Illustration of perception

How language shapes our understanding of reality

In our daily lives, most of us perceive the world to be “real” – in other words, objects, people and events exist in an external world with which we can interact. Of course, sometimes when we dream, our mind creates a reality that can feel as vivid as the “real” one. But upon awakening, we find that the world has gone on without us.

Such insights into the nature of reality seem obvious. But the deeper scientists and philosophers delve into what is defined as real, the harder they find that concrete answers are to be found. Are physical objects real? Is reality fundamentally immaterial? In what sense does the world exist outside of the mind?

Although we cannot expect to find immediate answers to these questions, the human experience of what is real is undoubtedly shaped by the use of one of our most important evolutionary innovations: language.

Beyond Words

Since its development around 50,000 to 150,000 years ago, language has allowed humans to link arbitrary symbols to information in the world and in our memories. Not only is language an effective mechanism for communicating with others, but through language we are able to conjure up vivid mental representations of lived and imagined contexts and experiences.

Think of a podcast you recently listened to or a book you just read. Either way, it’s not hard to find examples of language that evoke strong emotional responses in us, even if that content is fictional.

And while language has the power to describe captivating worlds outside of our own, it also has the power to shape the way we experience our everyday world. Over the past few decades, researchers have worked to discover how a person’s native language speaks determines how they divide features of the outside world…things like color, space, objects, and events.

When memorizing an event, for example, speakers of different languages ​​may split this event differently depending on how they encode movement. English speakers tend to use verbs that describe movement in terms of its manner (eg jump, walk, run), but Greek speakers tend to refer to its path (eg approach, mount, pass) .

Watch your words

Despite its physiological basis, cross-linguistic studies have shown that color perception is also related to language. A well known Example: Since Russian speakers divide blue into two color categories, lighter blue (goluboy) and darker blue (siniy), there is no single generic Russian word that encapsulates the different shades of the color. When tasked with drawing the boundaries of different colors along a spectrum, English and Russian speakers therefore tend to draw lines at different intervals due to the way their languages ​​divide the color spectrum.

“Language is our way of encoding regularities in our environment,” says Eamon Walsh, a neuroscientist at King’s College London. Because we encode our experiences of the world through language, it has the power to highlight or augment certain phenomena – while simultaneously minimizing other phenomena.

Another example of linguistic cues shaping visual perception is found in the 1999 invisible gorilla experience. In the experiment, participants watched a video in which two teams of people – one wearing white shirts and the other black shirts – pass a ball to each other. An instructor asked viewers of the video to simply count how many times the white team completes a pass. Sounds pretty easy, right?

However, the participants were not informed that in the middle of the video, another person dressed as a gorilla would cross the screen. And surprisingly, most viewers completely missed this out of place primate! Without the linguistic cue to keep an eye out, people can literally miss a gorilla staring them in the face.

choose the brain

Another interesting example comes from wine tasting. If you have already done a tasting, it may have been difficult for you to transcribe the subtleties of flavor and aroma of the wine; however, once a skilled wine taster gives you the language to describe different aspects of wine, it’s suddenly easier to identify those characteristics in your own mind. In this case, attributing words to perceptions of taste allows one to experience them in a more refined way.

But why is language so closely tied to our experiences of the world? For a long time, scientists thought that language and other general functions of our brain, such as controlling motor movements, analyzing sensory perception and regulating internal body systems, were located in specialized regions of the brain. brain. The language was originally thought to process in the left hemisphere.

Over time, however, we have realized that these processes are non-localized and codependent. Think, for example, of the link between language and action: Listening to certain words often activates the corresponding motor systemsand there is growing evidence that linguistic and motor networks do in fact share neural resources.

“Our picture of neural architecture is shifting towards a model where general functions are more integrated than previously thought,” says Walsh. A Stallion 2016y found that saying simple words can activate multiple brain regions in both hemispheres, and they tend to be grouped by meaning into loose categories (e.g., social words such as spouse Where family).

If language affects the same areas of the brain that are responsible for perception and action, it’s no surprise that words can also have a real effect on our experiences of the world.

The future of language

Certain linguistic techniques such as repetition and metaphor are also capable of modifying our ongoing experiences. Direct verbal suggestion, in which phrases such as “your arm is getting heavy” are repeated to a person, can indeed induce object perceptions and sensory experiences.

Read more: 5 Fascinating Facts About Hypnosis

Previous research has attempted to explain this phenomenon in terms of the hypnotic state that such techniques can induce in people. However, some other researchers suggest the effects can best be understood in terms of the link between language and perception.

More broadly, language has the ability to create worlds as real as the one we inhabit. It can be targeted at external objects and events, or even our own bodies, to create and manipulate what we feel is real. How we decide to describe an event, after all, becomes inextricably linked to the event itself – and stories can merge with the meanings or perspectives we choose to highlight or ignore.

Today, new information technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, which similarly encode reality through language (i.e. programming language), provide us with ways to create, edit, and study new realities. Just as the invention of natural language redefined our relationship to reality, these technologies could shape what we understand and experience as real in the future.

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