Louder than words

Benjamin K. Bergen: Louder than words: the new science of how the mind makes meaning. Basic Books 2012. Reviewed in Language by Raymond W. Gibbs, Volume 90, Number 2, June 2014.


Source: Publisher

“Imagine that you are a participant in the following psycholinguistic experiment. You are seated in front of a computer terminal and shown the sentence The carpenter hammered the nail into the wall. After reading the sentence, you are shown a picture of an object, such as a nail or elephant, and asked to quickly judge whether that object was mentioned in the sentence. Of course, you would quickly say ‘yes’ to the picture of a nail and ‘no’ to the elephant. The primary interest, however, is in your speeded response to the nail picture, depending on whether it was shown in a horizontal or vertical orientation. Research indicates that people, on average, are faster to make their ‘yes’ decisions when the picture was in the same spatial orientation as implied by the sentence just read … Thus, people are faster to say ‘yes’ when the picture showed the nail in the horizontal orientation than when it was shown upright, or in the vertical position. However, when they first read the sentence The carpenter hammered the nail into the floor, people are faster, on average, to say ‘yes’ to the nail picture that presented it in a vertical position rather than horizontal. One interpretation of these findings is that people automatically construct a mental image of an object in its appropriate spatial orientation based on what the sentence implies. Even if the nail’s position is not explicitly noted in the sentence, our immediate understanding of the sentence’s meaning enables us to create an image of the situation in which the nail was hammered in a horizontal or vertical position. How people construe imaginative understandings of language is the subject of Ben Bergen’s book.” Source: Raymond Gibbs in Language, June 2014.

We seem to begin to understand how simple sentences might be associated with representations of possible situations. It’s not more than a beginning, though. It’s just simple sentences. How do we represent sentences like The carpenter didn’t hammer the nail into the wall or The carpenter should have hammered the nail into the floor? If we picture the nail in a particular orientation in those sentences, too, what does this tell us about how “the mind makes meaning”?

Ben Bergen’s website, with podcasts.

Cracking the brain’s code

Christof Koch & Gary Marcus: Cracking the Brain’s Code. How does the brain speak to itself? MIT Technology Review. June 17, 2014

“The brain as a whole, throughout our waking lives, is a veritable symphony of neural spikes—perhaps one trillion per second. To a large degree, to decipher the brain is to infer the meaning of its spikes. But the challenge is that spikes mean different things in different contexts. It is already clear that neuroscientists are unlikely to be as lucky as molecular biologists. Whereas the code converting nucleotides to amino acids is nearly universal, used in essentially the same way throughout the body and throughout the natural world, the spike-to-information code is likely to be a hodgepodge: not just one code but many, differing not only to some degree between different species but even between different parts of the brain. The brain has many functions, from controlling our muscles and voice to interpreting the sights, sounds, and smells that surround us, and each kind of problem necessitates its own kinds of codes.”

This is part of a group of articles on Hacking the Soul, which also includes an interview with Rebecca Saxe.

Learning everything about anything?

Source: Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence.

Credit: University of Washington

Credit: University of Washington

“Computer scientists from the University of Washington and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle have created an automated computer program that they claim teaches everything there is to know about any visual concept. Called Learning Everything about Anything (LEVAN), the program searches millions of books and images on the Web to learn all possible variations of a concept, then displays the results to users as a comprehensive, browsable list of images, helping them explore and understand topics quickly in great detail. You can try it here.”

Intelligent as it may be, LEVAN doesn’t seem to know the difference between a horse eye and an eye horse, between a horse shoe and a shoe horse, or between a horse shed and a shed horse.  

Connections: the discussion of the headedness of noun-noun compounds in my Radcliffe video on Mapping Possibilities. Also: Teon Brooks on representing compounds in the brain. 

Is mind reading like print reading?

Cecilia M. Heyes & Chris D. Frith. The cultural evolution of mind reading. Science 20, June 2014. With podcast.

“It is not just a manner of speaking: “Mind reading,” or working out what others are thinking and feeling, is markedly similar to print reading. Both of these distinctly human skills recover meaning from signs, depend on dedicated cortical areas, are subject to genetically heritable disorders, show cultural variation around a universal core, and regulate how people behave. But when it comes to development, the evidence is conflicting. Some studies show that, like learning to read print, learning to read minds is a long, hard process that depends on tuition. Others indicate that even very young, nonliterate infants are already capable of mind reading. Here, we propose a resolution to this conflict. We suggest that infants are equipped with neurocognitive mechanisms that yield accurate expectations about behavior (“automatic” or “implicit” mind reading), whereas “explicit” mind reading, like literacy, is a culturally inherited skill; it is passed from one generation to the next by verbal instruction.”

Background: Theory of Mind. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Connections (via the Open University): Paul Grice’s paper Meaning and his distinction between natural and non-natural meaning seems very relevant. When we read another person’s mind from their facial expressions, for example, we seem to retrieve natural, non-conventional, meanings, which is a very different process from retrieving non-natural, conventional, meanings from speech or texts. In the Science podcast, Sara Presby asks Cecilia Heyes whether the comparison between mind reading and print reading, which is the core of the article, isn’t made at a way too general level. 

