Language and Thought

How do people think about things they can never see or touch?

How do people mentally represent and reason about abstract concepts like time, value, or intelligence? My research explores a potential answer: perhaps the mind recruits old structures for new uses. Perhaps perceptuo-motor representations that result from physical interactions with the world are recycled to form mental representations in abstract domains.

This hypothesis is motivated, in part, by patterns in language: people often talk about abstract things using metaphors from more concrete or perceptually rich domains (e.g., a long time, a high price, a deep mystery). But do people really think about abstract concepts metaphorically? Although linguistic evidence for 'conceptual metaphors' is abundant, the necessary non-linguistic evidence has been elusive.

My research has developed new experimental tools to evaluate metaphor theory as an account of the acquisition and structure of abstract concepts. Studies using low-level psychophysical tasks provide some of the first non-linguistic evidence for metaphorical mental representations.

Do we think about time in terms of space?
Psychophysical tasks (e.g., reproducing the distance and duration of a 'growing' line) reveal that the asymmetric relationship between space and time found in metaphorical language is also found in patterns of non-linguistic perceptuo-motor behavior: people not only talk about time using spatial language (more than the other way around), they also think about time using spatial representations (but not vice versa).

Beyond space and time.
Tasks developed to investigate mental representations of time were adapted to investigate non-linguistic representations in other domains that we spatialize in language, such as number (a low number) and musical pitch (a high soprano).

Experiments eliciting or inhibiting gestures demonstrate that speakers produce spontaneous gestures for metaphorical spatial concepts (e.g., upward gesture for my grades went up), even when they don't use any spatial language (e.g., upward gesture for my grades got better). Further experiments show that often, these metaphorical gestures are not designed to be communicative; rather, they serve internal cognitive functions for the speaker.

Do we always think the way that we talk?
How can we tell when a conventional metaphor in language reflects a 'mental metaphor'? Experiments investigating mappings between time and speed (our vacation was quick) and others investigating relationships between similarity and proximity (their opinions were close) reveal some conceptual relations that accord with mappings suggested by linguistic metaphors, and others that contrast with them. These studies underscore the importance of testing metaphor theory with non-linguistic methods, and reveal conditions under which both convergence and divergence should be expected between patterns in language and habits of nonverbal mental representation.

Does language shape the way we think?

Can the languages we speak shape how we think, perceive, and act upon the world? A major obstacle to advancing the Whorfian debate has been creating tests of cross-linguistic cognitive differences that don't require participants to use language during the test. My research provides some of the first non-linguistic evidence that language can shape even our low-level, perceptuo-motor representations in abstract domains like time.

Do people who talk differently think differently?
Performance on psychophysical time estimation tasks differed dramatically in speakers of different languages, as predicted by the dominant metaphors in these languages: distance metaphors in languages like English (e.g., long time), and amount metaphors in languages like Spanish (e.g., mucho tiempo). This was true even though tasks used only non-linguistic stimuli and responses. Training tasks demonstrated that experience using language can play a causal role in shaping thought, and can influence even our low-level perceptuo-motor representations of time.

How do cross-linguistic differences in thinking develop?
Developmental studies in collaboration with Julio Santiago (University of Granada, Spain) and Ria Pita (University of Thessaloniki, Greece) examine the emergence of language-specific temporal thinking in young learners of English, Spanish, and Greek, and also explore cross-linguistic differences in the mental representation of number.