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Posted by Kyle on September 6, 2002 09:00:22 UTC


Okay, before I hit the sack let me throw down my basic understanding of the language process so that we are on the same page...
None of this is from any particular source, it's an amalgamation of stuff that seeped into my knowledge-base over the years... so please fill in the parts that I'm not up to date on!

I'll lay out a quick framework of the mental processes that allow us to convert sense data into concepts, and then into some communicable form-- like I said, the whole process is isomorphic to mathematics where numbers become (abstract) concepts and we transform those abstractions (through volition) into ‘axiomatic units’ that are manipulatable and ultimately communicable...

4 Steps:


The sense data is received. That is, a sensory input transmits a sensation to the brain and the brain analyses this sense data as a single mental unit. (very fast step)

Compares the sense data with previously stored data (ie. many mental units). So a child seeing a chair must first "integrate" this mental unit with all other similar units (memory of other chairs) before he can even conceptualize it as something uniquely different from any other object. That is, the thing he sees is just initially an object. Not only is it initially nameless (ie. not ‘designated’), it is initially not even grouped into a mental category of similar objects that are all chairs. Once the child can classify the chair with like-objects, then he has completed the integration step. (which is essentially ‘recognition’ ... ie. "cognant" "again") The reason that this step is called "integration" is that once the object is placed into a mental category (group of chairs), the two disparate mental units merge... that is the ‘chair’ (mental unit #1) and the ‘collective group of other chairs stored in memory’ (mental unit #2) become a third new mental unit (‘recognized chair’). This new mental unit is a synthesis of #1 and #2 together.
(slow step relative to isolation-- eg. 'reaction time' lengthens with unfamiliar objects due to longer integration of new mental unit with stored data)

The third step is ‘conceptualization’ or ‘abstraction’. Whereas isolation and integration are more or less involuntary, the act of conceptualization is a volitional act, although there are probably 'degrees of volition' that correspond to the intensity and complexity (and level of control) of the conceptualization process (eg. If you’re solving a complex problem vs. daydreaming). Dreaming doesn't count (it's non-volitional but it's not a conscious process).

The integrated mental unit (‘recognized chair’) now is ‘captured’ into memory, so it is free to flow ‘up to the front’ ( ie. into ‘active consciousness’) or drift ‘into the back’ into stored memory. When it’s ‘up at the front’ it’s like a digital image that you’ve saved as a jpeg. That is, you can now freely manipulate the mental image however you like, you can imagine it in different situations. This conceptualization step is crucial for any kind of high intelligence, from mathematics and logic to paleolithic toolmaking. The locus of this is obviously in the cerebral cortex-- and we’ve got the biggest by far on the planet. (cranial size chimpanzee = 250 cc, human = 1400 cc, hominoid circa 3 million years ago = 400cc) As we evolved, the brainstem/ midbrain/ limbic system etc. didn’t increase much relative to body size, so increases in cranial volume (as seen in the fossil record, comparative anatomy, etc.) are all related to increased volumes of the cerebral hemispheres.

The last step in language is 'designation' (that's my own word...I can't think of the proper word for this process right now)
Here the mental image is tagged with a (learned) code, be it a phonetic or symbolic code. Once it’s tagged it is algebraically substituted for the symbol and vice versa. So now it is somewhat like a simple math expression in some ways with the 'integrated mental unit' (recognized and conceptually-active) = algebraic designation (word). What you do to one side of the equal sign you must do to the other-- so if the chair is red, our integrated mental image is updated and it’s designation is also updated (new designation: "red chair").
As long as the receiver knows the same code as you, you can now communicate.

One really neat thing is that the first three steps to language don’t even involve language/ syntax/ vocabulary. So pre-vocabulary children (or Australopithecines) could still perform isolation, integration and conceptualization. A man raised from birth with no language could still perform these three steps.

Actually a chimpanzee can also perform basic designation following conceptualization (there are well-designed experiments that really show this)... albeit to a limited degree-- called "first-level conceptualization" (as opposed to "higher level conceptualization" like math, logic, poetry etc. which require manipulations of multiple, nested complex mental units).

Anyway, there are all kinds of really fascinating avenues that branch off from all this, Aurino. Your question is definitely one of them...

Gotta run,

Talk to you later!

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