We can't measure it because it is an additive effect of "intelligence" Lincoln inherited from the writing and studies of generations of thinkers. There surely must be some sort of intelligence inherent in the language including mathematics that can be transmitted culturally. What they are trying to do is measure the quality of the builder base on the tools he has, clearly better tools don't make better builders just better buildings. In other words some abstract quality of intelligence cannot be observed behaviorally and yes it would be fun to see if the technology has altered the builder but I don't see how that can be done.

Please ignore any attempt to define intelligence beyond this definition> intelligence =the faculty of understanding.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby neuro on December 19th, 2014, 12:07 pm 

In a sense, I'd say language is THE cognitive technology.
Our cognition is strictly based on our symbolic activity, which makes it possible to abstractly reproduce, simulate, interpret and predict real processes, and "understand" them i.e. propose possible mechanistic explanations in causal terms.

However, if language (symbolic representation and capability of employing it) is intended to mean VERBAL language, then I'd say it only is ONE OF THE POSSIBLE cognitive technologies, but on the other hand it also is a lot more: it also has the flexibility, the musical features, the semantic pleiotropy (multiplicity of meaning and ambiguity) that let it represent and enrich our emotional life (think of poetry...).

More precisely, here you seem to be talking about mathematical language. Notice that this – as it is the case for some other specific linguistic systems – has quite different properties from “natural language”: its symbols are very condensed, absolutely unequivocal, and strictly bound to an extremely rigid “syntax” (rules by which you can put a symbol in relation with another one). This obviously is a much more efficient cognitive technology than music, dancing or metaphoric language, in order to face operational problems.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby wolfhnd on December 19th, 2014, 5:11 pm 

You are a great writer neuro maybe there is book in you somewhere?

I know the paper says technology which means some tool outside the individual but what will make the topic controversial is in cultural comparisons. Some people are going to find the implications continuous in so far as there is a hint that some cultures are more "intelligent" than others. I think the authors would deal with that by pointing out that the studies are meaningless without the assumption that the individuals were of equal "intelligence". I think the really interesting question remains. Does a culture or in this case a specific cultural technology physically alter the brains of those exposed to it making individuals more or less able to understand the nature of reality? For the record I'm going to answer yes but not significantly. What we do know is that experience does alter the brain physically. There is clear evidence that past a certain developmental stage children have trouble acquiring language.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby vivian maxine on January 11th, 2015, 2:28 pm 

wolfhnd » December 12th, 2014, 2:29 pm wrote:

The best teachers are those with a good sense of humor..



Healthier, too. Good thought, wolfhnd.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby Eclogite on January 11th, 2015, 2:49 pm 

wolfhnd » Sun Dec 14, 2014 5:30 pm wrote:Here is the question Eclogite>

Do you think that, assuming they are of equal intelligence, at any instant our resident, celebrity, physicist, Lincoln is able to hold a more complex thought than a Pirah?
It is a mark of my intelligence that I can say with complete confidence that I have no idea. I would also doubt the intelligence of anyone who claimed, with confidence, that they could properly answer the question.

We are defined by our ignorance.
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby vivian maxine on January 11th, 2015, 2:54 pm 

Isn't it a fact that language grows according to the culture it grows in? Why is it that certain countries are known for their music, others for their art, others for their literature and, of course, others for science? None are any more intelligent than any other. They simply develop language tools depending on how they live and use their culture. Expose the majority of any culture's citizens to a new culture with a different vocabulary and they are on their way to using new language tools.

I am suddenly wondering if that thought relates to what I've been noticing in science journals - how many scientists we have here in America who are either of foreign birth or children of immigrants. At home, they might never have become scientists. They might have found quite a different interest to follow. Something to think about?
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby wolfhnd on January 11th, 2015, 5:14 pm 

Our field personnel were in the habit of referring to the engineers as educated idiots. If you are wondering how they got away with this there was a cultural revolution 20 years ago in which everyones opinion became relevant and an atmosphere of inclusiveness prevailed. Field personnel were strictly included in all decision making processes and meetings became open forums for personal opinions. A huge waste of time in my opinion. I had always been in the practice of consulting field personnel on my decisions and I could do so without wasting their time or mine. The problem stemmed from an earlier policy in which different divisions were by policy restricted from communicating with each other accept through managers. I ignored the earlier policy through out my early career and did my best to ignore the equal vote policy during the later part of my career.

The idea that everyone should be equal is rooted in liberal democracy and has a long history. "All men are created equal" but unfortunately they are not. My ability to make complex engineering decisions is superior to that of a person who has no training or experience at performing that task. It is also safe to say I have more "natural" aptitude for this function than many other people which was nurtured by my educational and home environment. I have witness the unfortunate consequences of trying to fit people into positions for which they have no "natural" aptitude. Trying to make everyone "equal" is cruel even if done with the best of intentions.

The vagaries surrounding what intelligence is may make it impossible to determine the intelligence of any individual or group but decoupling this kind of discussion from the political ramifications of equality is necessary. I offered my personal example above to illustrate the insanity of both a hierarchical and egalitarian approach to a practical working environment.

My dad was a farmer and he loved to point out how "stupid" people with a higher educations could be in his environment. He always seemed to ignore how stupid he would be in their environment. Peoples mental abilities are correlated to the environment they developed in. No body here is stupid enough to ignore environmental factors that make it impossible to qualitatively determine the intelligence of one individual as compared to another.

What we are discussing here is the effect language has on the ability to solve complex problems. It is a reasonable assertion that the technological tool of language is like all other tools varying in sophistication and applicability. The rather unfortunate side issue of how language effects development is unavoidable. If your moral compass forces you to base political equality and the value of human life on some idea of true equality the consequences for humanity are likely to be undesirable.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that mental ability is effected not only by physical nutrition and health etc. but other environmental factors like language. Their is plenty of evidence but I will site one example.

A bilingual brain is prepped for more than a second language

That extra brain exercise may be crucial as we age. Studies around the world show that bilingual people start showing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease about 5 years later than monolingual people. Most recently, Evy Woumans, Wouter Duyck and colleagues at the University in Ghent in Belgium reported in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition that bilingual Alzheimer’s patients developed significant symptoms on average 4.6 years later than monolingual Alzheimer’s patients and received their diagnoses 4.8 years later than monolingual people. It’s important to note that Alzhiemer’s disease is not developing later in bilingual people — the numbers reflect that this group is dealing much better with the damage caused by the disease.


https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/growth ... d-language
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Re: Language as a cognitive technology:

Postby wolfhnd on January 11th, 2015, 11:28 pm 

Back to the original topic.

neuro did an excellent job of clarify the issues when he stated that we need to be clear that we are talking about natural language and not something like math. While math is a language I don't think anyone would doubt that it has utility in solving complex problems. I think it is also clear that language effects mental development. As with computers many different languages can be used to solve the same problem. It's not clear if natural language lacking the precision of languages like math are not still functioning as less precise abstract reasoning tools by way of internal logic.

Vivian asked "Why is it that certain countries are known for their music, others for their art, others for their literature and, of course, others for science?" This questions suggest that just like the various math languages some are better at certain tasks than others.

What really interests me here is if language functions as both the programming language and the program as analogous to computers. Assuming that the program is constantly evolving and retains a flexibility that is not analogous to computers.

A secondary issue arises because language is an essential element of group intelligence for social animals. Does a democratic culture that insists on high standards for vocabulary, syntax and grammar make better decisions?
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