How Humans Understand One Another

Professor Benjamin Bergen explains how humans understand one another and why we gesture when we talk.

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Language is a tool that people use to convey meaning. How the brain actually manages to make sense of the words is the focus of Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. In the book, University of California–San Diego cognitive science professor Benjamin Bergen explains how humans understand each other. Bergen recently spoke to U.S. News about why we gesture when we talk, how talking is a full-body experience, and the future of cognitive research. Excerpts:

Why is cognitive research particularly relevant now?

One reason is that people are increasingly interacting with computers using language. People like to have voice devices on their phones. The public is starting to discover now what insiders have known for a long time: Understanding language is really, really, really hard. So one of the applications of this new science of meaning is to develop computational systems that understand language like humans do, that have virtual bodies and feelings and virtual experiences that could in principle understand language the way people do and that would improve the way the technology works.

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How else is this new science of meaning timely?

People really want to be using language while they're driving. They talk to passengers, they listen to the radio, they listen to e-books, they talk on the phone, they text, and that's really distracting. Part of the reason that it is so distracting is that using language engages your vision system and engages your motor system so that interfering with those systems is going to have deleterious consequences. It's going to be harder to perceive the cars ahead of you and brake in time if your vision system is tied up seeing the prom dress that your girlfriend is talking about or visualizing the great throw from shortstop to first that your baseball team is making on the radio.

How is understanding language a whole-body process?

There are two ways in which it is: One is that people use their physical bodies while understanding language. If I ask you, "Which way do you turn the lid of a jar of mayonnaise to close it?" you might actually use your hands to enact that and it would allow you to physically experience the meaning of what it is to close a jar. Even when we're not moving our bodies, we're using the parts of our brain that move our bodies. So, for example, if you aren't moving your arms or hands, you are probably engaging the motor system in your brain. The motor strip is the part of the brain that controls the physical actions of your muscles.

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Why do we gesture when we speak?

As people are producing language, they often are limited by the fact that you can only say so many words. You can say one word at a time and words tend to have a narrow bandwidth in a sense. Gesture often gives you a little bit more information; it tells you more about the meaning or intent. We see that people encode information using the verbal stream and the gesture stream at the same time and those have an impact on people who are understanding language. If you're listening to someone and they talk about giving and they use two hands to demonstrate giving, then you think you're talking about something big and bulky and their brains react in such a way that they are surprised if they find out you are talking about an apple.

Does how language differs around the world say anything about the different ways that people think?

Sure. If I tell you that a girl gave the bouquet of flowers to the boy, in your mind's eye the probability is that you saw the girl on the left and the boy on the right. That's because you are an English speaker and you are used to interacting with the world systematically starting with the left and going to the right. For an Arabic speaker it would be different; she would have the girl on the right giving flowers to the boy on the left. Our default expectations seem to be affected by our writing systems.