toorsdenote: (Default)
[personal profile] toorsdenote
I feel silly for not really pondering this question before, and for not having a ready answer to it, but: do we think in language?

A few days ago my friend who lives in Japan send me a video he'd taken, during part of which he can be heard talking to himself in Japanese. (He opens a door in a prospective apartment and says, "Ah, toire.") I was curious whether he was talking to himself in Japanese as a way to practice the language or because he actually thinks in Japanese. Did he open the door and think "toire," or did he think "bathroom" and then translate?

Or are those both wrong? Did he open the door and have a concept or thought or feeling of bathroomness which is only then translated into a word at all, such that the concept of "thinking in English" or "thinking in Japanese" is meaningless in the first place?

I feel certain that several readers of this blog will have learned or thought about this before. I am finding myself flummoxed by not being able to work out whether I think in English or not.

Certainly some words seem to be very closely tied to the experience that they convey. Sometimes Zoe briefly wakes up between sleep cycles and is angry at the prospect of waking up. (Join the club, kid.) When she was tiny, she used to just cry in those moments. Now she says "NO!" or sometimes "Uh-oh." (Once she woke up as I was moving her from the car seat to her stroller and, with her eyes still closed, she both said and signed "All done" -- clearly meaning "Cut it out, Mama.") It has been interesting to see that, even when she's not fully conscious, a word rather than a cry has become her instinctive expression of a strong feeling. But is that the same as thinking in language, or is language always layered on top of the feeling or thought itself?

Date: 2012-02-28 04:57 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This is one of those questions that has had many, many words written about it, with no real solid conclusions drawn. It's entirely possible that this is something that differs for different people, or even for the same people over time. I suspect it's "some of each" for most people.

Date: 2012-02-28 05:13 am (UTC)
ikeepaleopard: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ikeepaleopard
Some of each seems the obvious answer (as it often does). The experience of understanding something but not having the words for it, seems like a pretty clear case of thought without word though.

Date: 2012-02-28 02:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
That's true. Even as I was writing the above post, I spent a while struggling with how to say the last sentence. I obviously had in mind the symbolic meaning, not the words, of an experience layered on top of another experience, but I feel like there's a more obvious way to say that that I couldn't come up with.

Date: 2012-02-29 07:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah, this is pretty close to my experience, except that there are also times when I am thinking about things I don't have words for, but they are spatial things. In that case, an analogous thing happens, which is that I consciously visualize the thing. By "consciously," I mean I may have to close my eyes to focus, or even move my hands around in the air. This feels to me very similar to having to deliberately cast thoughts into words. When I am making something that is going to involve multiple steps, I definitely tend to sort of play animations in my head of the thing coming together, the idea being to spot in advance where the problems are going to be. Likewise, electrical engineers can look at circuit diagrams and "see" the flow of electricity. So these are cases where "pure" thought is being processed through the learned brain-wiring which is vision.

I certainly usually think in English if I'm thinking in language at all; very occasionally, I will try head-narrating in French, as sort of a "how much of this language do I remember." I don't think it's thought-to-English-to-French, but it is thought-to-not-very-good-French, with lots of verb tense revising.

Date: 2012-03-01 12:37 am (UTC)
ikeepaleopard: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ikeepaleopard
I visualize consciously to figure out which way I'm gonna be facing when I get out of a subway station. I imagine four corners, highlight (whatever that means here) the one I'm gonna be on according to the sign, then rotate reality onto the map once I'm up.

Date: 2012-02-28 05:26 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I think in language most of the time, usually in a fluid mix of the languages I know. This is mainly for self-narration; if I'm reasoning about something I'm more likely to be thinking in non-language means.

Date: 2012-02-28 02:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Huh. I was thinking the opposite: in daily life I'm probably thinking of concrete things a lot for which I just have symbols, but when I'm reasoning about something I'm more likely to use words in my head. This is what happens when you study social science, I guess. You get stuck with reasoning in words. :-)

Date: 2012-02-28 08:53 pm (UTC)
ikeepaleopard: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ikeepaleopard
This is how I operate as an engineer. I like to think of explicitly reasoning about something and making lists of possibilities as bringing out the big guns. There's simply too much going on to have words for all of it all the time. Maybe Pat doesn't think of the other stuff as thinking?

