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

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

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by Benjamin K. Bergen
     
 

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Whether it’s brusque, convincing, fraught with emotion, or dripping with innuendo, language is fundamentally a tool for conveying meaning—for taking thoughts in the mind of one human being, and summoning similar thoughts in the mind of another. This is an amazing ability, one that is both uniquely and universally human. Yet the science of meaning has… See more details below

Overview

Whether it’s brusque, convincing, fraught with emotion, or dripping with innuendo, language is fundamentally a tool for conveying meaning—for taking thoughts in the mind of one human being, and summoning similar thoughts in the mind of another. This is an amazing ability, one that is both uniquely and universally human. Yet the science of meaning has lagged behind the other cognitive sciences. That’s because, as human behaviors go, meaning is comparatively hard to study scientifically. Meaning is internal, intimately personal, and almost entirely hidden. But methodological breakthroughs in the past decade have revolutionized the science of meaning.

In Louder Than Words, cognition expert Benjamin Bergen describes how cutting-edge techniques from experimental psychology and neuroscience have started to produce answers to the question of how we manage to convey meaning. Drawing from brain imaging research, behavioral experiments, and work with brain-damaged patients, Bergen proposes a new account of how meaning works.

Namely, when we hear or read words and sentences, we engage parts of the brain that are used for perception and action to create internal, mental simulations of meaning. When you read that “the gorilla has hairy kneecaps,” you can’t help but activate parts of your vision system that re-enact what it would be like to see the hairy kneecaps on a gorilla. When you read “There’s no way you can touch your elbow to your ear,” you use parts of your motor system, which controls actions your body might perform, to run a mental simulation of what it would be like to try to touch your elbow you your ear. Simply put, the way we understand what other people are saying is by mentally recreating the scenes and events that we think they’re describing. To the extent that our mental simulations match theirs (far from given!), we will succeed in understanding what they want to tell us.

Louder Than Words will answer such questions as:

• Why do people drive badly while talking on a cell phone?
• How do we understand language about things we’ve never seen before, like flying pigs or Jabberwockies?
• Why do we move our hands and arms when we speak? And do those gestures help people understand us?
• Why is it that computers can beat a grandmaster at chess but can’t process language as well as a five-year old?
• Do people who speak different languages think differently?

Louder Than Words is the first book to bring together linguistics, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience to tell the compelling new story of how meaning works. It is a rich account that will change how people read, write, 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

Nature
“[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.”

Choice
“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:
9780465033331
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
10/30/2012
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
616,671
File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

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