Connections: Rebecca Saxe on reading each other’s minds. MOOC on how to read … a mind.

3D movies of brains

From MIT News. With video.


Caenorhabditis elegans. Wikimedia Commons


Larval zebrafish. Source: Howard Hughes Medical Institute

“Researchers at MIT and the University of Vienna have created an imaging system that reveals neural activity throughout the brains of living animals. This technique, the first that can generate 3-D movies of entire brains at the millisecond timescale, could help scientists discover how neuronal networks process sensory information and generate behavior. The team used the new system to simultaneously image the activity of every neuron in the worm Caenorhabditis elegans, as well as the entire brain of a zebrafish larva, offering a more complete picture of nervous system activity than has been previously possible.”

Robert Prevedel et al., Simultaneous whole-animal 3D imaging of neuronal activity using light-field microscopy. Nature Methods, 18 May 2014.

Connections: We now have the means to connect neuronal activity to behavior in a worm and in a fish. That’s exciting, but it isn’t the end of the story. Fortunately, there are a couple of passages in the recent NIH BRAIN Initiative Report that emphasize that efforts to understand the brain can’t be limited to finding the links between neuronal activity and observable behavior. “In advanced organisms our concept of ‘behavior’ must be extended to include sophisticated internal cognitive processes in addition to externally observable actions” … “Mental life can flourish within the nervous system, even if the behavioral link to the observable world is tenuous. Thus the BRAIN Initiative should focus on internal cognitive processes and mental states in addition to overt behavior.” Unfortunately, research on language and the brain doesn’t seem to be on the agenda for the NIH BRAIN initiative. That’s a big oversight, if not an outright blunder – there is probably no cognitive domain that we collectively know more about at an abstract, computational, level. There is no better window into the human mind than language, and it’s already wide open. The Max Planck Society must have seen the potential and importance of ongoing brain research on language when electing Angela Friederici as their new vice-president.  There is also an NSF report about a recent workshop on Linking Language and Cognition to Neuroscience via Computation

Connections: The neural code that makes us human.

Situations in Natural Language Semantics


Gilles Trehin: Urville. Source: Gizmodo

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has recently implemented a redesign of its website. My article on Situations in Natural Language Semantics appears in a new look.

“Situation semantics was developed as an alternative to possible worlds semantics. In situation semantics, linguistic expressions are evaluated with respect to partial, rather than complete, worlds. There is no consensus about what situations are, just as there is no consensus about what possible worlds or events are. According to some, situations are structured entities consisting of relations and individuals standing in those relations. According to others, situations are particulars. In spite of unresolved foundational issues, the partiality provided by situation semantics has led to some genuinely new approaches to a variety of phenomena in natural language semantics. In the way of illustration, this article includes relatively detailed overviews of a few selected areas where situation semantics has been successful: implicit quantifier domain restrictions, donkey pronouns, and exhaustive interpretations. It moreover addresses the question of how Davidsonian event semantics can be embedded in a semantics based on situations. Other areas where a situation semantics perspective has led to progress include attitude ascriptions, questions, tense, aspect, nominalizations, implicit arguments, point of view, counterfactual conditionals, and discourse relations.”

There is a lot of recent work on domain restrictions in situation semantics, in particular on domain restrictions for definite descriptions:

Paul Elbourne’s 2002 MIT dissertation, his 2005 book on Situations and Individuals, and his 2013 book on Definite Descriptions. “My contention in this book is that definite descriptions are best analyzed semantically as expressions that contain a locally free situation variable; when the situation variable is bound or assigned a referent, the definite description ranges over or refers to individuals. So I will be working with a semantics based on situations” (from Definite Descriptions, p. 17). Elbourne also exploits situation variables for a theory of presupposition projection. 

Ezra Keshet’s 2008 MIT dissertation and his 2010 Natural Language Semantics article on Situation Economy: ” … a rule of Situation Economy is advanced, which holds that structures must have the fewest number of situation pronouns possible. Strong DPs require a situation pronoun to receive a de re reading, and therefore a restriction on the type of strong determiners is proposed, which supersedes Situation Economy in this case.”

Florian Schwarz’s 2009 UMass Amherst dissertation and his 2012 Natural Language Semantics article on Situation Pronouns in Determiner Phrases: “This paper is primarily concerned with situation pronouns inside of determiner phrases, arguing that they are introduced as arguments of (certain) determiners. Verbal predicates, on the other hand, are assumed to not combine with a situation pronoun. The various restrictions on their interpretation are shown to fall out from the semantic system that is developed based on that view.”

Dictionary of Untranslatables: a Philosophical Lexicon


Dictionary of Untranslatables: a Philosophical Lexicon
Source: Publisher

Dictionary of Untranslatables

“This is an encyclopedic dictionary of close to 400 important philosophical, literary, and political terms and concepts that defy easy–or any–translation from one language and culture to another. … The entries, written by more than 150 distinguished scholars, describe the origins and meanings of each term, the history and context of its usage, its translations into other languages, and its use in notable texts. The dictionary also includes essays on the special characteristics of particular languages–English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.”

Connections: Quine’s thesis of the Indeterminacy of Translation, via the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.