Sunday, December 25, 2005


From Science Magazine comes this report on new insights into how we remember:

Recent advances in analyzing the large data sets collected during functional brain imaging studies have revealed patterns of neuronal activity that can be associated reliably with the recall of remembered stimuli. After seeing pictures or listening to sounds, subjects are able, when prompted, to retrieve or reactivate their memories of these items, and brain scans taken during the retrieval period are similar to those taken when the same items were studied directly. Polyn et al. (p. 1963) now show that reactivation of such stored representations occurs prior to a verbal report of recollection in a free recall paradigm, where subjects were not prompted to remember specific items, but were reporting which of these items "resurfaced" in their memory and when. These results provide support for the theoretical framework of shifting brain states in dynamic cognition.

Science 23 December 2005:
Vol. 310. no. 5756, p. 1865
DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5756.1865i

Friday, December 23, 2005

Change Happens

We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.
-William Somerset Maugham, writer (1874-1965)

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

First post since August???

Where has the time gone? I'm back with a lovely quote from Democritus:

By convention there is color,
By convention sweetness,
By convention bitterness,
But in reality there are atoms and space.
--Democritus (c. 400 BCE)

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Words to live more by

As I grow to understand life less and less, I learn to live it more and more.
-Jules Renard, writer (1864-1910)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Words We Like

'Tis with our judgements as our watches: none Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
-Alexander Pope, poet (1688-1744)

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Yet another quote

So difficult it is to show the various meanings and imperfections of words when we have nothing else but words to do it with.
-John Locke, philosopher (1632-1704)

Saturday, May 14, 2005


The living language is like a cow-path: it is the creation of the cows themselves, who, having created it, follow it or depart from it according to their whims or their needs. From daily use, the path undergoes change. A cow is under no obligation to stay.
-E.B. White, writer (1899-1985)

He that uses many words for explaining any subject, doth, like the cuttlefish, hide himself for the most part in his own ink.
-John Ray, naturalist (1627-1705)

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


"Faith" means the will to avoid knowing what is true.
- Friedrich Nietzsche

Saturday, February 26, 2005

What's in a Name?

Minds of Their Own: Birds Gain Respect

You've done it, no doubt--called somebody a "birdbrain". I bet you didn't know you were conferring a compliment on them! Here's an interesting report on recent research showing that birds' brains are at least as complex and inventive as those of chimpanzees.

I found especially interesting this refreshing insight into the power of language, in a statement by Dr. Erich Jarvis, one of the leaders of the consortium that produced the report: "Names have a powerful influence on the experiements we do and the way we think." While much attention focuses on "experimenter bias" and the idea that a scientist might subtly influence the results of a test towards a preferred outcome, Dr. Jarvis addresses the question of the bias that exists even before the experiment begins. If we only use one set of terms for phenomena that are similar but not identical, how much real-world information do we miss because we have not words to describe it?

This ties in nicely with a theme I have pursued lately, stimulated by my reading of Lakoff's Metaphors We Live By and The Silent Language by Edward T. Hall. While gs talks a lot about bringing our personal history into our interpretation of words, these two books cast a new (to me) light on the mechanisms for that process.

Using metaphor in daily language (something we do constantly but usually without awareness) gives us a built-in set of familiar meanings for unfamiliar concepts. For example, suppose I say "Bob purred with appreciation as the sports car pulled up." You know Bob is not a cat, but you know what "purr" means so you hear a sound in your mind that approximates what Bob did. You also know that cats purr, and when they do, they indicate contentment, they might stretch appreciatively or rub against you. From that, you might imagine some physical action that Bob takes to further show his appreciation, maybe slapping you on the back and pointing. Purring allows cats to communicates a certain emotion and, metaphorically, Bob communicates a similar emotion.

Similarly, if I call you a "bird-brain" you use the constellation of meaning that surrounds your understanding of birds to interpret the phrase and assign related meaning to it. How can a scientist conduct serious research on soemthing as silly and frivolous as a "bird-brain"? You see the problem.

Much of these metaphoric constellations remain completely hidden from our consciousness. Hall describes the deep structural changes that occur in our brains as we grow up and learn our native language and culture. While we all understand how our language divides us from those who speak a different language, many of us will find it a surprise that the division runs just as deep over such simple cultural habits as time sense, personal distance and eye contact. Lakoff extends this disconnect to the metaphors we use.

For scientists, this means overcoming not just the stigma of a word like "bird-brain" but also, for example, the cultural estimation of the value of other species. In some cultures, not only does the word imply insignificance, but society's view that birds primarily represent food adds an additional layer of unconscious stigma that neither the scientist nor the society as a whole even recognize.

The subject of how our descriptions can influence how we value work deserves more thought and research.

Minds of Their Own: Birds Gain Respectbirdbrain.htm

Monday, February 14, 2005


One owes respect to the living. To the dead, one owes only the truth.
-Voltaire, philosopher and writer (1694-1778)

Thursday, February 10, 2005

What's Wrong with this Article?

With the current social and political climate leaning precariously towards the "faith-based" approach to life, examples of faulty logic and language abound. One topic generating much heat concerns the so-called "theory of intelligent design" proposed as a serious alternative to simple evolution as an "explanation" for Why We are Here.

In this NYT article, biologist Michael Behe presents what he undoubtedly intended as a cogent and irresistable argument in favor of Intelligent Design. He insists that ID proponents in the scientific community do not incorporate a religious aspect into their theory, but simply question the ability of natural processes to produce sub-cellular appropriate technology in such variety as we now understand exists.

Behe says cell are more like watch mechanisms than William Paley ever could have imagined: "There are little molecular trucks in the cell to ferry supplies, little outboard motors to push a cell through liquid." The presence of such mechanisms, so similar to things we know to have been designed underlies one of the prime arguments put forth to support ID.

As a general semanticist, I have to gently correct Mr. Behe. We know from our studies of how language influences perception, that his statement says nothing about the cell and everything about the speaker. If you see intelligent design in the similarity between a cellular body and a motorboat, it's because an intelligent being designed the motorboat! That's why we say "form follows function." We can't imagine a spontaneously arising mechanism so similar to one that we made with our intelligence, ignoring the fact that some of the ideas for the design of motorboats comes from the simple need to meet certain requirements--moving through a thick medium, needing to steer against currents etc. If you need something to quack like a duck, you watch ducks quack and then do something similar. If you later come back to the duck and find miraculously that their quack sounds a lot like your mechanical quacker, and from that derive a theory of intelligent design of the duck, you are being fooled by your own language and forgetfulness.

As for his closing remarks that we should not "search relentlessly for a non-design explanation for Mt. Rushmore"--what he is trying to do there is to equate the design we *think* we see in nature with something that any human would recognize as designed. Continuing research on evolution has nothing to do with explaining things we *know* were the results of design, like tattoos on Maori warriors, or the appearance of bound feet in ancient Japan. Nobody cares to find the reason behind the making of Mt Rushmore. In fact, science has no *need* to find the reason for evolution or any other natural process either. If evolution answers the most questions about how things work, then it suffices until something comes along that does it better. That's how science works. And "intelligent design" does absolutely nothing for the advancement of scientific understanding. By definition, that makes it something other than science--like religion perhaps?

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Contributor: Design for Living

Monday, January 03, 2005

Quote for the "New Year"

Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.
-Thomas Mann, novelist, Nobel laureate (1875-1955)