Thursday, August 26, 2010

Do we need language to think?

A couple of weeks ago WNYC's outstanding Radio Lab program did a show roughly on this topic, called "Words", which I finally caught via the podcast today during my afternoon walk. I've always wondered this myself…if we didn't have language and words, how would thought work? When I form thoughts, such as, "What should I have for lunch?" am I really thinking those words, or is the thought just a flash of concepts, translated into words if I'm feeling especially aware of what's happening up in my brain folds at that moment? Thoughts feel, or perhaps sound, like strings of words in my head—sentences, whole or fragmented or interrupted, but recognizable as sentences. And according to the stories on the "Words" episode of Radio Lab, science seems to agree. The episode also talks about something that strikes fear in the hearts of myself and my fellow writers—what would happen if we lost our words? One segment of the show features a woman to whom that actually happens, thanks to a freak medical crisis. I won't spoil the details for you… Roughly though, it turns out that without language, we're all just rats in a white rectangular room with one blue wall, searching for biscuits. Yeah…you'll have to listen if you want that analogy to make sense. And I urge you to listen right here if you haven't heard it yet:

Also, check out the Radio Lab website for more info about his episode and tons of others, all fascinating, all available to stream or download for free. You can also subscribe to the Radio Lab podcast via iTunes.

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