PSYC 914 Daily notes

Language, thought, and consciousness-- ontogeny and phylogeny

Daily notes

These are my own notes and record of what we covered (discussed/viewed) in class. They also may include other relevant material I didn't mention but should have if time (or memory) allowed. They are not necessarily complete but should be reviewed occasionally as I might add or revise at any time. I usually try to log my notes each class.

week 1

Introductions & our interests

Does language create or enable or shape human thought? This is very old issue going back to the writing of John Locke, 16xx, in his Essay on Human Understanding. In my lifetime, this idea was given new life by the amateur linguist Benjamin Whorf who suggested, from his study of southwestern native american languages, especially Hopi, that the particulars of their language shaped the particulars of their thinking and even perhaps their perceptions of shape and color. See the Wikipedia story on this, which seems reasonable as a first approximation.

Similar questions can be asked about the relation between language and memory, language and consciousness.

Assignments for next class:

Simcock, G., & Hayne, H. (2002). Breaking the barrier? Children fail to translate their preverbal memories into language. Psychological Science, 13, 225-231. (online, Blackboard, or ask me by email) read this and write a short summary of the basic conclusion, any critical thoughts you might have, and find one recent (2006-8) piece of research relevant to their conclusions. Due a day before next class, 1/30), one page double spaced.

Read ch. 1 to 4 in Pinker

Read Mithin, S. (2007). Creations of pre-modern human minds: Stone tool manufacture and use by Homo habilis, heidelbergenis, and neanderthalis. In E. Margolis & S. Laurence (Eds.), Creations of the mind: Theories of artifacts and their representation (pp. 289-311). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (BB)

For those teaching recently, what does your text say about thinking, about consciousness? How about a brief report next week?


Links to timetable of everything, language evolves, representations, mind tools here.

begin Language video?

(Read Language video notes.)

Notes to the notes!

Important to distinguish between communication and human language

all sexually reproducing species have communication for finding mates and more

human language is quite distinct and uniform across dialects in its structures (an open lexicon, phonology, recursive and hierarchical structure, and compositional semantics.... enabling unlimited creative/novel messages.

could some other species have 'hidden' complexities in their communication system? Remotely possible but information theory, motor control processes, and sensory-cognition processes limit the nature of communication systems. (I'm thinking of things like words per minute, puppet control of the vocal tract, multiple levels of language--phones, syllables, morphemes, phrases, clauses, sentences, complex sentences..compositional semantics)

Moreover, what would be the need for such systems? It is widely believed that human language co-evolved with human repressentational culture-- manifestations of which show up only in the last 50,000-75,000 years with increasing sophistication. There is nothing like this in so-called animal cultures..e.g chimp tools. Mithen (2007) suggests even Neanderthals lacked such culture, nevermind chimps. (Moreover, he also foreshadows the idea that language dramatically changed the mind of our recent ancestors.)

Of course, don't forget humans are mammals and 'speak' mammalian as well as human. By chance, I came on this reference shortly after talking about it...

Bird and mammal communication is about the basics of life and seems closed to much innovation whereas human language is all about innovation-- new words are coined and new phrases are the norm.

Can dogs talk? Better than chimps do!

week 2

Discuss and expand on chapter 1-xx in Pinker, Simcock reports, current text oral reports on thinking and consciousness

See Temple Grandin ("my mind is like a picture-filled 1000gb hard drive")-- are autistics really so different?

Pinker ch.2- "chatterboxes" --why is language an "instinct?" Read more on the "speech" gene, FOXP2.

ch. 3 Mentalese -- a language for thought?

read about the Piraha and the linguists involved. "The Interpreter" in New Yorker, April 16, 2007. (Blackboard)

Colapinto, J. (2007). The interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language? The New Yorker 83(8): 119-137. (BB)

Wikipedia has some useful info about the language itself. And look at this site on the rapidly diminishing number of language-dialects.

