Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Language as Software for the Brain

Ok, random thought of the day.  A few weeks ago, I had a chat with a mathematics guy. He thought math is a science. My retort was that math isn't a science, mathematics is the language of science.  He appreciated my point. The rules that mathematics sets govern the possible relationships that can be defined, physically, and how they can inter-relate with each other.

Perhaps there are simply axioms of mathematics that we haven't been able to conceive of that limit physicists in their ability to understand things like the relationship between gravity and quantum mechanics, or dark matter and dark energy? And how does this tie into the language we use in our everyday lives, for conversing with other people but also for pouring over scenarios in our heads?

I'm sort-of-not-really trying to learn French right now, and noticing differences in how English and French are structured, and how that also seems to manifest in the culture of France versus the English-speaking world is interesting. For example, there's a whole lot more anxiety around sex in English culture compared to French.  Let's take a superficial look at this, shall we?

In English:
  1. I like you
  2. I love you
En Francais
  1. Je vous aime
  2. Je t'aime
In English the verb is the difference.  En Francais, the pronoun est la difference. Vous is the formal form of you; tu is the informal, intimate form. But you would also use tu with many people you aren't in love with, platonically or romantically. The confusion is a feature, not a bug, as it creates a lot of plausible deniability! There is no difference between, "to have sex," or "to make love," in French either. There's also no word for date in French, there's just sortir, to go out. More plausible deniability.

For example, if you type
I date a girl
into Google Translate, you get the snicker-worthy result
J'ai une fille de jour
Literally, "I have a girl of the day."  Not quite what I meant. On the other hand, the French have a bunch of phrases for a booty call that are slightly more refined and do not come with a lower class connotation. One can construct similar arguments about the structural rigidity of German, and how it enforces rigid thinking.

I think the first time I saw language portrayed as the software of the brain was in Neil Stepheson's book Snow Crash.  It was probably presented first in science fiction by Samuel Delany in Babel-17, which I've also read. The problem is that separating the hardware of the human brain from the software isn't really possible in the first place.The human brain, the interconnections of neurons, is quite plastic. The power of positive thinking, the placebo effect, is a very real thing.  So how much of the human brain is affected by the language we talk in, and usually think in? 

I'm not aware of a body of scientific research that backs this up, but then again the ethics of separating identical twins and raising them in separate languages/cultures is a bit dicey. Similarly, we don't have the ability to dissect human brains and locate the terminus of every single dendrite (yet).  In the literature the idea that language influences thought is known as Linguistic Relativity or the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. There's arguments for and against, but it is a hard thing to prove.

This curiosity that will erode your productivity at work while you Google around is a proud production of Mr. Nervous Toes, 2012.