Editor's note: This excerpt of a chapter from Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning by Benjamin K. Bergen (Basic Books, 2012) relates that our brain’s capacity to both perceive a pig and then imagine what the animal is like, even one that flies, points to an essential cognitive skill that makes humans different from all other species.
Excerpted from Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning by Benjamin K. Bergen. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.
Starting as early as the 1970s, some cognitive psychologists, philosophers, and linguists began to wonder whether meaning wasn’t something totally different from a language of thought [Call it Mentalese, whichtranslates words into actual concepts: a polar bear or speed limit, for instance]. They suggested that—instead of abstract symbols—meaning might really be something much more closely intertwined with our real experiences in the world, with the bodies that we have. As a self-conscious movement started to take form, it took on a name, embodiment, which started to stand for the idea that meaning might be something that isn’t distilled away from our bodily experiences but is instead tightly bound by them. For you, the word dog might have a deep and rich meaning that involves the ways you physically interact with dogs—how they look and smell and feel. But the meaning of polar bear will be totally different, because you likely don’t have those same experiences of direct interaction.
If meaning is based on our experiences in our particular bodies in the particular situations we’ve dragged them through, then meaning could be quite personal. This in turn would make it variable across people and across cultures. As embodiment developed into a truly interdisciplinary enterprise, it found footholds by the end of the twentieth century in linguistics, especially in the work of U.C. Berkeley linguist George Lakoff and others; in philosophy, especially in work by University of Oregon philosopher Mark Johnson, among others; and in cognitive psychology, where U.C. Berkeley psychologist Eleanor Rosch’s early work led the way.
The embodiment idea was appealing. But at the same time, it was missing something. Specifically, a mechanism. Mentalese is a specific claim about the machinery people might use for meaning. Embodiment was more of an idea, a principle. It might have been right in a general sense, but it was hard to tell because it didn’t necessarily translate into specific claims about exactly how meaning works in real people in real time. So it idled, and it didn’t supplant the language of thought hypothesis [Mentalese] as the leading idea in the cognitive science of meaning.
And then someone had an idea.
It’s not clear who had it first, but in the mid-1990s at least three groups converged upon the same thought. One was a cognitive psychologist, Larry Barsalou, and his students at Emory University, in Georgia. The second was a group of neuroscientists in Parma, Italy. And the third was a group of cognitive scientists at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, where I happened to be working as a graduate student. There was clearly something in the water, a zeitgeist. The idea was the embodied simulation hypothesis, a proposal that would make the idea of embodiment concrete enough to compete with Mentalese. Put simply:
- Maybe we understand language by simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things that the language describes.
Let’s unpack this idea a little bit—what it means to simulate something in your mind. We actually simulate all the time. You do it when you imagine your parents’ faces, or fixate in your mind’s eye on that misplayed poker hand. You’re simulating when you imagine sounds in your head without any sound waves hitting your ears, whether it’s the bass line of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army or the sound of screeching tires. And you can probably conjure up simulations of what strawberries taste like when covered with whipped cream or what fresh lavender smells like. You can also simulate actions. Think about the direction you turn the doorknob of your front door. You probably visually simulate what your hand would look like, but if you’re like most people, you do more than this. You are able to virtually feel what it’s like to move your hand in the appropriate way—to grasp the handle (with enough force to cause the friction required for it to move with your hand) and rotate your hand (clockwise, perhaps?) at the wrist. Or if you’re a skier, you can imagine not only what it looks like to go down a run, but also what it feels like to shift your weight back and forth as you link turns.
Now, in all these examples, you’re consciously and intentionally conjuring up simulations. That’s called mental imagery. The idea of simulation is something that goes much deeper. Simulation is an iceberg. By consciously reflecting, as you just have been doing, you can see the tip—the intentional, conscious imagery. But many of the same brain processes are engaged, invisibly and unbeknownst to you, beneath the surface during much of your waking and sleeping life. Simulation is the creation of mental experiences of perception and action in the absence of their external manifestation. That is, it’s having the experience of seeing without the sights actually being there or having the experience of performing an action without actually moving.
When we’re consciously aware of them, these simulation experiences feel qualitatively like actual perception; colors appear as they appear when directly perceived, and actions feel like they feel when we perform them. The theory proposes that embodied simulation makes use of the same parts of the brain that are dedicated to directly interacting with the world. When we simulate seeing, we use the parts of the brain that allow us to see the world; when we simulate performing actions, the parts of the brain that direct physical action light up. The idea is that simulation creates echoes in our brains of previous experiences, attenuated resonances of brain patterns that were active during previous perceptual and motor experiences. We use our brains to simulate percepts and actions without actually perceiving or acting.
Outside of the study of language, people use simulation when they perform lots of different tasks, from remembering facts to listing properties of objects to choreographing a dance. These behaviors make use of embodied simulation for good reason. It’s easier to remember where we left our keys when we imagine the last place we saw them. It’s easier to determine what side of the car the gas tank is on by imagining filling it up. It’s easier to create a new series of movements by first imagining performing them ourselves. Using embodied simulation for rehearsal even helps people improve at repetitive tasks, like shooting free throws and bowling strikes. People are simulating constantly.
In this context, the embodied simulation hypothesis doesn’t seem like too much of a leap. It hypothesizes that language is like these other cognitive functions in that it, too, depends on embodied simulation. While we listen to or read sentences, we simulate seeing the scenes and performing the actions that are described. We do so using our motor and perceptual systems, and possibly other brain systems, like those dedicated to emotion. For example, consider what you might have simulated when you read the following sentence... :
- When hunting on land, the polar bear will often stalk its prey almost like a cat would, scooting along its belly to get right up close, and then pounce, claws first, jaws agape.
To understand what this means, according to the embodied simulation hypothesis, you actually activate the vision system in your brain to create a virtual visual experience of what a hunting polar bear would look like. You could use your auditory system to virtually hear what it would be like for a polar bear to slide along ice and snow. And you might even use your brain’s motor system, which controls action, to simulate what it would feel like to scoot, pounce, extend your arms, and drop your jaw. The idea is that you make meaning by creating experiences for yourself that—if you’re successful—reflect the experiences that the speaker, or in this case the writer, intended to describe. Meaning, according to the embodied simulation hypothesis, isn’t just abstract mental symbols; it’s a creative process, in which people construct virtual experiences—embodied simulations—in their mind’s eye.