Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Language and Mental Representation

I'm a really big fan of Jeopardy!. I think it's unique among game shows for rewarding quick thinking and verbal cleverness as much (if not more) as brute fact knowledge, but that's not what this post is about. I was watching Jeopardy! last night, and one of the categories was called "Tip of My Tongue." The clues were things like this:

Oh man, this guy...was director of Scientific Studies at the Ecole Normal in 1857....him-"ization" me out here..

This reminded me of a conversation I had a week or two ago with a friend of mine (the answer is Louis Pasteur, by the way); we were discussing theories of representation (i.e. how it comes to be the case that 'cat' refers to something furry and hungry in the real world), and I put forward the idea that perhaps we cannot put forward any truly "universal" theory of reference, because how words (and other symbols) come to refer might vary based on individual neurological idiosyncrasies. She agreed, pointing out that when a name or word is on the "tip of her tongue," she tries to remember it by thinking about what the word feels like to write or say, whereas I think about the concepts connected to that name or word (much like the clue above).

While this certainly isn't indicative itself about how words refer to each of us, I think it does speak to an often overlooked fact--namely, that while our brains end up getting the job done, they often do the job in radically different ways. Just looking at the simple (and common) "tip of the tongue" phenomenon shows how differently we humans can process the world; it seems at least plausible to me that given these variations, fundamental cognitive activities (like reference and the creation of meaning) might happen in very different ways for different individuals.

What do you think of this? What is the "tip of the tongue" phenomenon like for you?


Michael said...

Jeopardy, eh? The winner of the show you watched, who has won 6 games as of last night, Dan Pawson, is my second cousin!

Jon said...

No kidding? What a small world. That's great, though--tell him congratulations!