Thinking without language?

Bill Skaggs skaggs at bns.pitt.edu
Fri Nov 19 10:04:30 EST 1999


"ADR" <a.dalla_rosa at virgin.net> writes:

> >I don't know about you, but I'm perfectly able to think verbally while
> >sticking my tongue out and keeping it still.  The fact that I'm typing
> >this with my tongue stuck out proves it.
> 
> 
> No muscular movement at all? Not even in the throat or with the lips? That
> would be a miracle.

There is considerable danger of going astray here.  One should be
careful to distinguish between thinking that involves words and
thinking that involves *only* words.  There is good reason to think
that, in people who have language, the linguistic parts of the brain
are always to some degree active, and always activate the machinery
for speech to some degree, even if it is far too weak to be
noticeable.  But this doesn't mean that thinking is exclusively, or
even mainly, verbal.

In fact, the idea that any kind of thinking could be exclusively
verbal is almost absurd.  Consider a very simple example of thinking,
such as going from "What is seven times six?" to "Oh yes, forty-two",
and suppose you have the task to programming a system to get from the
former to the latter, but it is only allowed to operate on words --
the only operations it can do is directly transform sentences into
other sentences.  I won't say it's completely impossible, but it would
be outrageously difficult.  Any sort of plausible algorithm would
involve creating a sub-linguistic representation of the "meaning" of
the sentence and operating on the elements of that representation.
Most likely, the sub-linguistic representation would need to be
considerably more complicated than the sentence itself, involving
probably hundreds (or even millions) of auxiliary variables.

If you buy what I'm suggesting -- that even during "verbal" processing
most of the cognitive operations don't act directly on words, but
rather on sub-linguistic representations of the meaning of sentences
-- then the differences between verbal thinking and nonverbal thinking
become a lot less important.

	-- Bill




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