Have you ever wondered what’s actually going on when you find yourself thinking about something? You hear a voice inside your head often, or picture something happening, but how precisely is your brain generating that voice? And how is it understanding what the voice is saying?
A lot of people take for granted the fact that they can understand their native language but of course this is a much more impressive and complicated feat that’s going on inside the brain than it might appear. You were not born being able to understand English and as such, your brain must be ‘translating’ the words into some purer form of meaning. This is how a computer works – interpreting inputs and programming language into machine code.
What is the machine code of the brain?
The old explanation was that the brain would understand words literally by going through a translation process. Specifically, it was believed that the brain would translate words from English into a kind of ‘base language’ that was often referred to as ‘mentalese’.
More recent research has challenged this view though and put forward a much more interesting idea…
According to a theory called ‘embodied cognition’, the brain does not inherently understand language but instead uses the body to interpret what is being said. More specifically, it uses the body’s interactions with the world and previous experience to understand the nature of language.
To better understand this, we can recall a study in which patients were subjected to brain scans while they were being spoken to. In this study, it was found that telling the patients a story would cause their brains to light up just as though they were actually living that story themselves.
In other words, if you were to tell someone about the time you walked through the snow, then their brains would light up as though they were walking through snow. This would include areas of the motor cortex associated with the actual motion of walking and areas that are regulated by temperature and skin sensations.
In other words, you only understand the content of what you’re being told because you’re using your body to visualize that thing happening!
This can then explain a lot about the way our body responds during a given activity. For instance, it explains why we might suddenly feel scared when reading a scary story, or why we might feel hungry when being told about a delicious meal – our physiological response is the same as though it were happening to us!
There are many implications for this but perhaps one of the areas where it has the most impact is in regards to AI. AI is a kind of ‘disembodied cognition’ and if this theory is to be believed, then there is at least a chance that this kind of thought is a contradiction. Perhaps an AI would need a body in order to be able to think!
And of course this also shows us the importance of engaging with infants and helping them to explore their environments.