Date: 2012-02-28 08:20 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
What kind of person would take a video of a toilet, anyway.

Date: 2012-02-28 02:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Hell, if I were househunting in Japan I'd videotape all the toilets. Gotta compare their pee-noise-covering music and pick the fanciest one!

Date: 2012-02-28 01:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I have been known to dream in languages that I do NOT know (made up ones, regretfully). I think that this in itself is "proof" enough that thought is BOTH verbal AND symbolic.

I would bet that Zoe responded verbally because her brain is currently putting so much effort into processing and learning language, that the chain reaction that happened was something like "What, what's going on" ==> [ears ans nose indicate] "Mommy is moving me" ==> [verbal center] "What's our response for that?" ==> "Cut it out, Mama." ==> "All done."

Date: 2012-02-28 06:04 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] chrisamaphone
are you familiar with the sapir-whorf hypothesis? reading about that might be a good place to start.

the most insightful things i've learned about this come from anecdotes: one being jill bolte taylor's story of having a stroke and losing her language centers, the other being some podcast i heard about a man who wasn't raised with language describing what it was like to finally acquire it (i can't remember enough about it to find a source, darn).

Date: 2012-02-29 12:53 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
It was a RadioLab podcast (!

The researchers in this episode (one of whom runs The Baby Lab at Harvard) believes that language is what form synaptic connections in the brain to allow humans to relate objects/ideas/emotions to other objects/ideas/emotions. If I remember correctly, their example was that in a lab rat (or, a toddler) searching for a ball in a room with a spatial benchmark (I think they used one colored wall in a square room of otherwise white walls), that lab rat/toddler can have a symbolic or language-based notion of "ball" and of "colored wall."

However, to spatially locate that ball, it requires language of direction in relation to another benchmark ("the ball is left of the colored wall." One of the psychologists (Spelke, I think) concludes that rats/toddlers actually cannot think as a result of not having language to connect those two concepts.

Date: 2012-02-29 05:45 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I remember wondering about this as a young child, when I became aware that there were other languages in the world. I couldn't figure it out at the time.

Now... I think there are non-verbal thoughts and verbal thoughts. My most conscious thoughts are also verbal - almost subvocalized. Thinking consciously about something I don't have a word for is harder. I think in English.

However, some of my thoughts are not verbalized. They exist, but I have to chase around for words if I want to make them verbal. This is where poetry happens.

Some of my earliest memories are pre-verbal, and they're very different in quality than later memories. Partly that's just about age, I think, but some of it is about remembering the thoughts I was having without words...

Fun to think about, certainly. :)

Date: 2012-02-29 10:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I agree with you.

I think I mostly think in words, but given the number of times that I struggle to find the right word during an emotional situation, I clearly also have a lot of nonverbal thoughts; I think in pictures and emotional feelings and tactile sensations. Most of the conscious and deliberate thoughts are in words, but I have a lot of other kinds of thought, too.

I have said, half-joking but also half-seriously, that I am terrible about remembering names but I can nearly always remember what somebody was wearing. I think that that has something to do with thinking in words vs. thinking in pictures. A person's name is a word, but what a person was wearing is a picture, a vivid and colorful and sometimes very detailed picture. It is often easier for me to remember the picture than the word, which has some significant disadvantages because most people are not always wearing the same outfit.

My earliest memory (that I have a date for) was from when I was about three, so I don't know if I have memories of my pre-verbal thoughts. But that memory was also much more visual than linguistic, now that I think about it. I was in a hospital room with my family after my mom had given birth to my brother Isaac, and I was very upset about the color of the wallpaper in the hospital room. My family thought that I was upset about having a younger brother, but the brother was a minor character in this memory. That olive green plaid wallpaper, on the other hand, was very important and very vivid in my memory and very ugly.

Also, I have occasionally had dreams in French or in Sign Language, but only when I have been studying the language very intently. Most of my dreams are heavily nonverbal, but then if I try to describe them, I have to make them verbal, of course.

Date: 2012-03-01 09:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Re: pre-verbal memories, one of the theories as to why so few people can retain memories from that stage in life: The internal symbolism of memory retention, so dramatically changes, crossing that line, that even though the memories are likely still there, we've lost / developed past the ability to understand them.

As a native bilingual of two rather unrelated languages, I KNOW that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true, at least in the soft form (although I've very fond of the strong version too).


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