Making Sense of Language: Readings in Culture and Communication

making-sense-of-languageSusan Blum, professor of anthropology at Notre Dame, has brought together an outstanding compendium of linguistic anthropology readings in the new book Making Sense of Language: Readings in Culture and Communication.

Published by Oxford University Press, Making Sense of Language features forty-five readings (table of contents here) that together illuminate the human phenomenon of language.

The volume is divided into six sections: (1) What is language, (2) Language and thought, (3) Multilingualism, (4) Language and identity, (5) Discourse, performance and ritual, and (6) Language and ideology. It’s a preeminent selection of authors, including icons such as de Saussure and Whorf, opposing views such as Pinker vs Lakoff, and anthropologists like Keith Basso and Elinor Ochs. Plus this title, The Whiteness of Nerds!

Susan Blum previously authored the book Lies That Bind: Chinese Truths, Other Truths and has the forthcoming My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture.

You can see Susan in action here, discussing China and the recent Beijing Olympics.

Slate Video: Can Apes Really Talk?

John Cohen at Slate interviews researchers at the Great Ape Trust, a bastion of ape language research, as well as some of their skeptics about their claims for ape language. If you wnat more, Wikipedia provides some general background on ape language research.

What I find fascinating in this research: the revelations about cognition, symbolic abilities, and grammar, all helping to show us that the gap we set between ourselves and one of our favorite “others” is not so great as generally thought. On the other hand, the incredible physiological and neurological skills that go into the production of human speech show the strong selective pressures that existed during our human evolution.

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Cultural Neuroscience

Shihui Han and Georg Northoff have just published Culture-Sensitive Neural Substrates of Human Cognition: A Transcultural Neuroimaging Approach. This article will prove foundational for “cultural neuroscience,” a term Han & Northoff use near the end of the article. I highly recommend that everyone read the full version (pdf), but will outline and comment on it here.

In this Perspectives piece in Nature Neuroscience Reviews, Han and Northoff review the evidence on how culture influences neural mechanisms, highlight the need to integrate social neuroscience and cultural cognition research, argue for transcultural neuroimaging as an effective method for cultural neuroscience, and lay out implications for the future of this emerging field.

But if you don’t take my word for it, here’s their abstract:

Our brains and minds are shaped by our experiences, which mainly occur in the context of the culture in which we develop and live. Although psychologists have provided abundant evidence for diversity of human cognition and behaviour across cultures, the question of whether the neural correlates of human cognition are also culture-dependent is often not considered by neuroscientists. However, recent transcultural neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that one’s cultural background can influence the neural activity that underlies both high- and low-level cognitive functions. The findings provide a novel approach by which to distinguish culture-sensitive from culture-invariant neural mechanisms of human cognition.

Cultural Effects on Cognition

Han and Northoff systematically cover research on “cultural effects on cognition,” including perceptual processing, attentional modulation, language and music, and number representation and mental calculation. Their Figure 1, presented below, summarizes research on culture and attention, highlighting context-dependent differences in attention between Americans and East Asians.

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Cultural Aspects of PTSD, Part II: Narrative and Healing

Bremner et al. 2000.  MRI showing decreased hippocampal volume in Vietnam veterans diagnosed with PTSD.

Narrative and memory are interwoven in our consciousness, and thus explorations into trauma from both humanities and social science perspectives almost invariably discuss narrative in one form or another. An ongoing debate within psychological research, for example, ponders whether the coherence of trauma stories is correlated to the amount of emotional distress associated with a given traumatic memory. It is hypothesized that the greater the distress, the less organized the narrative. If this were the case, we might expect that the coherence with which an individual is able to talk about the trauma would increase as the memory is processed and resolved, a finding for which we have some evidence.

We do know – when it comes to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – that narrative matters. As I wrote in an earlier post, the most effective therapies yet proven for reducing PTSD symptoms are the exposure therapies, particularly Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy. These therapies are more effective for reducing the full range of PTSD symptoms than any pharmaceutical yet identified. And the crux of these therapies rests on telling the story of the trauma, sometimes over and over again. This simple practice, this process of speaking, has been reliably demonstrated to result in an improvement of PTSD symptoms for many patients.

But for all its clinical benefit, this extraordinary observation tells us very little about the mechanisms of psychic healing after trauma. Instead, it points to a growing body of evidence that suggests it is not just narrative that matters in PTSD, but, more intriguingly, that it is the type of narrative that matters. Unstructured psychodynamic therapies, for example, have not been demonstrated to lessen the severity of PTSD, even among patients who continue in therapy for years. And yet certain ways of narrating memory do make a difference, and this phenomenon once again points to a role for anthropologists and other culturally-minded researchers in exploring the cultural-emotional-physiological-environmental interactions at play in post-traumatic processing.

