Monday, January 18, 2016

Social Cognition as Spoken Language: So that is the word I was looking for.

In this short but very succulent article by Michael Tomasello titled The Key is Social Cognition (Tomasello, 2003) the author gives a very interesting hypothesis for why human infants learn spoken language at the age, and in the way we naturally do(did).  To put it as simply as I can, we learn spoken language as way of "sharing and directing the attention of others", and we begin to produce it at around our first birthday because that is when we realize that other people are intentional agents distinct from the self (alternatively I could use the ambiguously poetic conspecific that Mr. Tomasello introduced to me as a way to describe other people).  The activities of directing someone's attention and having one's attention directed is called social cognition because it shows that we, as humans, are aware (cognition) that other humans (social) are creatures that have and act on their own intentions, yet we can still allow ourselves, or not, to act on them as if they were our own.  Being aware of all this is what makes being human unique and the uniquely human tool that sprouts as a budding baby becomes aware of this reality, as well as allow the baby to participate in it, is spoken language.

This posits an interesting question.  Since spoken language acquisition is an instinct (Pinker, 2004) and we have no more control over acquiring it as we do controlling other instincts, like whether or not our heart beats, this puts spoken language acquisition on the same level of importance as these other instincts.  But why?  Considering Tomasello's social cognition hypothesis, Lets shape this why question into something more thought-provoking, indeed something more purple.  Why is the acquiring of spoken language for the purpose of directing the attention of other people and allowing your attention to be directed by other people, so important as to merit the level of instinct?

We can start by answering the more general question; why are instincts so important?  This is easy to explain if we return to our exemplar heartbeat management instinct.  If managing our heartbeat were not an instinct, it would probably be a cognitive task, meaning we would be aware of it at all times, effectively in charge of it.  If we were in charge of beating our own hearts, we would be dead.  We wouldn't be able to sleep, drink, or focus our attention on anything longer than the milliseconds between the required intervals our heart must beat to keep our blood flowing and our bodies oxygenated.  For our very survival our heart must beat, which is why instinct is in charge.  This explanation of instinct being in charge of what we need for our very survival allows us to see the purple question from above in a different perspective, indeed a bluer perspective:  What does the exchange of each other's attention via spoken language have to do with our individual survival as humans?  

Consider the following anti-question:

How would NOT giving or receiving attention spell ones physical demise?

As you noticed, the black question is asking the same thing as the blue question but from a different, blacker perspective.

Aside from allowing me to entertain morbid ideas under the auspices of a greater good, this type of playing; using language to construe from one problem a different perspective that could, by all means, end up being the needed solution, is what has allowed us humans to survive in a world where other creatures have placed all their eggs of natural fitness in baskets that differ from this.  This also serves as the answer to the black, blue, and purple questions posited above.  Using language to direct each others attention serves human survival by allowing us to work together to discover novel solutions to recurring problems very, very, very quickly.  

It starts from simplicity.  

We become aware of problems while in the womb of our mother.  Our body develops to point where our metabolism burns energy faster than we can produce it so we need some sort of outside sustenance - food.  Spoken language doesn't play a part yet because we receive food supplements every time our mother eats, keeping us ignorant to the need to direct our mother's attention to our metabolic mayhem.  However, Mom has had enough and birth happens.  We have been ripped from this endless smorgasbord and soon we feel it in our tummy.  This new, this novel sensation - our tummies, for the first time, are 100% empty.  And it hurts.  Our instinct kicks in (because otherwise we would die) and it uses another tool that had also been developing along with our metabolism - our vocal chords.  We cry like we have literally never cried before and what happens?  Mother's attention goes nuts.  

"What is wrong?!?!" 

"What do you want?!?!?!" 




"Oh, boob."

Problem solved.  Baby doesn't die.

Here we see the function and purpose of spoken language in its most simple, in its purest forms.  Everything else we experience is just fluff on top of this.  The utterances may get a little more organized and eloquent than a crude cry ("Mom, I want chicken!!!") and the desires a little more complicated than simple hunger (I'm sad.  I want you to hug me from behind and whisper elvish lullabies) - yet the purpose is still the same - to direct and re-direct each others attention for the intent of quickly solving problems related to our survival.

All creatures on this planet have the ability to perform novel solutions to problems, it is the conception that makes humans unique.  Other creatures contrive at the level of the entire species, while humans can do it as an individual.  And it is due specifically to how we use spoken language.  

I will let Tomasello himself close this article with his own words, "When used in acts of communication, these social-cognitive skills [being aware that our attention can be given to and received from other people] serve to create intersubjectively understood and perspectivally based linguistic symbols [spoken language that communicates a perspective on reality that others can easily understand], which can be used to invite other persons to construe phenomena from any one of the many simultaneously available perspectives [think of new ways of looking at the same thing]"

There is still much more to explore concerning Tomasello's idea.  Namely I have yet to come up with a satisfying explanation as to how, through the use of language, construing phenomena from varying perspectives is of survival value to modern day humans.  I cannot wait for you to join me.

Further Reading

Pinker, S.  (2004).  The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language.  New York City: William Morrow and Company

Tomasello, M.  (2003).  The Key is Social Cognition.  Language and Mind: Advances in the Study of the Mind.  Pp. 47-57.

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