If this is right, then meaning is something totally different from [a given] definitional model ... If meaning is based on experience with the world—the specific actions and percepts an individual has had—then it may vary from individual to individual and from culture to culture. And meaning will also be deeply personal—what polar bear or dog means to me might be totally different from what it means to you. Moreover, if we use our brain systems for perception and action to understand, then the processes of meaning are dynamic and constructive. It’s not about activating the right symbol; it’s about dynamically constructing the right mental experience of the scene.
Furthermore, if we indeed make meaning through simulating sights, sounds, and actions, that would mean that our capacity for meaning is built upon other systems, ones evolved more directly for perception and action. And that in turn would mean that our species-specific ability for language is built up from systems that we actually share in large part with other species.
Of course, we use these perception and action systems in new ways. We know this because other animals don’t share our facility with simulation…The capacity for open-ended simulation is something much more human than ursine, not just in language, but pervasively throughout what we do with our minds. You can simulate what you would look like if you covered your nose with your hand, just as easily as you can simulate what you’d look like if you had two heads or if you had a pogo stick in place of your right leg. If simulation is what makes our capacity for language special, then figuring out how we use it will tell us a lot about what makes us unique as humans, about what kind of animal we are, and how we came to be this way.
One of the important innovations of the embodied simulation hypothesis—and one way in which it differs from the language of thought hypothesis [Mentalese]—is that it claims that meaning is something that you construct in your mind, based on your own experiences. If meaning is really generated in your mind, then you should be able to make sense of language about not only things that exist in the real world, like polar bears, but also things that don’t actually exist, like, say, flying pigs. So how we understand language about nonexistent things can actually tell us a lot about how meaning works.
Let’s consider the case of the words flying pigs. I’d wager that flying pigs actually means a lot to you, even without thinking too hard about it. Over the years, I’ve asked a lot of people what flying pigs means to them, informally. (One of the luxuries of being a university professor is that people tend to be totally unsurprised when you ask questions like How many wings does a flying pig have?) According to my totally unscientific survey, conducted primarily with the population of individuals with time on their hands and a beverage in their glass, when most people hear or read the words flying pigs, they think of an animal that looks for all intents and purposes like a pig but has wings. The writer John Steinbeck imagined such a winged pig and named it Pigasus. He even used it as his personal stamp. What do you know about your own personal Pigasus? It probably has two wings (not three or seven or twelve) that are shaped very much like bird wings. Without having to reflect on it, you also know where they appear on Pigasus’ body—they’re attached symmetrically to the shoulder blades. And although it has wings like a bird, most people think that Pigasus also displays a number of pig features; it has a snout, not a beak, and it has hooves, rather than talons.
There are a couple things to draw from this example. First, flying pigs seems to mean something to everyone. And that’s important because there’s no such thing as an actual flying pig in the world. In fact, part of the meaning of flying pigs is precisely that flying pigs don’t exist. What all of this means, not to be too cute about it, is that the Mentalese theory that meaning is about the relation of definitions to real things in the world will only work when pigs fly.
Second, if you’re like most people, what you did when you understood flying pigs probably felt a lot like mental imagery. You might ask yourself, did you experience visual images of a flying pig in your mind? Were they vivid? Were they replete with detail? Of course, consciously experiencing visual imagery is just one way to use simulation—you can also simulate without having conscious access to images. But where there’s imagined smoke, there may be simulated fire. If you’re like most people, when you simulate a flying pig, you probably see the snout and the wings in your mind’s eye. You may see details like color or texture; you might even see the pig in motion through the air. The words flying pigs are not unique in evoking consciously accessible visual detail. The same is true for lots of language, whether the things it describes are impossible like flying pigs or totally mundane like buying figs or somewhere in between, like the polar bear’s nose.
Third, and I don’t expect that this occurred to you because it only became clear to me through my extensive research—flying pigs doesn’t actually evoke something of the genus Pigasus for everyone. For some people, flying pigs don’t use wings to propel themselves, but instead conscript superpowers. If your flying pig is of this variety—let’s call it Superswine—then it probably wears a cape. Maybe a brightly colored spandex unitard, too, with some symbol on the chest, like a stylized curly pig tail or, better yet, a slice of fried bacon. And what’s more, when it flies, Superswine’s posture and motion are different from those of winged flying pigs. Whereas winged flying pigs hold their legs beneath their body, tucked up to their bellies or hanging below them, Superswine tend to stretch their front legs out in front of themselves, à la Superman.
I’ll be the first to admit that the respective features of Pigasus and Superswine are not of great scientific value or vital public interest in and of themselves. But they do tell us something about how people understand the meanings of words. People simulate in response to language, but their simulations appear to vary substantially. You might be the type of person to automatically envision Superswine, or you might have a strong preference for the more common Pigasus. We observe individual variation like this not only for flying pigs, but equally for any bits of language. Your first image of a barking dog might be a big, ferocious Doberman, or it might be a tiny, yappy Chihuahua. When you read torture devices, you might think of the Iron Maiden or you might think of a new Stairmaster at your gym. Variation in the things people think words refer to is important because it means that people use their idiosyncratic mental resources to construct meaning. We all have different experiences, expectations, and interests, so we paint the meanings we create for the language we hear in our own idiosyncratic color.