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

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