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A softer ‘neo-Whorfianism’

At Neuroanthropology, we’ve had a number of posts about language and the brain (such as here, here, and here); it’s a issue of lasting importance in anthropology, linguistics, cognitive science, and psychology. There’s a really nice piece in The New York Times about it though, and for once, I just want to do a summary and reflection rather than a critique of one of their pieces. The article is When Language Can Hold the Answer by Christine Kenneally.

Daniel recently mentioned this piece in his post, A Times Trifecta, but I wanted to add a comment on it. Daniel relays the quote that the article uses to sum up the debate around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: ‘Does language shape what we perceive, a position associated with the late Benjamin Lee Whorf, or are our perceptions pure sensory impressions, immune to the arbitrary ways that language carves up the world?’ He’s just providing a thumbnail sketch, so he doesn’t include the next paragraph, which I think helps to elevate this article above the usual either-or, black-or-white dross that happens in public press about the role of language in thinking:

The latest research changes the framework, perhaps the language of the debate, suggesting that language clearly affects some thinking as a special device added to an ancient mental skill set. Just as adding features to a cellphone or camera can backfire, language is not always helpful. For the most part, it enhances thinking. But it can trip us up, too.

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Differences in dyslexia

A fascinating article came out in the Science section of The New York Times: Patterns: Dyslexia as Different as Day and Night, by Eric Nagourney. The article is based on an original research piece by Wai Ting Siok, Zhendong Niu, Zhen Jin, Charles A. Perfetti, and Li Hai Tan, who examined the abnormalities in brain activity associated with dyslexia in Chinese speakers (in comparison to better documented examples of the disorder in English speakers).

The basic result is simple, but intriguing, especially in light of some of the other research we’ve discussed on how brain areas linked to language differ, Two languages, one brain and theory of mind:

The report, which appeared last week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that changes in the brain that may contribute to dyslexia are different for English speakers and Chinese speakers.
The difference may be explained by the fact that English is an alphabetic language, the researchers said. A reader sees a letter and associates it with a sound. Chinese characters, on the other hand, correspond to syllables and require much more memorization.

In English-speaking individuals, dyslexia shows up in neuroimaging studies as weak activity in left occipitotemporal and temporoparietal regions of the brain. The researchers find out, however, that readers of Chinese with dyslexia have a different anomaly in their brain, perhaps due to the difference between alphabetic and ideographic languages. Children with (from the abstract) ‘impaired reading in logographic Chinese exhibited reduced gray matter volume in a left middle frontal gyrus region,’ an area that had already been found to be active in reading and writing Chinese characters. ‘By contrast, Chinese dyslexics did not show functional or structural (i.e., volumetric gray matter) differences from normal subjects in the more posterior brain systems that have been shown to be abnormal in alphabetic-language dyslexics’: the abstract details.

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Two languages, one brain and theory of mind

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAt first, when I read this journal article in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, I thought, ‘Stop the presses; this one’s a barn burner.’ Since then, I’ve backed off my enthusiasm a bit, but I still think it’s fascinating. Chiyoko Kobayashi, Gary H. Glover, and Elise Tem have a really intriguing piece on brain-imaging studies done on bilingual Japanese-English speakers, when the subjects worked on false belief questions that tested their ability to solve ‘theory of mind’ problems. The piece, entitled ‘Switching language switches mind: linguistic effects on developmental neural bases of “Theory of Mind”‘ (abstract available here), comes to a number of conclusions, some of them needing to be confirmed by other research, but they’re worth mulling over at Neuroanthropology.

I discussed “false belief” (FB) tests and how they indicate developmental changes in children’s ability to perceive the thoughts of others in my post, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is right… sort of? Kobayashi and colleagues asked bilingual subjects to solve FB problems in either Japanese or English, and they compared both younger and older subjects, who had learned their second language later in life than the younger subjects.

Different theorists disagree about how important language is to the development of ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM) ability, affecting how children solve (or fail to solve) FB problems. For this reason, different experiments have sought to distinguish whether language ability supports the development of ToM or vice versa, but, as Kobayashi and colleagues summarize, ‘the evidence is mixed on this issue’ (62). Children improve on FB tests when given language training and yet pre-verbal children seem to be able to solve some ToM problems that are not based on language. I feel that the authors’ conclusion is warranted, that the evidence seems ‘to support a conjecture that some aspects of language affect ToM throughout development and adults may process ToM more verbally than children’ (63).

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