Sunday, January 18, 2004

I Think You Think, Therefore I Think You Are

Korzybski often condemned unthinking human behavior as animal-like, advising his readers of methods to rise above such reflexive, automatic reactions. The issue of how humans differ from animals can become contentious, especially with people who believe that all living beings have more intelligence than commonly assumed.

In a gs seminar I attended a few years back, one of the attendees became quite offended at the statement "Humans are the only species capable communicating abstract thoughts" or words to that effect. She argued that other species might very well have complex mental lives but just choose not reveal their communications to humans.

This article from New Scientist might have helped her to understand the difference between our brains and language behavior and that of all other species. The research described in the article attempted to determine the ability of monkeys to detect variations in human speech patterns. While the study showed that the monkeys could recognize a simple rule of variation, they missed more complicated ones that required the skill of recursion.

From Wikipedia: "Recursion is a way of specifying a process by means of itself." In human behavior, recursion refers to, among other things, our ability to have abstract thoughts, to conceive of someone else's abstract thoughts, and to describe a pattern in terms of the pattern we want to describe. The researchers Fitch and Hauser showed that monkeys lack the ability to logically detect a complex language pattern, and suggest that this lack has as much to do with their inability to use language as does their frequently referenced physical limitations.

New Scientist

Monday, January 05, 2004

Filling the Gap

Previously, I reported on research concerning the use of "like" in modern speech, in which the researcher determined that this much-maligned "filler" word actually had a number of specific and generally accepted meanings. Prior to this research, most English teachers would have told you that the use of "like" in any manner other than "to have affection for" or "similar to" amounts to carrying a sign that you have no brains at all. (Many probably still feel that way.) Further pollute your language with "um" and "uh" as well, and you might as well forget about getting on in the serious adult world.

However, in this article from the NY Times, Michael Erard reports on other recent linguistic studies that have somewhat exonerated this lowly class of words called "fillers". Some researchers have even detected specific purposes and conversational meaning for each type of filler. One researcher found that nearly every language has such words, although they vary in sound, and they perform much the same purpose wherever they appear.

Another interesting fact appears in the article. In the process of trying to improve the efficiency of therapeutic conversations with patients, one psychologist determined that up to 50% of all speech consists of silence. That's one to ponder....

Think Tank: Just Like, Er, Words, Not, Um, Throwaways