For next Monday, write a summary of Pinker's arguments that language is an "instinct"-- and your evaluation of those arguments. If you think there is new evidence on these topics, say so and cite it. 1-2 pages max. If you think there is a bad argument there, say why. For next Tuesday, be prepared to discuss the implications of Everett's claims on Pinker's conception of language, along with your own.

week 3

I've been pondering the discussion from last week and have a couple of trains of thought to lay out. The first concerns the role of language in autobiographical memories-- there was the beginnings of an interesting class discussion of this in class. I wasn't planning to get into this directly but here it is-- take a look at my notes (actually a response paper 'answer' first written several years ago for my Psych 712 class when I assigned Simcock & Hayne (2002) and Fivush & Nelson (2004) to read and critique.)

Fivush, R., & Nelson, R. (2004). Culture and language in the emergence of autobiographical memory. Psychological Science, 15(9), 573-577.

The second concerns Piaget (1896-1980) and his theory-- again I wasn't sure if it was worth going into here but language and consciousness do play interesting roles in his theory-- whether true or false or indeterminate. And even before the old geezer passed away, some developmental psychologists were making a career mis-understanding his ideas-- claims that stage transitions were automatic or could be assessed directly by performance accuracy rather than insight into causes of that performance. Or that culture played no role in formal operations! (How lame is that!) If I have time I will try summarize exactly where to find P's ideas on the place of consciousness and language. (I just noticed a reference to Piaget's early book on "Logic and Language", 192x in my response paper above. THis book was read by Vygotsky and stimulated his critque of Piaget. Much later when Vygotsky's work was translated-- circa 1950s-- long after his early death, Piaget responded, pointing out there really weren't too many differences and he (JP) would say some things differently than he did thirty years earlier.

Both endorsed the idea of the 'socialization of thought' and that language played a major, if not necessary role in this process. Vygotsky, comparing Kohler's apes with Piaget's children, argued this process began with the beginnings of language in children. Piaget's work suggests language doesn't play a causal role in this process until much later --in the advent of 'formal operations.' Piaget was interested in the evolution of science in human culture and saw formal operations as a change in the mode of thinking from primitive to modern humans.

(I googled Piaget's theory and spent a half hour reading a lot of bogus stuff and then found some reasonable ones-- my own from many years ago and some others!)

video bits: "Language" video segments: sign language, Creole formation, aphasia, imaging, Whorf , myths & infrasound?, NSL

Temple Grandin (isn't there an old term "autistic thinking" contrasted with "socialized thinking"?)

Communication -- different modalities in tsunami alerts in animals and humans

writing and reading for next week

The topic is "modes" of thought--can we try to organize our own thoughts on this? Let me think about this until late Tuesday, early tomorrow. See below "Next assignments."



wrap up last week quick!

review Pinker on "instinct"-- maybe Piraha paper too?

see , ASL, Pidgin- Creole Bickerton, aphasic Iowa lady, Whorf-Malotki, Grandin, NSL?

discuss all of the above.

Next assignments- Read/review Pinker ch. 3-7. Read this research paper:

Papafragoua, A., Li, P., Choi, Y., & Han, C.-h. (2007). Evidentiality in language and cognition. Cognition, 103(2), 253-299.

THis will probably give most of you a new word--evidentiality. I trust you can figure it out. A brief discussion is on my word notes page, #6-7. The Papafragoua et al (2007) paper can be downloaded from UNH library and/or BB item 1. (Rick found a problem with this file so if you can't open it properly, get it directly from the library online Cognition.

Write 1-2 pages typed, due next Monday on how this evidentiality paper and the results fit in or not with Pinker's ideas on Mentalese and his arguments against thinking in English. Are there any other empirical bits of evidence for or against Pinker that might be worth considering?

random stuff-- how different are these! :

Dude (thanks to Erika)

Piraha singers (thanks to Jan) Here's Everett's webpage with more sounds, info.





week 4--

Next assignments and my recap of this week--click here.

Maybe I can review the timing on evolution of language? (OK for now.)

words for time (Pinker, video, Whorf & Malotki (p63), see Science vol 317, 10 Aug 2007


Read/see Pinker on new words! Read this review later in conjunction with "Words..." And yet another in the NYT.

Week 5

For assignment due THIS week see last week's notes.

Ambiguity- examples, implications for grammatical description and thinking "IN" English, etc.

