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Language is not magic: Towards an integrated account of linguistic relativity and embodiment theory in the human brain

03.12.2021 | 16:00 c.t.


Prof. Guillaume Thierry (University of Bangor) is giving a talk about:

Language is not magic: Towards an integrated account of linguistic relativity and embodiment theory in the human brain

In this talk, I will attempt to demystify our perception of language as a mysterious epiphenomenon of human brain operation, seemingly disconnected from other types of cognitive processes such as perception, emotion, attention, or decision making. To do this, I will show how cognitive operations that could be construed as language-independent are in fact implicitly modulated by language context and linguistic knowledge. I will focus on four experiments from my group (Gao et al., Journal of Neuroscience, 2015; Athanasopoulos et al., Psychological Science, 2015; Wu et al., Cognition, 2016; Li et al., Neuroimage, 2019) in which bilinguals individuals either (i) adjust their betting style based on the language in which they receive feedback; (ii) conceptualise motion events as more or less completed depending on the language context in which they find themselves; (iii) look differentially more at second language words that conceal a relationship to a visual, non-verbal target through translation in the native language; and (iv) access metaphors that only exist in their native language leading them to suffer spatial-temporal processing interference when neither type of information –metaphor or spatiotemporal stimulus configuration– are task-relevant. In all cases, tasks requirements were deceptively simple: (i) decision to take a bet in a game of chance, (ii) indicate whether an ambiguous motion scene looked as ongoing or nearing completion, (iii) detect circle or square shapes; and (iv) indicate whether the time gap between a spoken stimulus and present time was one or two days/years. But in all cases, the bilingual brain manifested nonverbal cognitive modulations dependent upon contextual language information, either incidentally presented or idiosyncratic to one of their languages. All in all, these findings are consistent with the idea that language representations are deeply embodied in the human brain and they provide support for the provocative idea that language and other facets of cognition are ineluctably, and unconsciously inter-twinned in the human mind.