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.
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.