Friday, March 31, 2023

Does Language Constrain The Speed of Thought?

Here's a question: Are our thoughts limited by having to move at the speed of speech? 

And a bigger question: How is our mental life constrained by speech altogether?

These questions elicited a lot of lively discussion on my Instagram account. To the broader question, Rosemary reminded me of the truth and limitations of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity, which argues that our thought is shaped by language we speak.

One problem with such a theory is that it tends to assume that all thought is verbal. Artists, musicians, architects, and engineers know otherwise. We can form purely visual or musical ideas which surely qualify as a form of thought or reasoning. If you've ever had an artistic encounter with another artist with whom you share no spoken language, you know that those visual ideas can be shared between people no matter what languages they speak.

Regarding the first question about the speed of thought, it occurs to me that when we are speaking, our language necessarily places upper limits on the pace at which we can roll out ideas, a problem for human-computer interfaces. An artificial intelligence can generate paragraphs in milliseconds, but it takes us a lot of time to type or say a series of ideas. 

Sometimes I have the opposite problem, where my brain works a little too slowly to articulate a sentence fluently, so the result almost sounds like aphasia. I believe that for most people, our receptive capacity for language by timing how fast you can read, or while listening to an audio book by doubling or tripling the normal speech velocity. You can demonstrate this on YouTube or your favorite podcast app by increasing the speed settings on audio playback. 

Certain non-linguistic modes of thought don't seem to be limited by velocity of expression. For example, the thought that goes into solving a Rubix cube seems almost like an instantaneous pattern recognition, and the act of puzzle solving appears to be limited only by the neuro-muscular action of the hands.

To me, the limitations of language become clearest when trying to translate a memory of a dream after awakening. Rendering a dream into words is like trying to taxidermy a jellyfish. The act of trying it makes me realize how words can do violence to certain kinds of non-logical ideas.


Lynnwood said...

Wow!! My favorite subject! Most people think of "thinking" as linguistic or discursive thought,forming words in your head that a certain percentage of the population would comprehend.But our brain does so much more than that.I know that the whole left/right brain theory has been slightly debunked but it still works for me to look at it that way.WhenI'm drawing someone ,if I have a conversation with them at the same time,it DISTRACTS my " left brain" from getting in the way of my physical sympathetic response that is necessary and my drawing goes much better . Writing is an art form that turns the whole thing inside out which is so interesting!!I love the jelly fish analogy!!!

Knits and Weaves said...

"Trying to taxidermy a jellyfish" - good turn of phrase!

Garrett said...

I haven't studied this topic at all but it is certainly fascinating. One thing that seems important to define is what "thinking" is in the first place. By some definitions, it could be that the painter or Rubik's cube operator is not actually "thinking," but performing some other intellectual/physical task akin to playing a physical sport. Is a gymnast "thinking" when they perform an ultra-fast and complex maneuver? What about a pianist playing a piece of music?

Further, it seems that the speed of "thinking" is necessarily constrained by how it is expressed.. Articulating a sentence might take more time than it take for a thought to form, let alone speak it aloud or write it down. We often "get and idea" before we can coherently express it aloud. Indeed, we often might have trouble putting into words what that thought is even though it "makes sense" in our own minds. Indeed, some ideas may not actually have a vocabulary to even express them to one another.

In any case, it seems like the brain is not the only relevant factor here, and that there may be other forms of intelligence, like motor memory/embodied intelligence. Our physical bodies might have some impact too - I remember a philosophy teacher I had claimed that there was evidence that people thought better while standing up.

Michael Lukyniuk said...

An interesting observation, James. My first thought is that as a bilingual person (English/French) I sometimes stumble trying to express myself for a word that I can’t find in one or the other language. I know what it is that I want to express but my delivery is slowed down by language. I don’t know if this is an exact example of what you are describing but it’s the first thing that comes to mind.
As an aside, I just want to say that I enjoy your blog and visit it every day. It’s both entertaining and instructive. Thanks for sharing your work.

Sara H. Becker said...

Well said! Pun intended, but seriously, a lot goes through our minds on a continuous basis and it seems instantaneous sometimes. And like the speed of light, thoughts can disappear. And some thought is more like a feeling or an urge to create. To capitalize on that when working on a painting is to be in a flow and can garner great results.

CerverGirl said...

I love this interesting post. I think even writing my comment here slows my brain down, and speaking is particularly difficult for me when I am focused on multiple concerns, having trouble finding words. Writing by hand helps me focus a concept; creating art puts me in a different focus that is more "energetic" than thought; but the initial concept for a painting could be conceived--then articulating that image from the image in my head another process altogether, it seems.
But my brain seems to run miles a minute and slowing it down with any focus seems to be a clarifying process that helps me relax, even with simple deep breathing in meditation.

Martha said...

Fascinating ideas. I agree that not all thought is verbal, not even close. Image thinking is not well-understood precisely because it is non-verbal.

Salty Pumpkin Studio said...

Words are the hues my brain uses to release my thoughts onto the canvas of sound.
Images are in my mind wait for the action of thought.

Isaac Elliott said...

> One problem with such a theory is that it tends to assume that all thought is verbal.
> Artists, musicians, architects, and engineers know otherwise. We can form purely visual
> or musical ideas which surely qualify as a form of thought or reasoning.

Another important form of non-linguistic knowledge/thought is procedural knowledge. For example, I'd argue that mixing a paint on a pallette is ultimately procedural: you learn a process of interacting with your primary colours by which you achieve a derive colour. There is no need for an inner monologue (linguistic reasoning) to guide the process, and the process itself is more than anything you could convey through language. No amount of explanation can completely convey "how to do it".