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article imageUnderstanding how language works, a Q&A with Ben Bergen Special

By Lesley Lanir     Jun 6, 2013 in Science
San Diego - Ever wondered how we make sense of language? Ben Bergen’s book, “Louder Than Words: The New Science of How The Mind Makes Meaning” offers a new approach as to how we come to understand language through a process known as "embodied simulation."
There have been many theories put forward as to how we draw meaning out of language. In his book, Louder Than Words: The New Science of How The Mind Makes Meaning, cognitive scientist, Professor Benjamin Bergen PhD, explains another significant and well-researched theory known as ‘embodied simulation.’
Through his research and book, Bergen’s studies show that in addition to the well documented left areas of the brain being associated with language processing and production, additional, older evolutionary areas of the brain, usually associated with movement and sensory perception, are found to be involved in language processing and production.
Our minds simulate past experiences.
Our minds simulate past experiences.
Adrian McGarry
Bergen, explains that when processing language research shows we activate ‘older’ areas of the brain that deal with our experiences of actions and perceptions and bring them back into our consciousness. So in other words, to make sense of the language chunks we are hearing or reading, we simultaneously recreate or simulate in our minds memories we have of the experience being described. This is known as ‘embodied simulation.’
Language forces us to simulate past experiences.
Language forces us to simulate past experiences.
Adrian McGarry
Bergen says that we knowingly simulate when we imagine our friend’s faces and want to remember sounds, music, tastes, smells, and actions. He points out that ‘embodied simulation’ is a slightly deeper process than just imagining pictures in our heads which is ‘just the tip of the iceberg’ in the findings of his research.
Digital Journal contacted Professor Bergen to ask a few questions about his book and the theory behind 'embodied simulation.'
Why did you decide to write this book?
Professor Bergen: Over the last decade, researchers have learned a lot about how language works, especially about the hardest part--meaning. But I looked around and realized that no-one had ever brought this new work together in one coherent story.
I figured not everyone had the time or expertise to dig through science journals, but because the new science is so revolutionary, I thought it was something people ought to know about.
Who were you aiming this book at? Who is this book for?
Professor Bergen: I started writing the book for undergrads, but quickly found that the ideas in it resonated with anyone interested in language, the mind, and the brain. So I rewrote it with a wider audience in mind.
Why is this book useful? Who would benefit from this book?
Professor Bergen: I think that many readers find that the new science of meaning changes the way they think about language.
They learn how the particular words they choose affect the mental experiences of people around them.
They learn why they have so much trouble learning a second language and how much there is to gain from sticking it out.
And they learn why it is that sometimes it's hard to get their point across to someone who doesn't have the same personal history as them.
Because meaning is at the heart of everything we do with language, the case studies in the book offer insight into familiar experiences, by answering questions like these:
- Why is it hard to drive a car while talking on a cell phone?
- Why is it that computers can beat a grandmaster at chess but can't understand language as well as a five-year old?
- Do people who speak different languages think differently?
- Can people ever learn to think in a second language? Or do they always think in their native tongue? And what does that mean?
Could you describe simply how we make understanding out of the words we hear and create meaning?
Professor Bergen: People construct mental simulations of what the things described would look or feel or sound like. For example, when you hear "run", you automatically trigger knowledge of what it would be like to see someone run, or what it would feel like to run, yourself.
We do this using parts of our brain that have evolved not primarily for language but to control actions and to perceive using our senses. It seems that language has found new uses for these older systems.
These ‘embodied simulations,’ as they’re called, are what make 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.
Benjamin K. Bergen:  Louder Than Words  — The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning
Benjamin K. Bergen: 'Louder Than Words' — The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning
B. K. Bergen
Research now shows that on being exposed to language, our brains activate older sensory and motoric structures that simulate experiences similar to those being described in order to help us build understanding.
This simultaneous process of language forcing our brains to draw on past experiences and stimulating the simulation of events is known as ‘embodied simulation.’
You can find out more about this new approach to understanding language processing in Ben Bergen’s book, Louder Than Words: The New Science of How The Mind Makes Meaning.
More about Ben Bergen, Language processing, embodied simulation, Louder Than Words, cognitive science
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