Friday, October 8, 2010

Are Language and Thought the Same?

Everybody thinks they think in language.  After all, we don't know what we think until it pops into our head in sentences.  And, you're taught in school that a sentence is a complete thought.  One of my high school English teachers scolded us that if our writing wasn't clear it was because our thoughts weren't.  Poor writing was poor thinking. 

Well, I didn't have to go too far in life before I discovered arrant nonsense written in deathless prose.  My freshman year at Pembroke College at Brown University showed me that.

When I first began teaching composition, I discovered that some students had some really good ideas, but they wrote about them so poorly that I had to virtually decode them and recode them into straightforward prose. It was clear that having intelligent thoughts wasn't enough for them to be put into clear prose.  Then, when I both studied and taught poetry, I found that brilliant language often said pretty ordinary things.  If you want to know about death, you don't read poetry about death.  You read medical books.  I'm not putting poems down. Far from it. I love poetry.  In fact, I start each day by analyzing a new poem by Emily Dickinson.  My point is, early on, it seemed to me that language and thought weren't necessarily equivalent.

Then, in graduate school, a medical student doing her psychiatry internship asked me to listen to some tapes of schizophrenics talking.  They were so fascinating that I spent the next 25 years researching psychotic speech, and, of course, writing about it.  The speech itself was often in disarray.  It was crazy. However, the ideas behind the speech, when it could be ascertained, were often  not crazy at all.  Then, too, some patients whose speech was structurally normal in every way had bizarre, illogical ideas.  Again, I saw that language and thought are separate.  In my book Understanding Psychotic Speech, I devoted  a long chapter explaining the disparity between language and thought.  I have also had several journal articles published about that.  You see, psychiatrists had two categories for schizophrenia: Thought Disordered (TD) and Non-Thought Disordered (NTD).  The TD patients had the crazy language.  The NTD ones spoke in normal sentences.  However, if they weren't thought disordered, why were these patients in locked wards?  If people are  schizophrenic, no matter how good their language is, there is something wrong with their thought processes, or so one would assume..

Back to normalcy. I can hear the chorus of disbelief about thought and language.  You say, "But I don't know what I think before I write it down!" Or, you say, "When I think something, it's in words."  Ah, yes, that's when you are first conscious of it.  But before the thought can be put into words, some mechanism in your brain has to have chosen what words to state the thought in!  Out of the 100,000 or so words in your mental lexicon, random words don't pop into your head by themselves to encode your thoughts.  One of the problems with schizophrenics, who, believe me, have disordered thoughts, is that random words DO pop into their heads, or words related to each other, but that don't have anything to do with any discernible topic.

For instance, one patient, being shown color chips and being asked to name the color, responded to a salmon color chip like this, "Looks like clay.  Sounds like gray. Take you for a roll in the hay. Hay Day Heyday. May Day. Help. I need help."

Actually, before you had control of language, you did think without language.  Pre-lingual babies can think. So can deaf-mutes before they're taught language.  You can give them visual problems to solve and they'll solve them as children with language do.  To go a little futher afield, perhaps, scientifically controlled cognitive studies have shown that many animals think and solve problems, and they do it without language.

Once you've mastered language or mastered it to a certain point, you rapidly encode your thoughts into language and you remember your thoughts by accessing your mental dictionary.  We don't know at precisely what age this occurs, but we do know that from childhood on, most memories are verbal.  In fact, the secret to a human's vast memory is that, instead of storing information as actual moving pictures of what has transpired, we tag certain words and use those words to store the memory.  That's why when someone tells you something, you may suddenly be reminded of something else.  Since we need so much brain space to store our mental lexicons, tagging words in it for later recall is very economical. Words themselves are tagged according to the grammar they  may or must be used with.  For instance, if I say "Max murdered..." listeners will wait expectantly to hear who it was that Max murdered, because murder requires an object.

You can test these assertions out from your own experience.  Have you ever visited a house you used to live in, one which you fondly remembered had a big back yard?  We did.  As we passed it by, I asked Bill, "Wanna peek and see if our gardens are still there?"  When we looked over the gate, we were shocked.  It was such a small yard.

Another such occurrence involves color.  If you want to  match something and see a cushion, scarf, or what-have-you in that color, you buy it.  When you get it home, to your chagrin, the colors aren't alike at all.

Finally, Elizabeth Loftus, who specializes in eye-witness testimony, has shown that if you ask a witness, "How fast was the car going when it crashed into the other one,"  he or she will give a higher estimate of speed than if you ask, "How fast...when it hit..."  Similarly, if you remember something as crashing into something else, you will say it went faster than someone who had remembered it as "hitting" something else.  What these show is that memory can be fluid.  You can influence a memory someone already has, or two people who have witnessed the same thing will evaluate it diferently according to the words they encoded the event in when they first saw it.

The point of all this is that when a thought pops into your mind encoded in language, you had already had the thought without being aware of it.  Your Executive lobe in your brain, quickly put the thought into words, and that's when you became conscious of it.  Also, thought and language aren't one and the same. If they were, then there would be only one way to express a given thought, but any thought can be expressed in different ways. 

One more objection?  If we  have the thought and it was then put into language, how come we experience the thought as virtually instantaneously popping into our heads?  Well, before you can say anything in a conversation, your Executive selects which words and grammar to choose, and your brain has to get the sounds for those words in order, and command your vocal cords and tongue to get going.  All this planning and choosing takes a split second, so that you are only conscious of responding to another person. Nobody is aware of all the backstage prep that goes on before every utterance.  Remember, there is never just one way to say anything, so, except for greetings and other social routines, everything has to be planned, from the puff of air on the p in pie to the word sesquipedalian.

BTW,  a sentence is not a complete thought.  It's a linguistic structure.  It may express very incomplete thoughts.  And complete thoughts may be in a phrase, not a sentence.  More of that later if you want.