How language works? Simple and complex sentences. The significance of complex sentences- generally and in regard to ToM De Villiers reading.

Who is conscious?

Next assignments-- go here.



week 6--assignments for week 6 here.

See the lexicalization notes --most just a summary of where we've been --for now. About meaning.


Read this short paper on TMS.

Pinker himself --- May 2, 2008 Manchester, NH: New England Evolutionary Psychology Society, keynote address, 5PM, “The Stuff of Thought.”


Discuss response papers, esp meaning of tall . Here in brief are my thoughts on this; meaning is the contribution a morpheme makes to its phrases. We don't have good intuitions on word meaning but have better insight into phrase and sentence meanings. So, as linguists traditionally do, the idea is to compare and contrast meaning changes as one changes the word in a phrase. How does a long gift differ from a tall gift, for example? All words are different and must be investigated on their own; however there are word classes that behave similarly. Proper names essentially in modern English have no meaning (sense) but just point to individuals. Just because my name is Limber does not license an inference that I am limber.

Spatial adjectives, like tall and long, can be thought of as functions that actively look for linguistic and non-linguistic data from the "vast mental database."(VMD). These functions then output inferences that give meaning to their utterances. See Pinker's concept of "verb despots."

The lexical entry for each word contains a variety of information for its usage as well. Tall, for example, asserts a quantity (relative or absolute) about the extent of an object's normally vertical dimension, given that that dimension's extent is considerably greater than the other two dimensions. Interpreting John is tall requires establish a comparison reference group and searching your VMD of knowledge for relevant info about sizes of adult males in the USA, circa 2000.


(Somewhat aside, the idea of 'function' is applicable to UG- it takes environmental data especially language interactions and outputs a parser etc appropriate for that language environment. The parser itself is a function that takes in sound waves and outputs meanings via computations based on trees etc.)

Finally, there are still some gaps in understanding of complex sentences but we will move on.


Erika and Josh will lead a discussion of the Gilbert et al and Barlow papers on language, perception and consciousness. This is not over!

week 7 look here for next assignments

Jen and some others sent me this article on Animal Minds. Here is a link to the experiment on categorical perception in speech and Harnad's bibliography on the topic.

See my notes and read the short downloadable Science paper on vegetative states.

discuss methods of brain "imaging"-- note that most of these methods are known as "functional" in that they provide evidence as the the "functions" of the particular brain region under discussion. Thus MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) gives a visual display of tissue types, one 3D point (voxel) at a time. Functional MRI (fMRI) presents a statistically constructed visual image of the blood flow during certain brain processes.



week 8 get next assignment here

Ask Andy...!

attribution theory--we've already seen clever Hans; now Pippen? We didn't get to see Pippen this week. Also read the quote from Hebb in Wegner.

F. Heider and M. Simmel. "An experimental study of apparent behaviour". American Journal of Psychology, 13, 1944. demo

Also Michotte, Piaget, and Premack (newby to the topic!)

week 09 spring break

week 10 --next assignments

Man dead; recovers! (These stories always surface around Easter!) Thanks to Jan.

Dirty degus use tools! Maybe Thorndike was right? (NYT may require registration)


"Sweet little liars" (thanks to Jennifer)

More on "modules" from class discussion yesterday.



Pinker on the web! He is talking in NH May 2.

week 11 Tucson consciousness conference

OK look for the next assignment here NOW; nothing to write this week and not too much for next when I return. Try to finish off Wegner and collect your gripes/applause for a final showdown.


week 12-

Ganea, P. A., Shutts, K., Spelke, E. S., & DeLoache, J. (2007). Thinking of things unseen: Infants' use of language to update mental representations. Psychological Science, 18(8), 734-739.

The latest on BOLD control? And what did I just run into, reviewing the old "imageless" thought issue?



week 13

conference report- imaging everything, orgasms, intention to speak (Carota & Sirigu), brain-reading, mind-wandering vs. sensory absorption,, and the authors of the DES. Owen (vegetative states & coma) gave an excellent presentation of several cases.

