Friday, November 21, 2008

Internal and External Language

As I start putting together my formal paper about ethics as a social technology, I've been researching the relationship between language and cognition. A few researchers have called the "inner monologue" phenomenon essential to (or even constitutive of) cognition--we talk to ourselves (either out loud or in our heads) as a way of working out problems. This seems right to me: as most people who have done any kind of deep thinking know, it helps tremendously to have an interlocutor (real or imaginary) off which to bounce ideas. This point has led me to consider something related (albeit tangential), though, about which I'd love to get some input.

I'm certain that everyone has had the "inner monologue" experience of speaking to oneself silently--you might rehearse a speech in your mind before you give it, silently repeat the list of things you need to pick up at the grocery store, or try to work out a philosophical problem by talking to yourself in your head. While it's certain that this sort of process is linked to language--it's hard to see how a pre-linguistic animal could think linguistically--I wonder how close this relationship is. Jerry Fodor (among others) holds the position that mental representation happens in a meta-linguistic form that he terms "Mentalese"--while thinking in Mentalese might feel like thinking in (say) English, it differs in slight but important ways. If this theory is correct, it would seem that different brain processes would have to govern true language and Mentalese language (or inner monologues); we should expect, then, to see the two occasionally come apart. 

Here's my question, then: when a person suffers a stroke (or some other kind of brain injury) that interrupts speech functions (as damage to certain parts of the left hemisphere often does), is the inner monologue similarly interrupted? If so, is this always the case, or is it possible to lose the ability to express our thoughts symbolically (either through speech or writing) but still be able to represent thoughts to ourselves in Mentalese? If the latter is correct, that would seem to bolster the Fodorian position that inner speech is fundamentally different from linguistic representation; if the two faculties are inseparable, though, that would seem to cast doubt on the principled distinction between inner monologue and public language. 

I'm researching this question as we speak, but I'm interested in seeing if anyone out there has any first-hand experience with this--have you ever suffered a stroke, or known someone who has? If you lost language, did you also lose the ability to form thoughts with propositional content? Did one faculty return before the other, or are they mutually supportive? Any input is appreciated.


Michael said...

about the stroke... I think that the inner monologue of a stroke victim is not interrupted, especially in the short term.

My mother had a stroke. When she became conscious and we were there we talked to her. She was clearly "not on her best game." As she talked she became very frustrated. Within a few minutes, she looked at me and said "I'm aphasic."

I found this pretty compelling evidence that the internal dialog was going on apparently uninterrupted, and it was only when attempting to externalize that that my mother noticed the frustration that this black box which always worked so well as to be transparent was giving her trouble. She observed that and correctly labeled it.

I highly recommend you at least spend the 17 minutes listening/watching Jill Bolte Taylor (a neuroanatomist) who did an extraordinary video on her own stroke which can be found start at If that seems to warrant it, her book "My Stroke of Insight" is extraordinary as a neuroanatomists 1st hand account and interpreation of a stroke.

It sounds like you are doing great stuff out there, I look forward to hearing about!


Jon said...

Hey Mike,

Yeah, that seems to be the norm. Jill's TED talk is one of my favorites--she reports something similar to what you're saying about your mother in her book.

The limited research I've done seems to bear this out too; there's a neuroscientist at Mt. Royal College in Canada named Morin who has done some work on this area--his publications are at he seems to have come to a similar conclusion. The areas for inner and outer speech seem to be different (albeit related).

On a totally separate point, the "transparency" point you made viz. your mother's temporary aphasia points even more strongly to the conclusion that language is best thought of as a cognitive technology; Heidegger writes extensively about how fluency with a tool's use makes the tool "transparent" (i.e. the user no longer thinks of himself as acting on the tool to act on the world, but rather as acting directly on the world), with this transparency only evaporating when something is wrong with the tool. Interesting stuff; thanks for the comment!

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