Monday, March 10, 2014

Two pieces of general interest

Here are two things that I read recently that might be of general interest to the cognitively inclined.

  • This piece here discusses sounds can exploit parts of the visual cortex for higher level object representations. In other words, as one of the authors puts it: the results strongly suggest that "the brain is a task machine, not a sensory machine." The authors come very close to endorsing a strong modularity thesis in which the brain is organized into task oriented modules, language specifically being identified as one such. It seems, in other words, that the idea of modular specificity of he cognitive kind that some linguists have been proposing for quite a while is finally making its way into the neuro literature as well. Note too, that this suggests modular organization of the Chomsky, rather than Fodor variety: it is not simply input systems that are task organized, but aspects of higher level cognition s well that are task specific yet relatively independent of the form of the input.
  • Bob Berwick sent along this discussion of a piece in Science by Bae et. al. that indicates that the folds in Broca's area are caused by the operation of a single gene. Think of this along the following train of reasoning: Broca's area is the "language" area, brian folding changes the cognitive powers of brains, so one gene can have the effect of changing the cognitive power of a brain. Relate this to Chomsky's old conjecture that a single genetic change could underlie the emergence of language. This was once considered to risible to be taken seriously. It now seems that rather dramatic and potentially cognitively significant changes in brain folding can be traced back to the operations of a single gene. Is Chomsky's hunch still so absurd? Or is it time to admit that we know very little about how brains secrete thought and that maybe we are in no position to know what is absurd and what is not.
  • Randy Gallistel pointed this article in the NYT from this past Sunday. It is the phenomenological report of a stroke patient wherein he reports the impression of being unable to linguistically express entertained thoughts.  This suggests, as Randy pointed out, that there are non-linguistic thoughts that linguistic expressions realize. Question: what are these and what properties do they have? Lila observed that this report is similar to the phenomenology described by Helen Keller prior to her launch into language.  At any rate, it makes for some fascinating reading and hints at an important distinction between linguistic versus non-linguistic meaning and thought. In a minimalist setting it also raises the question of what the value added of language is. Recall, that Chomsky (following F. Jacob) suggested that the onset of language increased cognitive function (as opposed to adding a communicative element). If there is already a conceptual system in place, how does it do so?


  1. Regarding the discussion of the Bae et al. piece, I think the idea is very interesting, but I think that the connection with Chomsky needs some qualification: a) is Broca really the language area (and is there such a thing as the language area?) b) Is it not the case that there are many genes which are sine qua non for language, and that we couldn't have language if every single one of those 100+ genes weren't there? c) given b), couldn't we make the single genetic change argument for a lot of different genes?

    [disclaimer: I don't have access to the full texts where I am right now]

  2. Interesting read...thanks!

    I've been wondering if this phenomenon ("the impression of being unable to linguistically express entertained thoughts") is also realized as a result of exhaustion or sleep deprivation in typical people.

    If this is so then it would be possible to study this thing more systematically by way of controlled experiments that (maybe?) aren't too invasive.