CHILDES? see Erika's notes on BB

Josh brought this video bit to our attention- Wiltshire surely is not thinking in language! Language could perform an operating system function but it is unlikely to me that language is representing the detailed info. Note that it could logically do so, e.g. give each retinal or ganglion cell a name and a value. (This appears to be from a video; can anyone track it down?

"Stephen Wiltshire is a British man who was diagnosed as autistic when he was a child. He's also been noted for his exacting memory, which allows him to recreate [in drawings] vast scenes he sees only once. This video shows his 16-foot-panorama of Rome after taking one helicopter ride above the city." (Youtube)

The only case that I know of that tops this is the unique Stromeyer-Julesz woman who can look at random dot stereograms, left and right separately as I recall, and then fuse them to see the 3D image.

week 14 reading assignment

Jan found this great story about a duel between jays and a crow.

The significance of rating instructors? Read this article on language & thought in NYT-- a bit of everything including names numbers, colors, space, Pinker, signing.... See also this story of language death!

week 15 Pinker --May 2, 2008 Manchester, NH: New England Evolutionary Psychology Society, keynote address, 5PM, “The Stuff of Thought.”

Science magazine this week reports on a report claiming students learn math better from abstract rules than concrete examples. See the NYT article. I haven't gotten Science yet but the NYT version quotes the investigators as believing their results based on college students will apply to children. While their empirical finding is not too radical (after all, college students might be expected to have "formal operations"), if this were true of elementary school children or younger, that would be something. (The issue is the nature of reprentation of knowledge... and how well that knowledge can be applied to novel situations.."transfer.")

and on the topic of episodic memory and ToM:

Science 23 November 2007:
Vol. 318. no. 5854, p. 1257
DOI: 10.1126/science.1148763

Theory of Mind Is Independent of Episodic Memory
R. Shayna Rosenbaum,* Donald T. Stuss, Brian Levine, Endel Tulving

Theory of mind (ToM) to infer other people's current mental states and episodic memory of personal happenings have been assumed to be closely related. We report two participants with severely impaired episodic memory who perform indistinguishably from healthy controls on objective ToM tests. These results suggest that ToM can function independently of episodic memory.

Department of Psychology, York University and Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest, Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3, Canada.


I am coming to appreciate that episodic memory is really about consciousness and its connection with memory and introspection. Here's a link to a short Tulving paper; there are several recent longer ones, too.

Here he defines a word, new to me "chronathesia"--"What is chronathesia? Conscious awareness of subjective time, past, present and future. And then I also thought that it's cute to think of it as nature's, Mother Nature's, if you wish, own trick to do, undo one bad mistake, namely making for uni-directional time, throughout. And so Nature says, well, there has to be some way of getting out of the uni-direction of it in linearactive time. Let's endow some of the creatures on earth there with a way of switching it around so they can at the present time travel into the past, which doesn't physically exist any more, and also travel, think about it, imagine the future, which also physically doesn't exist at any given time. "

"The point I want to make is one really does not need episodic memory for a great deal. Even, I mean, all those animals that I mentioned have no episodic memory, and they're very excellent survivors. Have been, generation after generation. Of course, species do go extinct and others are created or emerge. But, nevertheless, just about no species out of the million or that we have in the world, that are in existence or so, needs episodic memory to be able to exist and to survive. And even we, normal, healthy human beings, do not really rely on episodic memory very much. When you listen to me and try to make sense of what I'm saying, you do it totally in terms of your Semantic knowledge, your understanding of the language, of the concepts, and ideas and so on. You don't have to think back to any particular incident. You can do that for something that you read about or listen to or so. It may remind you of things. That means that you're switching to the episodic retrieval mode. That's all right, but it's not necessary.... But my idea, and this is the thesis and just really the take home lesson, if you wish, of my talk, is that episodic memory, autonomic consciousness and chronathesia were drivers of human cultural evolution. The idea is that the kind of culture that homosapiens have created over the last 40,000 years or so can be produced only by a species who's mental resources include conscious awareness of the existence of the future in which individuals and their offsprings will continue to live and survive. You have to have an idea of tomorrow in order to deliberately act today in preparation of that in the absence of a stimulus present in the environment that would impel you to do so. And that's an argument that many animals, other non-human animals, who act as if they were preparing something for the future do because they have learned to do so and their stimulus, instigating stimulus is present right now. In human beings, this is different. You don't have to do that. (JL Very Jaynesian!) ... So, to answer the question, why did episodic memory evolve? Episodic memory, the only memory system that allows individuals to mentally travel in subjective time, probably evolved not because it allows such time travel into the past, but because it allows mental time travel into the future. Such proscopic, forward-looking, chronathesia may have been one of the central drivers of the evolution of culture."

