People have been expressing thoughts with language for tens (or maybe hundreds) of thousands of years. This is a hallmark of our species – so much so that scientists once speculated that the ability to language is the key difference between us and other animals. And we wondered about the other’s thoughts since we could talk about them.
“The” penny for your thoughts “issue is, I think, as old as humanity,” Russell Hurlbert, a research psychologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies how people formulate thoughts, told Live Science. But how do scientists study the relationship between thought and language? And can you think without words?
The answer, surprisingly, is yes, several decades of research have found. Herlbert’s research, for example, shows this some people do not have an internal monologue – which means that they do not talk in their heads, Live Science reported earlier. Other studies show that people do not use the language regions of their brains when working on logical problems without words.
For decades, however, scientists thought the answer was no – this intelligent thought is intertwined with our ability to form sentences.
“One remarkable statement is that language was primarily designed to allow us to think more complex thoughts,” Evelina Fedorenko, a neurologist and researcher at the McGovern Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Live Science. This idea was supported by legendary linguists such as Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor in the mid-20th century, but has begun to fall out of favor in recent years. Scientific American (opens in a new tab) reported.
New evidence has led researchers to reconsider their old assumptions about how we think and what role language plays in the process.
“Unsymbolized thinking” is a kind of cognitive process that takes place without the use of words. Herlbert and his colleague coined the term in 2008 in the magazine Consciousness and knowledgeafter conducting decades of research to confirm that this is a real phenomenon, Hurlbert said.
Learning language and knowledge is extremely difficult, in part because it is really difficult to describe. “People use the same words to describe many different inner experiences,” Hurlbert said. For example, one might use such words to convey a visual thought of a parade of pink elephants, as one would describe their non-visual, inner monologue aimed at the pink elephant.
Another problem is that in the first place it can be difficult to recognize thinking without language. “Most people don’t know they’re involved in unsymbolized thinking,” said Hurlbert, “even people who do it often.”
And because people are so caught up in our own thoughts and cannot directly access the minds of others, it can be tempting to assume that the thought processes that take place in our own heads are universal.
However, some laboratories, such as Fedorenko’s, are developing better ways to monitor and measure the relationship between language and thought. Modern technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and microscopy give researchers a pretty good picture of which parts of the human brain correspond to different functions; for example, scientists already know that the cerebellum controls balance and posture, while the occiput handles most visual processing. And within these broader lobes, neuroscientists have been able to zoom in and map more specific functional regions related to things like long-term memory, spatial thinking, and speech.
Fedorenko’s research takes into account such brain maps and adds an active component.
“If language is critical to reasoning, then there must be some overlap in neural resources when dealing with reasoning,” she suggested. In other words, if language is essential to thinking, the brain regions involved in language processing must light up every time someone uses logic to understand a problem.
To test this statement, she and her team conducted a study that gave participants a logical problem without words to solve, such as a sudoku puzzle or a bit of algebra. The researchers then scanned the brains of these people using an fMRI machine while making the puzzle. Researchers found that participants’ brain areas related to language did not light up while solving problems; in other words, they reasoned without words.
Studies such as those of Fedorenko, Herlbert and others show that language is not essential for human knowledge, which is a particularly important discovery for understanding certain neurological conditions, such as aphasia. “You can remove the language system, and a lot of the thinking can go on well,” Fedorenko said. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t be easier with language,” she said.
Originally published in Live Science.