The impact of language on cognition: New findings

Deric Bownds posted on interesting new research showing that language can affect even low-level more hard-wired aspects of our cognition, including colour perception and memory. Language as a vehicle of culture may be even more influential on our cognition than previously suspected. Read on for discussion of the findings and broader issues in cognition.

Deric writes:

The debate over whether language nudges the way we actually see the world is being resolved, and what has been the prevailing dogma – that basic parts of perception are too low-level, too hard-wired, too constrained by the constants of physics and physiology to be affected by language – is breaking down. Lera Boroditsky at Standford comments on this.

I used to think that languages and cultures shape the ways we think. I suspected they shaped they ways we reason and interpret information. But I didn’t think languages could shape the nuts and bolts of perception, the way we actually see the world. That part of cognition seemed too low-level, too hard-wired, too constrained by the constants of physics and physiology to be affected by language.

Then studies started coming out claiming to find cross-linguistic differences in color memory. For example, it was shown that if your language makes a distinction between blue and green (as in English), then you’re less likely to confuse a blue color chip for a green one in memory. In a study like this you would see a color chip, it would then be taken away, and then after a delay you would have to decide whether another color chip was identical to the one you saw or not.

Of course, showing that language plays a role in memory is different than showing that it plays a role in perception. Things often get confused in memory and it’s not surprising that people may rely on information available in language as a second resort. But it doesn’t mean that speakers of different languages actually see the colors differently as they are looking at them. I thought that if you made a task where people could see all the colors as they were making their decisions, then there wouldn’t be any cross-linguistic differences.

I was so sure of the fact that language couldn’t shape perception that I went ahead and designed a set of experiments to demonstrate this. In my lab we jokingly referred to this line of work as “Operation Perceptual Freedom.” Our mission: to free perception from the corrupting influences of language.

We did one experiment after another, and each time to my surprise and annoyance, we found consistent cross-linguistic differences. They were there even when people could see all the colors at the same time when making their decisions. They were there even when people had to make objective perceptual judgments. They were there when no language was involved or necessary in the task at all. They were there when people had to reply very quickly. We just kept seeing them over and over again, and the only way to get the cross-linguistic differences to go away was to disrupt the language system. If we stopped people from being able to fluently access their language, then the cross-linguistic differences in perception went away.

I set out to show that language didn’t affect perception, but I found exactly the opposite. It turns out that languages meddle in very low-level aspects of perception, and without our knowledge or consent shape the very nuts and bolts of how we see the world.

Fascinating. Some important things to keep in mind, though. Firstly, language is an expression and vehicle of culture, and culture is created by individuals in a group context. Because language and culture are created by individuals, it is not completely free to vary. One is unlikely to find people who are going to confuse red and yellow. And presumably it would be more difficult for a child to learn to group red and yellow together than, say, darker and lighter red. Moreover, they would be far less likely to confuse the two. Our cognitive systems are flexible, but they are flexible within bounds. Certain types of cultural products are probably not going to emerge, and if they are contrived they are far less likely to be widely adopted.

A brief discussion of language and cognition, and the frame problem in cognitive science

In cognitive science, the frame problem refers to a core problem that cognitive agents solve every second: attending to what is relevant and ignoring everything else. We have to do this. If we consider everything, we’ll never do a single thing because we’ll never stop considering the infinite array of potentially useful information surrounding our first subject of consideration. If we consider a random subset of potentially relevant things, we are unlikely to be adaptive because the chances are effectively zero that we will consider the relevant information in adaptive ways while not considering irrelevant information. If we engage in relevance-checking (i.e., considering everything to see if it is worthy of further consideration), we will never do anything because we will be dead before we finish the process of relevance-checking on the first item of consideration. What we need to be able to do is to focus in on the relevant information and not attend at all to the rest.

Culture is, among other things, a set of shared understanding of what is relevant and meaningful. What are the relevant and meaningful entities, relations and goals. Which things are relevantly similar to one another (e.g., belonging to a common category), which things have implications for other things with respect to certain ends, and so on. Language is, among other things, an encoding of a culture or subculture’s framing of their reality. When certain items or relations have importance to people, they will name them for the purpose of communication. This naming of a certain range of phenomena helps propagate the common categorization of these phenomena. And by picking out a certain range of phenomena, linguistic devices can encourage people to focus on the relations underlying this categorization. So framing shapes language and language can then go on to shape framing. But how we frame things is limited by our cognitive systems.

Brief commentary on Lera Boroditsky, Science, and Creationism:

Notice how Boroditsky expected the findings to go the complete opposite way that they did. Notice also that, despite her annoyance, she followed the evidence where it led. This is what science is all about. If only the anti-evolutionist creationists could be so honest as to admit the evidence in favour of evolution and admit that there is no evidence at all in favour of creationism, we wouldn’t have to waste our time having tired old debates on completely unscientific and baseless creationism. If someone thinks they’ve found a weakness in evolution, by all means voice it. But when it has been rebutted, have the honesty to admit it. And if they think that it has not been rebutted then argue further, be honest, and have the scientific integrity to realize that the supposed hole in evolution means essentially nothing when it comes to bolstering their religious beliefs.

2 Responses to “The impact of language on cognition: New findings”
  1. Andrew says:

    Truly fascinating – I love reading these kinds of posts on your blog.

  2. Sobers Rajakumar says:


    This particular article is helpful for my Interpersonal Communication Class at Canada College,Redwood City. I will be starting my presentation by quoting your final paragraph.

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