Tulving, Endel (2005). Episodic memory and autonoesis: Uniquely human? In Herbert S. Terrace & Janet Metcalfe (eds.), The Missing Link in Cognition: Origins of Self-Reflective Consciousness. Oxford University Press.

Mark A. Wheeler, Donald T. Stuss, and Endel Tulving
Toward a theory of episodic memory: the frontal lobes and autonoetic consciousness
Psychological Bulletin 121 (1997). 3: 331-354

"children under 18m can recall specific events.. but does this mean they have episodic memory. we do not believe so.. evidence suggests that, for a period of at least several months, young chlldren are without the capacity of autonoetic consciousness that wouled allow them to recollect the past in that rich personal way that accomopanies episodic recollection."

"The difference between encoding (and recalling) personally experienced events, on the one hand, and encoding (and remembering) events as experienced, on the other is subtle; ..we see it as fundamental. It lies at the heart of distinction between noetic and autonoetic awarenss, hence episodic and semantic memory. "

Childhood amnesia "results from a lack of autonoetic awareness in early childhood""

The very clever psychologist, Richard Gregory, has suggested --in his discussion of consciousness-- that the function of qualia may be to distinguish current experiences from (episodic) memories.

"We might hazard a guess as to what qualia do. As perception depends on rich knowledge from the past stored in the brain, there must be a problem in identifying the present moment from past memories, and also from anticipations running into the future. The present is signalled by real time stimuli from the senses; but as perceptions are 90% or more stored knowledge, the present moment needs to be identified for behaviour to be appropriate to what is happening out there now. When crossing a road, one needs to know that the traffic light seen as red is red now, and not a past remembered red light. This importance of the present is seldom recognised as important by psychologists, though it is discussed by Humphrey. [REF 6]

Try this simple experiment Look intensely at some distinctively coloured object, such as a red tie. Then close the eyes and imagine the tie. The vivid qualia are suddenly far dimmer in imagination. To reverse the experiment, imagine the object, then open the eyes and look at it. The qualia of the visual are now startlingly vivid by comparison with the memory. So perhaps what qualia do is flag the present so that we do not get confused with remembered past or anticipated future."


More new "free will" Libetian experiments here.

Presenters for next week should try to post their project info Friday.




week 16


Herb Simon 1972 (with Allen Newell). Human Problem Solving. Advocate of thinking aloud as evidence of thinking. (See various Simon & Ericsson papers including reply to Nisbett & Wilson (1977). (Kirsten attached one to her BB response.)


Hypnobirth video

psychological zombie
(thanks to Anne G.) "this
hypothesis suggests, mental operations that are typically accompanied by conscious
awareness can be produced in the absence of conscious awareness, thus demonstrating the superfluousness of awareness. " (see my Jaynes talk abstract, too)

Lieberman, M. D. (in press). What zombies can't do: A social cognitive neuroscience approach to the irreducibility of reflective consciousness. In J. Evans & K. Frankish (Eds.) In Two Minds: Dual Process and Beyond. pdf

(Liberman is the author of the 2007 Social neuroscience bit in Annual Rev of Psychology.)

and I just began reading

Roeper, T. (2007). The prism of grammar: How child language illuminates humanitarianism. Cambridge: The MIT Press., who says:

"Is it possible to compute entailments unconsciously?... a real mystery... Freud's approach to the unconscious treats it as a domain as rich as consciousness. Yet to many people it feels like consciousness is special... what should we think? A conservative assumption is that, to remain a respectful as possible we should assume that our unconscious-- and therefor a child's has all the mental intricacy of consciousness." 269


(Maybe my notes on the seminar will appear here soon!)

another Libet-like report on predicting decisions before they happen-- so to speak!