Friday, July 25, 2008

Hiatus (+A Short Note on Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development)

It will be a while until I’ll be able to post again, because I’m at my fiancée’s parents’ home over the semester holidays and won’t have access to the internet. After that I’ll have to prepare for my year abroad in Nottingham, which starts mid-September, but I’ll try to post a bit more regularly starting late August.
Right now I’m busy writing a term paper on Nietzsche’s view on the evolution of language, but I also try to occasionally have a look at other texts that interest me. So here’s one interesting (well, at least I think it’s interesting…) thing:

Yesterday I’ve read the first chapter of “The Development of Children” by Michael Cole, Sheila Cole, and Cynthia Lightfoot.
There, they give a short overview over influential theories of human development. As already discussed on this blog, Jean Piaget is a very influential thinker on the topic of children’s conceptualizations of mental states and differing perspectives on the same event.
Piaget thinks that young children are self-centered and only see things from an egocentric perspective that they are unable to transcend. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, there is a lot of evidence that this generalization is exaggerated, and that the ability to take other cognitive perspectives arises between the ages 4-5, an age much younger than Piaget hypothesised.
Another crucial assumption in Piaget’s theory is that there is a stage at which children’s understanding and experiencing the world fundamentally changes. Before this change, they conceive of thinking as a bodily process, for example, the act of speaking. Only older children conceive of thinking as something invisible and unobservable. According to Piaget, children’s conceptualization of thinking fundamentally changes about the age of 10 to 11. This is when children first become able to think about thinking as a mental process which cannot be seen. Piaget used clinical interviews as evidence for his theory. Here are two interviews he did with younger children (taken from Cole at al. 2005: 21f.):

Piaget:… You know what it means to think?
Child: Yes.
Piaget: Then think of your house. What do you think with?
Child: With the mouth”

Even when children get explicit hints, they aren’t able to think of mental states as internal processes:
Piaget: When you are in bed and you dream, where is the dream?
Child: In my bed, under the blanket.
Piaget: Is the dream there when you sleep?
Child: Yes, it is in my bed beside me.
[Piaget writes: “We tried suggestion:”]: Is the dream in you head?
[The child explicitly rejects the possibility]: It is I that am in the dream: it isn’t in my head.”

With older children that have reached the next developmental stage, however, the picture is quite different:
Piaget: Where is thought?
Child: In the head.
Piaget: If someone opened your head would he see your thought?
Child: No.
Piaget: What is a dream?
Child: It’s a thought
Piaget: Are the eyes open or shut?
Child: Shut.
Piaget: Where is the dream whilst you are dreaming?
Child: In the head
Piaget: Not in front of you?
Child: It’s as if (!) you could see it”

The evidence seems pretty straightforward.
However, often children are not fully able to express their thoughts and conceptualizations verbally, so a child’s practical understanding of mental processes might be different from what it says about them.
There is, for example, massive evidence that 4-5 year-old children are able to realize that other people have wrong representations of the world (i.e. that they have false beliefs). They are also able to attribute unobservable mental states like knowledge to others, that is, they have a Theory of Mind. At age 3, children are already able to grasp the fact that people have other desires and tastes as they have, for example, that someone else likes broccoli although they themselves don’t.
These facts made me a bit suspicious of the interviews Piaget reported, especially as I do not know how many children he actually asked. So I asked my fiancée’s little brother, who is much much younger than her: 4. (4,11 to be precise)
So here is my first informal interview (translated from German):

Me: Can you actually think?
Child: Well um yes
Me: Then think of a house. What do you think with?
Child (points at his forehead): Umm… With the brain!”

So what’s the explanation? Even though my fiancée’s brother is a bright kid, it’s improbable that he bridged a developmental gap of 6 years. And I have a hunch that although not as many kids at his age would have answered with “the brain”, still a lot would have said that thoughts are in the head.

To see how sophisticated his conceptualization really was, I tried to replicate Piaget’s Interview with the 11-year-old kid:

Me: Do you know what a thought is?
Child: Yes.
Me: Where is thought?
Child: In the brain.
Me: If someone opened your head would he see your thought?
Child: No.
Me: Do you know what a dream is?
Child: Yes.
Me: Are the eyes open or shut?
Child: Shut.
Me: Where is the dream whilst you are dreaming?
Child: In the brain.
Me: Not in front of you?
Child: No.

