Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning

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Whether it’s brusque, convincing, fraught with emotion, or dripping with innuendo, language is fundamentally a tool for conveying meaning—a uniquely human magic trick in which you vibrate your vocal cords to make your innermost thoughts pop up in someone else’s mind. You can use it to talk about all sorts of things—from your new labradoodle puppy to the expansive gardens at Versailles, from Roger Federer’s backhand to things that don’t exist at all, like flying pigs. And when you talk, your listener fills in lots of details you didn’t mention—the curliness of the dog’s fur or the vast statuary on the grounds of the French palace. What’s the trick behind this magic? How does meaning work?
In Louder than Words, cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen draws together a decade’s worth of research in psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience to offer a new theory of how our minds make meaning. When we hear words and sentences, Bergen contends, we engage the parts of our brain that we use for perception and action, repurposing these evolutionarily older networks to create simulations in our minds. These embodied simulations, as they're called, are what makes it possible for us to become better baseball players by merely visualizing a well-executed swing; what allows us to remember which cupboard the diapers are in without looking, and what makes it so hard to talk on a cell phone while we’re driving on the highway. Meaning is more than just knowing definitions of words, as others have previously argued. In understanding language, our brains engage in a creative process of constructing rich mental worlds in which we see, hear, feel, and act.
 Through whimsical examples and ingenious experiments, Bergen leads us on a virtual tour of the new science of embodied cognition. A brilliant account of our human capacity to understand language, Louder than Words will profoundly change how you read, speak, and listen.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This is a breezy exploration of a theory of meaning, positing that we understand language by simulating in our minds the experiences that are being described to us. This theory of “embodied simulation” is both systematic and speculative in its approach. Bergen, director of the Language and Cognition Lab at UC–San Diego, focuses primarily on two types of studies from the last decade. Studies that compare fMRI imaging during visual, motor, and linguistic tasks reveal similar brain activity when subjects perceive objects as when they imagine them; similar results are found in comparing subjects’ mental rehearsal of motor activity, such as bowling a strike, and their understanding of language about that activity. Studies give hints of what the internal representation of the verbal cue (e.g., “The Ranger saw the eagle in the nest”) looks like. Bergen’s clarity in specifying where his ideas are supported by current research and where they are still unproven flights of fancy, his coverage of many studies with small variations between them, and his pointers toward the next directions for research make this book a good resource for students interested in the design and analysis of experiments, especially those with human subjects. Illus. Agent: Katinka Matson, Brockman Inc. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

“[An] impressive debut.... [Bergen] sets out his account with enthusiasm, energy and some delightful touches of humour. If you want an engaging, well-informed tour of how cognitive science approaches the problem of meaning, you stand to learn a great deal from this book.”

The Roanoke Times
“Bergen uses anecdotes to effectively illustrate the many aspects and quirks of human communication.... Bergen has shed light on this subject in a way that bridges the communication gap between academe and the world without compromising his scholarship. Reading this book will be helpful to anyone who has to write letters, deliver speeches, make telephone calls or otherwise deliver concepts to other humans.”

San Francisco/Sacramento Book Review
"[Bergen has] a witty, entertaining and engaging style that forces us to reflect on the dynamics of human thought processes.”

New Scientist
“Bergen writes with a lightness of touch and a jovial wit...captivating.... After reading this book, words will never hold quite the same meaning for you again.”

“The author’s enthusiasm and humor are evident and result in an informative and fun read. Highly recommended.”

Library Journal Xpress Reviews, starred review
“[An] excellent book. Similar to what Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language is to linguists, this book is a sine qua non for cognitive scientists, ordinary language philosophers, and the intrepid general reader. Highly recommended”

Kirkus Reviews
“An intriguing look at the brain mechanisms involved in the complexities of human communication.”

John McWhorter, Professor of Linguistics and American Studies, Columbia University, and Contributing Editor, The New Republic
“One may suppose knowing what a sentence means is about matching its words to definitions floating somewhere in our heads. But you know that Elvis is leaving the building and Elvis has left the building mean different things, and yet the difference has nothing to do with ‘definitions.’ Ben Bergen shows us that the link between sentences and meanings is ongoing mental simulations—the same kinds that allow us to picture how we are going to build that birdhouse or clean out that garage, except that we actually do them, day and night. For those who think linguists are professional grammar police, this book shows the kind of thing linguists actually study, especially promising ones like Bergen who we will surely hear more from in the future.”

Adele Goldberg, Professor of Linguistics, Princeton University
“If you’ve ever wondered how words evoke the meanings they do, whether everyone else’s meanings are just the same as yours, or why computers are so poor at producing decent translations, this is the book for you. Meaning has been the hardest scientific nut to crack, but Bergen delivers us the nutcracker. Louder Than Words is highly engaging, scientifically sound, up to date, and very fun to read.”

George Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics, University of California, Berkeley, and author of Metaphors We Live By, from the Foreword
Louder Than Words is a stunningly beautiful synthesis of the new science of meaning. Benjamin Bergen offers a vivid, enthralling, and—remarkably—even funny introduction to the psychological experiments and brain research showing how your mind really works.”

Sian Beilock, Professor of Psychology, The University of Chicago, and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To
Louder Than Words opens an exciting new window into how humans communicate. With a toolbox of cutting-edge science at his fingertips, Bergen helps us understand how we effectively communicate ideas to others and what it takes to make meaning out of what others say to us.”

Library Journal
Bergen’s (cognitive science, director of the Language and Cognition Lab, Univ. of California, San Diego) latest study isn’t for the faint of heart, as he explores and explains the science behind recent studies on cognition and the making of meaning. Bergen’s “embodied simulation hypothesis” suggests that mental imagery simulates the brain processes that enable one to make meaning out of real and imagined events. Mental simulation may be conscious or unconscious and is the foundation for the process of understanding meaning-making. One of Bergen’s more interesting claims suggests that imagining performing an action may be as effective as performing it. Thus, athletes benefit from imagining exercises that supplants, to a certain degree, physical training. Seemingly, academics are the book’s primary audience; however, general readers with a focused interest in cognitive studies could read and, with some persistence, comprehend this nonetheless excellent book.

Verdict Similar to what Stephen Pinker’s The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language is to linguists, this book is a sine qua non for cognitive scientists, ordinary language philosophers, and the intrepid general reader. Highly recommended.—Lynne Maxwell, Villanova Univ. Sch. of Law Lib., PA

(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews
How we extract meaning from language. Our ability to use language is unique, suggests Bergen (Cognitive Science/Univ. of California, San Diego). Bird song may rival the tunes we sing in "speed and complexity," and primates can learn a simple human vocabulary, but human speech is open-ended. We effortlessly extract meaning from verbal descriptions of nonexistent things such as "Martian anthropologists or vegetarian zombies" and discuss abstractions such as the meaning of meaning. The author describes research corroborating the "embodied simulation hypothesis," the idea that understanding spoken or written language depends on our ability to imaginatively reconstruct mental images from the words we hear or see. In order to understand the meaning behind words, we use the same mental tools that allow us to react to our environment, reconstruct memories, plan future actions or imagine situations. Bergen gives the example of professional athletes who use visualization to hone their skills and compares this to the visualization necessary to understand language. Clever laboratory experiments show how recognition speed varies when seeing a picture of an object such as an egg and hearing a description of its use. Brain scans show the activation of different neural pathways when we hear a noun or verbal description. Similarly, Bergen shows that the use of metaphor and idiom to express abstractions also depends on visualization and the language of embodiment, from descriptive language such as "swallowing pride" and "grasping meaning" to idiomatic expressions like "you see what I mean" or "let's shine some light on the topic." An intriguing look at the brain mechanisms involved in the complexities of human communication.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465028290
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 10/30/2012
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 520,291
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Benjamin Bergen is an Associate Professor in the Cognitive Science Department at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Language and Cognition Lab. Bergen is an active researcher in cognitive linguistics and cognitive science, with over 40 publications and 60 presentations in the two fields. He is regularly invited to lecture in the U.S. and abroad. His work has been featured in The Atlantic, New Scientist, and Science News. Bergen lives in San Diego, California.

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Table of Contents

Foreword George Lakoff ix

1 The Polar Bear's Nose 1

2 Keep Your Mind on the Ball 23

3 Meaning and the Mind's Eye 49

4 Over the Top 73

5 More Than Words 93

6 Early and Often 121

7 What Do Hockey Players Know? 151

8 Lost in Translation 175

9 Meaning in Your Grasp 195

10 What is Simulation Good For? 223

11 The Repurposed Mind 247

Epilogue: The Crosstalk Hypothesis 261

Acknowledgments 265

Notes 269

Bibliography 277

Permissions 289

Index 291

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted March 1, 2014

    I'm a teacher - I teach 8th grade English - and I'm sure I don't

    I'm a teacher - I teach 8th grade English - and I'm sure I don't understand the implications of everything Bergen writes about in this book. What I did understand, though, was exciting enough. 

    As I was reading this book, I could not help myself from stopping my colleagues in the hall of my school to tell them of some revelation I'd just read. Did you know that when you read a sentence about someone picking up, say, a glass, that the part of your brain that controls your hand and arm is activated? Cognitive scientists call this embodied simulation, and it may be the mechanism through which we understand and make meaning from what we see and read.

    Bergen does a terrific job of clearly explaining Lakoff and Johnson's metaphor theory (every teacher should also read their book, "Metaphors We Live By"). I don't know how you could read this book and not change your conception of how humans make meaning and why some students "get it" while others don't. Cognitive science is on the cusp of changing the way we think about teaching and learning. Read this book if you want to truly understand how the brain works to make meaning.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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