Tag Archives: linguistics

Digging into the past with a computational shovel

When you think about the best tools that we have available for understanding the origins of civilization, you might imagine a pickaxe, a dusting brush, a shove–no doubt all of them wielded by some Indiana Jones-esque adventurer standing chest-deep in the bowels of some excavated lost city.

The problem with these methods is that they involve a painstakingly detailed approach to understanding history, picking through evidence one piece at a time. While this can be an incredibly useful way to understand the world, it isn’t the only method for building our knowledge of the past.  An increasingly popular approach takes the opposite approach: leveraging large amounts of information at the same time in order to discover hidden complexities and patterns that aren’t available to the human eye.

In a paper published this week out of UC Berkeley, a team of researchers has leveraged the raw power of modern-era computers in order to understand the complicated process by which ancient languages morph into their present-day forms.  The the evolution of language is an incredibly complicated process, it also has a lot of structure.  This structure tends to be relatively consistent over time, with small changes being enacted across epochs of civilization.

Think of an elephant—a completely ridiculous, non-sensical elephant who will stomp you out if you do not stop it

For those of you who are interested in effectively communicating science in a way that will make a political and social impact, I suggest taking a course with cognitive linguist/neuroscientist George Lakoff. You will discuss the tools necessary for effective communication (and conviction): the use of language, words, grammar, setting, sentence structure, and understanding of your audience, but at a level much, much deeper than you may have ever thought to consider. This is not a simple course on communication—it is the science of communication (mostly within a political context). It is the neural theory of thought and language.

Lakoff began his path in linguistics the first year MIT began offering such a program, and was among Noam Chomsky’s first group of students in this field. Lakoff studies the neural foundations of conceptual systems, the meaning behind metaphors, and the embodied structure of grammar. What is the framework your words evoke? How does grammar instruct how we think? How can scientists use science to get their point across in a more effective manner?

Machine learning plumbs the depths of the psychedelic experience

Huichol yarn painting, inspired by peyote, the sacramental cactus containing the psychedelic chemical mescaline.

Linguistics, the study of human language, is derived from “lingua”, the Latin word for tongue. While the literal translation of this word may imply that the organs of sound production (tongue, lips, gottis) are the most important instruments for language, language is a mental process and, therefore, the most fundamental organ of this phenomenon is the brain.

In his text Peri Hermeneias (‘On Interpretation’), Aristotle argues that “spoken words are the symbols of mental experience,” which suggests that the relationship between language and the mind has been considered for thousands of years. Linguistics has greatly advanced since the days of the early Greek philosophers and is now prevalently integrated with the physical and social sciences as subfield called cognitive linguistics. In this field, the brain is applied to understand language, and language is applied to understand the brain.

Over the past several years, Jeremy Coyle (graduate of UC Berkeley’s Cognitive Science Program and currently a graduate student in UCB’s Biostatistics Group), Dr. David Presti (UCB Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Program in Cognitive Science), and Dr. Matthew Baggott (graduate of UCB’s Neuroscience doctoral program and currently at the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience) collaborated to study language as a means to understand the effect of psychedelic substances on the mind, and on brain physiology. Psychedelics alter perception, consciousness, thoughts, emotions, mood, and behavior by changing brain chemistry and function. Because of the profound changes that are induced by this class of chemicals, psychedelics may be optimal tools to unveil the specific mechanisms that connect brain physiology to complex mental phenomena (an unanswered relationship known as the “mind-body problem”). Despite the insight to the mind-body problem that psychedelic drugs could provide, the use of these chemicals in neuroscience is scarce in comparison to other tools that are utilized. The paucity in psychedelic research is attributed to the lack of acceptance within the scientific and nonscientific community, and the lack of a good human model.