One possible explanation is a cultural-historical one. Piaget’s interviews are more than 80 years old and the culture and developmental environment of Germany in the year 2008 is certainly different from that of France in the 1920ies. There are of course social factors involved and it would be interesting to check for variation if more kids were interviewed.
One could also argue that my fiancée’s brother’s comprehension of mental states is still a mechanistic, bodily one. Instead of the physical organ of the mouth, the thinking is done with another physical organ: the brain. But then this would surely also be the answer of many adults. Furthermore, in his conceptualization a thought isn’t located in the brain in a trivial way: even if you opened his head, you couldn’t see it. Interestingly, as I remarked that it was pretty cool that he thought that thoughts are being produced by the brain, he said: “What else should I think with…? …the head?!”, something which indicates that he didn’t get behind the metaphorical link between the head and a mental states, and thus maybe didn’t see my questions as aiming at invisible processes of the mental world, but being directed at the factual/physical domain, but I’m not so sure about that.

To end this post with a provocative question: could his answer imply the death of folk dualism? With increasing education and the all-pervasiveness of biological talk in the media (Think of the press coverage fMRI studies receive) and in everyday speech, the view that the mind is what the brain does might become a new common place folk theory and might be acquired at ever younger ages.

There is no question that the children of today will grow up in a fundamentally different world than even I did, but the really interesting question is how this growing up in a hypertechnological, hypermedial, hyperbiological (given the dominance of neuroscientific genetic and medical discussions in the public sphere) and often reductionist world will change and influence their folk theories of how the world works as well as their cognitive conceptualizations. I’m really looking forward to the future.
See you in late August.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Some Links

There's an interesting news story making the rounds concerning the ear bones of a 530,00 year-old Homo heidelbergensis fossil.

Here's Science News on the topic:

"The geometry of the ear canal reveals that the hearing patterns of H. heidelbergensis overlapped with those of modern-day humans. Both modern people and the ancient hominids have especially sharp hearing in the 2 kilohertz to 4 kilohertz frequency range, where much of the sound energy of spoken language is transmitted"
It's also important to note that this hearing frequency differs from that of chimpanzees, whose maximum sensitivity is range is about 4 kilohertz. This is all the more interesting because H. heidelbergensis was probably a direct ancestor of Neanderthals, not of homo sapiens.

But what this shows exactly is unclear. As Kambiz Kamrani of points out:
"All this really shows is that H. heidelbergensis could hear in the frequency range as modern humans. While I think it is very possible H. heidelbergensisis communicated, this research can not indicate that they used their ‘modern ear anatomy’ for anything special."
John Hawks thinks that the evidence

"seems pretty likely to indicate co-evolution of human auditory and vocal capabilities in the time before 500,000 years ago. Does that mean language? It certainly seems likely to mean some kind of vocal communication not shared with other hominoids, but that need not include every element of present-day human language."
He also points out that the original research was already done in 2004 and is freely availaible for download.

Regarding theories of language evolution, I think this is fuel for the gradualist protolanguage camp (e.g. Derek Bickerton) and definitely speaks against strong versions of the gestural origins theory of language evolution.

Hat tip: Kambiz Kamrani & John Hawks

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Tom Wolfe on the Evolution of Language

Sorry for not posting anything in such a long time, but the end of the semester is drawing near and I had a lot of presentations to prepare, I still have to write some term papers and also have to prepare for my year abroad in Nottingham, which will start by mid-September.

But anyway, Neurophilosopy brought to my attention a cool discussion between well-known cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga and famous author Tom Wolfe, who has described himself as the “social secretary of neuroscience.” Here’s his take on the evolution of language:

"Tom Wolfe: „To me the crucial point is something […] about speech and language. […] Speech is an artifact. It's not a natural progression of intelligence […]. It's a code. You're inventing a code for all the objects in the world and then establishing relationships between those objects. And speech has fundamentally transformed human beings.“


Tom Wolfe: I think speech is entirely different from other survival benefits. Only with speech can you ask the question, "Why?"


