Funded Grants

Mental representations of abstract domains

My research began with an age-old mystery: How are we able to think about abstract entities, things that we can never see or touch? This question has vexed scholars for centuries. It lead Plato to formulate one of the first arguments from poverty of the stimulus. He concluded that representations of the abstract are not learnable from experience, and must instead be recollected from past incarnations of our souls. Wallace, a co-originator of the theory of natural selection alongside Darwin, became so frustrated with the problem of abstract thought that he argued natural selection should be scrapped altogether (Darwin intervened).

One potential solution to this mystery is suggested by patterns in language. When talking about the abstract and complex, we rely heavily on systems of metaphors, borrowing terms and constructions from more concrete or perceptually rich domains (1). Is it possible that we think about the abstract the way we talk about it: as a patchwork of metaphors? In my work, I have generated and empirically tested the key predictions from this theoretical approach. Our results demonstrate that people build up abstract knowledge through incremental (and sometimes iterative) borrowings or analogies from more perceptual or experience-based knowledge. Further, the particular patterns of such borrowings depend on the metaphors that exist in languages and cultures. Finally, representations of abstract or complex domains are not fully articulated logically cohesive knowledge structures (as we may aspire to), but rather a patchwork of many different (sometimes conflicting) structures that are brought to mind for different purposes and offer only an illusion of coherence.

These findings suggest that evolutionary adaptations for perception and action (and formative perceptuo-motor experience) help guide and constrain some of our most sophisticated cognitive endeavors. At the same time, complex knowledge is not simply a product of physiological endowment or physical experience. It is actively constructed through structures that exist in the social world: in language and culture. Our current and future work aims to understand in detail the mechanisms through which knowledge from perception and action and from language and culture is combined to create the amazing complexity and sophistication of the human knowledge system.

One extension of this work has been to more broadly investigate how the languages we speak shape the ways we think. This question has long been of central interest in philosophy, linguistics, anthropology and psychology. However, despite nearly constant attention and debate, very little empirical work had been done on this question until recently. For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply crazy and wrong. Research in my lab has helped reopen this question. We have looked at how speakers of different languages think about colors, objects, space, time, events, and causality, finding cross-linguistic differences in each case. Beyond simply demonstrating cross-linguistic differences, this work is revealing the many different ways that linguistic processes interact with the rest of cognition, and the underlying mechanisms through which the languages we speak shape and construct our reality.