What’s going on in our minds when language shapes how we think?

This is the second post in a two-part series on a new paper my advisor Lera Boroditsky and I published that shows that learning a new way to talk about time creates new ways of thinking about it. You can check out the first post here.


A lot of psychology research measures behavior — what people do, often in a lab experiment — as a way of understanding what they’re thinking.

For example, in some of my favorite work by Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky, participants read about a crime problem in a fictional city. The problem was described metaphorically, either as a beast or as a virus. After reading about the problem, participants indicated what the city officials should do to solve the crime problem. Those who had read that crime was a beast were more likely to suggest punitive solutions, as one would likely suggest if a literal beast were ravaging the city, than those who read that crime was a virus. In this experiment, the researchers measured people’s behaviors — their suggestions for dealing with the crime — as a way of understanding how the crime metaphors shaped their thoughts.

Thought is a pretty tricky thing to measure, especially when it’s about high-level topics like crime, and our behaviors give researchers a useful glimpse into the mind. But behavioral evidence still leaves us asking what’s actually going on in people’s minds when metaphors shape the way we think.

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In our recent work, participants learned new ways to talk about time. We then measured their subconscious associations between different parts of space and different aspects of time, and their behavior suggested that they now thought about time in ways that were consistent with how they learned to talk about it.

We wanted to learn more about how this was happening. We call this new way of thinking — associating earlier events with either higher or lower parts of space, depending on the metaphors a person learned — a new representation. We think of this new representation as a new timeline a person has in mind. We wondered whether this new representation that people acquired through the metaphors they learned in our lab was a kind that relied on language while they were using it.

For example, we know that counting items is a kind of representation or cognitive routine that does require a person to engage their language capacities in their mind, even when they’re not talking out loud. Intuitively this makes sense — when you ask yourself what’s going on in your mind when you count an array of objects, it might make sense that you’re actually saying “one, two, three…” in your head as you count. Researchers have indeed been able to show that this is what’s going on in our minds when we count by having people memorize strings of letters (which requires them to rehearse the letters in their head, saying something like “F, J, D, C, P, R” silently to themselves while also trying to count objects. Under this condition, often referred to as verbal interference, people (specifically MIT students) struggle to even count an array of dots accurately. This result is taken as evidence that counting objects relies on our ability to engage in a linguistic routine in our heads, since the verbal interference, which also relies on the ability to engage in a linguistic routine, disrupted counting performance.

When participants learned new metaphors for time in our experiment, we also wanted to find out whether their newly learned mental timelines also required a linguistic routine for the metaphors to exert their effects on mental timelines. To that end, we had participants complete the typical task measuring their subconscious space-time associations while they were mentally rehearsing a string of letters, as the researchers in the counting work did. The mental rehearsal taxed their linguistic working memory, leaving them unable to engage these linguistic cognitive resources for other tasks. If they needed to engage those resources for the new metaphors to shape how they think about time, we should see that they no longer associate the parts of space and time that their metaphors suggested when they undergo verbal interference at the same time.

We found that even under verbal interference, people showed mental timelines that were consistent with the new metaphors they learned in our lab. In other words, learning a new way to talk about time shaped how people thought about it, and it was not just because people were adopting a new routine in their minds, subvocalizing to themselves, “earlier is up, later is down” (or vice versa) while doing the main task. Language can shape non-linguistic thought patterns.

But what is going on in our minds when we learn new metaphors for time that shape how we think about it? Are we imagining earlier events (like breakfast) as being physically above or below later events (dinner)? We’re still not sure, but there’s no shortage of mysteries to work on to better understand how language shapes our thoughts about topics as ubiquitous as time.

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