Tom Wolfe: Animals cannot ask why. In one way or another, they can ask what, where, and when. But they cannot ask why. I've never seen an animal shrug. When you shrug, you're trying to say, "I don't know why." And they also can't ask how.


Tom Wolfe: Humans got language and they were suddenly able to say, "Hey, why is all this here? Who put it here?" And my assumption is that they said, "There must be somebody like us but much bigger, much more powerful, that could make all these trees, the streams. God must be really something, and you'd better not get on the wrong side of him." I think that's the way it started."

This is of course an interesting line of thought, echoing some aspects of moderate versions of the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis, and also José Luis Bermúdez’s (e.g. 2003) and others’ theory that language “rewired” the human brain.

It is also akin to statements made by the famous German philosopher and scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1839), who had a wide-ranging influence both on inquiries into the relationship between language and thought (and also on Chomsky’s nativistic stance):

“As the particular sound steps in between the object and the human being, the entire language, too, steps in between him and the world that affects his inside and outside. He surrounds himself with a worlds of sounds, in order to be able to internalize and process the world of objects. The human being lives with objects, mainly, or even exclusively in the way they are supplied to him by language.” (Humboldt 1992, translated by Frank Polzenhagen).

I tend more towards the universalist side of the debate, given that this blog focuses a lot

1. on the amazing displays of complex intelligence and behavior-reading in language-less nonhuman primates and other non-human animals (see for example this Neurophilosophy post on 5 amazing feats of animal intelligence including youtube video of the behaviors)

2. the amazing intention-reading, goal-attributing and social cognition/frame of reference skills of prelinguistic human infants

3. the complex cognitive system that enables us to take the perspectives of other people and objects, and which seems to consist of many parts (e.g. complex cognitive spaces (or systemic spaces), frame of reference-enabling coordinate systems, visual figure/ground phenomena), that seems to function, at least to a certain degree, in a way not determined/influenced by language, mainly because many of its parts are either present in nonhuman animals and/or prelinguistic human infants, or are necessary precursors for the ability to be even able to learn a language in the first place.

But it is also certainly true that language has fundamentally changed human cognition and plays an important role both in higher-order thought and social interaction. Another important aspect is that specific languages seem to be an accumulation and embodiment of the conceptualization and perspectivation efforts of historically previous speaker communities (e.g. Köller 2004, Tomasello 1999). One example would be the the stock of cognitively important and perspective-creating wh-questions Wolfe alludes to.

However, when Wolfe says

“Humans got language and they were suddenly able to say, "Hey, why is all this here? Who put it here?"
I think he’s skipping several steps. Firstly, it is perfectly possible that the ability to ask for the unobservable causes of a phenomenon - and relate and reinterpret events in a causally and relationally structured representational system - evolved in humans prior to the ability to speak and was itself a driving factor in the evolution of language (e.g. Penn et al. 2008, Hurford 2007). Secondly,

saying that only humans have language [and that, therefore, language explains fact x of human behavior] is like saying that only humans build skyscrapers, when the fact is that only humans (among primates) build freestanding shelters at all. Language is not basic; it is derived. It rests on the same underlying cognitive and social skills that lead infants to point to things and show things to other people declaratively and informatively, in a way that other primates do not do, and that lead them to engage in collaborative and joint attentional activities with others of a kind that are also unique among primates. (Tomasello et al. 2005: 690)

In my next post I’ll continue with Dieter Wunderlich’s presentation on the topic.


Bermúdez, José Luis (2003). Thinking without Words: Oxford. Oxford University Press,

Hurford, James M. (2007): The Origins of Meaning: Language in the Light of Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Köller, Wilhelm (2004): Perspektivität und Sprache. Zur Struktur von Objektivierungsformen in Bildern, im Denken und in der Sprache. Berlin, New York: de Gruyter.

Penn, Derek C, Keith J. Holyoak. and Daniel J. Povinelli (2008): Darwin's mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences (31:2): 109-130.

Tomasello, Michael (1999): The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, Michael Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, und Henrike Moll (2005): Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28:5, 675-691