Language and Cognition

There was a fascinating summary thread I came across recently that I want to dig into, as there’s some really interesting and rich areas of tension to unpack. Here’s the thread:

What especially caught my eye and made me ponder for days afterwards was this:

The language network does not overlap or build on nonlinguistic cognitive abilities . . . fMRI evidence from 32 experiments, with 64 conditions, and 761 participants across 1,007 scanning sessions suggests language is separate from thought – when processing non-linguistic stimuli other areas are activated compared to when processing linguistic stimuli . . . The language system does not share resources with other cognitive abilities.

Language is separate from thought. I really struggled to understand this . . . isn’t language how we think, whether conscious or not?

Fedorenko argues that there are properties of language that suggest is is not suitable for complex thought, but is well-suited for communication . . .For example, language processing is fundamentally predictive, something that wouldn’t be useful if language was primarily used for thought and not communication. Although the language network and other cognitive abilities seem to be distinct systems, they need to integrate in some way. Shedding light on this integration is a key direction for future research

Where language does intersect with other cognitive systems, however, according to this presentation, is “some exciting new research emerging that language is intimately linked with the system that supports social cognition, such as Theory of Mind.”

This line of research may be interesting to further pursue, and I suspect Annie Murphy Paul’s recent book, The Extended Mind, may have much to offer along these lines — it’s on my list, but I have too many books on my desk right now that I need to get through first!

Another tantalizing tidbit in this thread relates to syntax and word meaning:

language does not rely on abstract syntax. Syntactic processing is distributed across the language network and “every syntax-responsive cell population or brain area is robustly sensitive to word meaning” . . . . In every region, even at the most fine-grained level of analysis shows that there are no selective responses to abstract syntactic structure – everything that responds to structure building also responds to word meaning.

Well now, I want to unpack that one a bit more! It seems to suggest that word meaning i.e. semantics i.e. vocabulary/morphology is higher leverage than syntactical structure.

All of this really got me thinking, about thought and cognition, about language . . . and especially about how adding in literacy — a writing system — complicates all of this . . . I mean, writing is a form of thought, right? I sometimes don’t think things, or know what I think about things, until I force myself to write it. Does reading and writing connect cognition and language in a way that language itself does not?

In pondering about this thread further, I threw out the following on Twitter:

I got some great food for thought in response to this query — Corey Peltier, Courtney Ostaff, and Andrew Watson confirmed that working memory is typically understood as a component of executive function — the cognitive system of thought that would appear to be distinct from language.

Lisa Archibald then went in deep on the relation between working memory and language, and it’s worth digging into her specific points, as they bear challenges to some of the points made above in the earlier thread.

Key points she makes that I found very helpful:

  • What is activated and therefore measured depends on the nature of the task
  • Whether the brains scanned are children or adults matters, as adult brains are more specialized
  • Just as with emerging reading/writing skills, language development requires more cognitive attention until we are fluent
  • And similar to struggling readers and writers, students struggling with language (i.e. DLD / SLI) have to apply more cognitive energy to using language accurately, which makes meaning/content/thinking harder to get to

She also referred me to another thread from DLD and Me that gives a neat way of framing this as unity but diversity — i.e. there is a single pool of resources of executive function (unity) but there is a diversity of different types of tasks we’re trying to apply that pool of resources to:

Whew! This is heady stuff. Would love to hear your own thoughts on any of this. Join in on the conversations here, on Twitter, or on our Discord server: https://discord.gg/VxpWH6EnQX

By manderson

I live in NYC.

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