Language, narratives and their cognitive role (Just another story – Part 2)

This is the second post of a series about the contrast between language, subjective and objective knowledge and how one does not need postulate the existence of absolute factual truths in order to recognise the epistemological value of science (see also Part 1).

At this stage, I am not concerned with language as a communication method, but rather with how language shapes our own cognitive processes. First of all, I assume that it’s clear and uncontroversial that language is nothing but a huge collection of equivalence classes: some refer to objects (material or not), some to qualities, and some to relations between objects (and these include actions). This means that language can be seen as a general-purpose system to describe arbitrary models. Also: because language is extensible and dynamic (changes over time) it is a system that is always fairly optimised to describe what matters to the individuals that use it. And what matters to a given person is guaranteed to be emotionally relevant.

If you think that language is far removed from emotions, for example because it is what allows us to exercise our supposedly superior ability to produce rational arguments, think again. First, the most rational and logic-bound form of knowledge – maths – has to invent new words and to redefine the meaning of existing terms in order to verbally describe different formulas and to fill in the gaps between them (as it’s done when laying down a theorem demonstration). In other words, I’m not saying that language can’t be used to convene logical, rational or in general, emotion-less meanings, I’m just suggesting that it is never difficult to find the emotional significance of any building block of language. This, unsurprisingly, makes language a fantastically powerful tool to describe, remember, use and tinker-with different models of reality.

With “remember” I mean the process of storing and recalling information within our brains; this is facilitated by language in at least two ways: first, because language is already built of equivalence classes, very little information is needed to describe a new model (or a state of the model): as the single words are already stored in the system, the information needed to “save” a model for later recollection is only what’s needed to put together the right words in the right order and conjugation. Second, because language is close to emotions (or, if you prefer, to what matters to us), it is naturally privileged when our internal systems sift out what should be remembered and what shouldn’t. As a side note, I’ve just spotted the following article on Developmental Psychology: Learning to Remember by Learning to Speak (full ref. below). I haven’t read it yet, but based on the abstract alone it seems to support my point rather nicely (thanks are due to Lera Boroditsky for the tip on Twitter).

When I say “use” I mean apply our own knowledge of a given situation in order to make a decision; for example, if I receive the information “the toilets are down the stairs on the right”, I will look right as soon as I reach the bottom of the stairs, because the model/description allows me to predict where to find what I’m looking for.

With “tinker-with” I mean the ability of making little, random or otherwise, changes to the model and evaluate the different consequences of each change. This is useful to make predictions, or to evaluate the solidity of a given model, but also to create new “creative” strategies to respond to known situations.

In fact, language is so fantastically powerful for such activities (remember, use and tinker with models of reality) that it is quite easy to think that all human reasoning is language-based. This is obviously false: as any pet owner would know, cats and dogs can actively think and problem solve, and of course, we also know that humans that don’t know any language are still able to solve problems and use symbolic reasoning.

This finally leads to the point of this post: a story is a language-based model of a sequence of events. It is often, but not necessarily, explicitly charged with emotional value, and is therefore: easy to remember, easy to use to make predictions, easy to be adapted for different purposes, and easy to be transmitted (communicated). It would be an error to conclude that we store the vast majority of our knowledge in the form of stories, at least because we tend to heavily underestimate the amount of non-verbal information that we all carry around (for example, people’s faces, but also music, smells, topographical information, and so on). However, I don’t think it’s a mistake to conclude that most of the contents of our declarative memory are stored as verbal information, or, in any case, in a form that’s readily transformed into its verbal equivalent. Furthermore, since emotionally charged stories are easily remembered, at least a good proportion of the verbal information that we store is in the form of some kind of narrative. That’s a very pretentious was to say that most of what we explicitly know/believe is accessible to us in a “story form”.

Now this is a scary thought: although I was trained as a scientist, I’m getting dangerously close to the position of the (post-modernist) enemy! In fact, in a couple of blog posts I’ve stated that:

  • All that you know is somewhat incorrect.
  • Whatever you know, or at least most of what you can talk about, is just another story.Leone di Viterbo, photo by Francesco Pignatale, All Rights Reserved

Wow, I genuinely can feel the presence of a fictional, cartoon-like, mix between Searle, Pinker and a mastiff, already growling behind my back, clearly eager to tear both me and my argument into pieces.

That’s right, I did state all this, and I stand by it, precisely because I have (or believe that I have) a scientific mind-set. It is the only rational and logical conclusion to the observations that knowledge is something that exists inside our heads, and that it consists of symbolic information. As such, it takes a form that is inherently shaped by what our minds are for, and that is to ensure that our genes are passed on (at least, but here it’s worth mentioning that memetics may be relevant as well). But more importantly, I am daring to say this, and to assert that it is a scientifically solid position (much more solid than saying “what science says, is The Truth, and all the rest is rubbish”) because I don’t see any contradiction. To know why, you will have to wait for the next post in the series, please stay tuned!

Ettlinger, Marc, Jennifer Lanter, and Craig K. Van Pay. “Learning to Remember by Learning to Speak.”  Developmental Psychology,  Jun 17 (2013). [Epub ahead of print]

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Posted in Philosophy, Premises, Science
4 comments on “Language, narratives and their cognitive role (Just another story – Part 2)
  1. […] This is the last post on a series that tires to give a decent account of scientific epistemology (see also Part 1 and Part 2). […]

  2. […] they always play an important role in shaping our knowledge. Armed with this consideration, in the next post I will briefly discuss a few things about language, stories and hint at their role in cognitive […]

  3. […] some foundation posts that hopefully allowed me to clarify a few things about knowledge, beliefs, narratives and the apparent lack of ontological distinction between them. At the same time, I’ve […]

  4. […] both myself and my debating partner might be wrong (indeed, the assumption is that we are always somewhat wrong!) and that therefore the aim is for both to learn something from any given disagreement. Easy, uh? […]

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