Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Louder Than Words - Book Review Part 2: Ch 2-4

I've finished chapter 4 of Ben Bergen's new embodied cognitive linguistics book Louder Than Words, which puts me about 1/3 of the way through (my Part 1 review here). For now, I'm just going to publish the highlights of my margin notes. This will likely be disjointed and out of context for anyone not also reading the book. I intend to write up a single review once done, but for now, I'm just doing a data dump. Here goes:

Chapter 2: Keep Your Mind on The Ball
  • I realize now that I am simply not the intended audience for this book. This is intended to occupy the space filled by Pinker, Oliver Sacks, and Malcolm Gladwell. It is pop intellectual intended for the lay audience, not someone with formal education in cognitive linguistics. Fair enough, There's nothing wrong with that. I simply must resign myself to be constantly disappointing at the lack of detail. My problem, not Bergen's.
  • Starts with lesson of athletes who learned that visualization techniques helped their physical techniques. Concludes that "when we're visualizing, our brain is doing the same thing it would in actual practice." He wisely backs off this bold claim as the chapter goes along, but his point is that we use the same brain regions to visual physical actions as we would if we actually performed the action.
  • My first objection is that this kind of intentional visualization is not equivalent to automatic thinking. He addresses this briefly later, but most of the experiments he reviews do in fact require some kind of intentional thinking/doing. I mentioned in my Part 1 review that he fails to use the terms "salience" or "attention", two very important word to cognitive scientists.
  • He dances around the notion of table-top objects without using the term. Perhaps too in-the-weeds philosophy for this kind of book.
  • The Perky effect = the boiling frog effect?
  • Little complaint: too many figures (most) are first mentioned on pages on which they do not occur, making me turn the page constantly to see what's being referenced. Plus, far too many typos. Basic Books needs to hire a Basic Copywriter.
  • Big Complaint: he's gotten lost in the woods of cog sci without making any obvious embodiment claims. Can Bergen give a simple explanation of the difference between "mental simulation" and "embodied mental simulation"? If yes, he forgot to include it in this chapter.
  • He writes about people thinking about an act like making a fist (page 44) and activating parts of the brain for actually making a fist. What about thinking about actions you've never performed before, like some wild yoga pose? Just thinking out loud... but not thinking out louder than words...

Chapter 3: Meaning and the Mind's Eye
  • Starts chapter saying humans are critically dependent on visual information and says we even encode this fact in our language with sayings like "you see what I mean?" and "the argument was clear." Okay, I get that this is a law book and he's trying to help the average Joe understand the basic point, but as a linguist I object to this on at least three grounds: 1) It's misleading. He cherry picks a couple of examples as if a grand pattern they make. But it's quite easy to come up with counter examples, like the now well known phrase popularized by The Wire "you feel me?" or "do you get it?"; 2) At best, these are English examples. Bergen's point is decidedly not bound by any one language. Does this pattern hold in other languages? Can we have some discussion of this? 3) These kinds of phrases are what linguists call "evidentials" and there is a long tradition of studying them cross-linguistically. Bergen makes no mention of this.
  • Bergen wants us to believe that being able to infer and reason given linguistic input is uniquely a feature of language itself. I find this a bit overstated.
  • The second half of this chapter really gets good, for me. It's mostly a review of the work of Rolf Zwaan and his students about how humans imagine the orientation of objects is influenced by our embodied interaction with them. This, to me, is the heart of the embodied cognition argument and this is the best reading so far. Bergen does a great job reviewing Zwaan's many clever but nuanced experiments. Most of my notes are detailed methodology questions I want to ask Zwaan about how he actually performed his experiments. Good stuff, but very in-the-weeds.

Chapter 4: Over the Top
  • It is taking all of my discipline to forgive Bergen for not only naming this chapter after a Sylvester Stallone movie, but of referencing the same movie throughout the chapter. Ohhhh Ben. It's okay to let that part of your childhood die.
  • Unlike Ben, I'll spare you the Stallone fanzine reminiscence, and make the simple point that a physical act described solely in language fires up our brains using the same areas we would use if we actually performed the action.
  • Here, Bergen's rhetoric about language leaves me frustrated. He wants us to be filled the wonder and power of language. I'm not. Language is an amazing cognitive function, but it ain't magic and I don't think we're doing anyone any good by adding smoke and mirrors to the cognitive linguistics discussion.
  • Bergen uses this as a stepping off point to talk about mirror neurons. While I've been casually reading* about mirror neurons for several years, I ain't no neuroscientist. I do recall some actual neuro-bloggers complaining about overstatement about mirror neurons though. It will take some time to dig up the references.
  • Overall, this is a juicy chapter will lots of experimental paradigms to drool over, if that's you kind of thing (it's my kind of thing).
  • One complaint though: this chapter does a great job of convincing me that there are priming effects with respect to actions and visualization. It does little to convince me there is some special "embodied simulation" effect. Priming is a well known phenomenon that seems to have explanatory value for much of the effects he discusses. i'm still waiting for that Ah Ha! moment that makes his argument all come together. But I'm a patient man, and this really is interesting stuff.
  • Just a head sup, after reading the discussion of "affordances", I can't help but want to recommend that Bergen read Pustejovsky #intheweeds.

*Hey, if Chewie can fly casually, then I can read casually.


GamesWithWords said...

"This is intended to occupy the space filled by Pinker, Oliver Sacks, and Malcolm Gladwell. It is pop intellectual intended for the lay audience, not someone with formal education in cognitive linguistics."

I'll give you Malcolm Gladwell and maybe Oliver Sacks, but I have trouble reconciling this statement with any of Pinker's books. When you look at "Words & Rules" or "Better Angels of Human Nature" or "Blank Slate", it's hard to come up with any other text that covers that ground as comprehensively. (I would also say "and as accurately", but you're welcome to disagree on that point.) Sure, it's easy to read, but I'm not sure that should count against it.

So I am curious: What do you object to?

Chris said...

Fair point, Pinker has written a lot of books and I have not read "Better" or "Blank". I was keying off of "Language Instinct" almost by itself. I should have been more careful. I think "Words & Rules" is more academic than Bergen's book, which makes your point. I'll give Pinker a cross out.

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