When You Say Go Jump Off a Cliff, I Feel It

Benjamin K. Bergen Explains the Astonishing Workings of Language in Homo Sapiens

In Squaring Off, Zócalo invites authors into the public square to answer five questions about the essence of their books. For this round, we pose questions to UC San Diego cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen, author of Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning.

Bergen blends psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience to put forth a new theory of how the brain understands words and sentences. He argues that people understand language by creating experiences in their minds—“embodied simulations”—that mirror interactions in the physical and social worlds.

Successfully conveying your meaning isn’t as simple as selecting the objectively right words. You have to select words that evoke the right experiences in the mind of the person you’re talking to.
  1. You write that “we understand language by simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things that the language describes.” Why is this finding revolutionary?

    The human capacity for language is unrivaled among animals. We can describe anything that comes to our minds through flicks of the tongue or wrist, and make similar ideas pop up in someone else’s head. People have wondered for millennia how humans do this. Why is it that if you raise a puppy alongside a child, the child will know thousands of words by age 5, and the dog will not? Part of the answer involves the human ability to relate words to world experiences. What your dog understands about “sit” is only what it is supposed to do in the present moment. The human understanding of “sit” involves knowing what sitting looks like, feels like, and so on—experiences that are detached from the present. This allows us to use language to communicate about things that are future or past, real or imaginary. This is partly what it means to be human.
  2. So what happens in people’s minds when they communicate about imaginary experiences?

    You’ve probably never tried jumping off the roof of a building, so you can’t know exactly how it would feel. But you have had varied experiences with your body, some of which approximate parts of what that might feel like. So you can construct a best guess. And that’s what people do. When you read “jumping off the roof of a building,” if you’re like participants in our experiments, you activate parts of your brain that are responsible for moving your muscles. You do this in order to simulate in your mind what it would be like to move to the edge of the roof and propel yourself off it. You also activate parts of your brain that are responsible for vision, to see in your mind’s eye what it would look like for the ground to rush toward you, or, possibly, what a jumper would look like, espied from a safe distance. Humans solve the problem of meaning by relating words to simulated experiences of what those words evoke.
  3. Why should people who are not cognitive scientists care about how the brain understands language?

    Language plays a fundamental part in our lives, so much so that we often overlook it. But sometimes it doesn’t work how we expect, which is when we tend to notice it. And that’s also when science becomes more relevant. For instance, talking on the phone interferes with driving. What is it about how the brain computes language that makes it hard to think and drive? People who suffer brain damage from a gunshot wound or a stroke often lose certain specific language abilities and not others. Why? And, why does the personal assistant on your smartphone make so many mistakes that a human never would? These are questions that we gain a purchase on when we look at how the brain computes language.
  4. What are the implications of your finding in terms of how people from different cultures process language?

    People tend to think that each word has a single, correct meaning and that all we have to do to communicate effectively is to pick the correct words. But in fact each individual builds up meaning for words based on his or her own idiosyncratic experiences. As a result, words mean different things to people who have had different experiences. And one way to have different experiences is by being part of different cultures. Case in point: If my Chinese friend tells me he was waiting on the corner all afternoon, I might think he was standing or sitting. But he probably actually wants me to understand that he was squatting on the sidewalk, in the traditional Chinese way. What “waiting” means depends on how you’re used to using your body, and people use their bodies differently around the world. As a result, successfully conveying your meaning isn’t as simple as selecting the objectively right words. You have to select words that evoke the right experiences in the mind of the person you’re talking to.
  5. When people speak in a shared language, how is their understanding affected by variations in grammar, accent, or vocabulary?

    Intuitively, it might seem like words should matter for meaning, and grammar shouldn’t. But with language, the devil is in the details, and nuanced, unconscious grammatical choices often have an impact on what your reader or listener understands. Here’s an example. Compare these two sentences: “The senator was having an affair with an intern” versus “The senator had an affair with an intern.” The difference might be hard to notice at first, but “was having an affair” leads people to think of an ongoing, protracted activity, whereas “had an affair” leads them to think of it as shorter and done with. This in turn affects what they think about the whole thing—for example, how likely they are to think the senator is to be re-elected or to repeat the behavior. In short, the meaning you convey is the product not just of the words you choose but also the way you assemble them.