The New Age of Enlightenment: An Interview With Steven Pinker

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

Steven Pinker is a world-renowned author, experimental psychologist, and cognitive scientist at Harvard University. Considered one of the most influential thinkers in the world, he has written a substantial amount of literature on language, human nature, and the mind, and received multiple awards along with widespread critical acclaim. His calm demeanor and sense of humor are evident in the various books he’s published throughout his illustrious career. He’s also earned a number of teaching awards and acknowledgements by the American Psychological Association, National Academy of Sciences, Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and other notable institutions. He previously taught at Stanford University and MIT.

No stranger to media attention, Pinker has been featured on NPR, BBC Radio, “America’s Morning News,” and “The Colbert Report,” among other major outlets and programs. He is often asked to speak about mental imagery, visual attention, shape recognition, children’s language development, the neural bases of words and grammar, the psychology of innuendo and euphemisms, and various other language phenomena. He has contributed articles to The New York Times, Time, The New Republic, Slate, Nature, and The Atlantic and is often asked to give lectures around the world.

Brain World had the rare opportunity to speak with Dr. Pinker about his work, writing, and life in general.

Brain World: What are the scientific advantages of studying language?

Steven Pinker: First of all, there is the basic scientific question of how does this amazing system of communication work? How is it that you and I can just make noises over the telephone — hundreds of miles apart — and share ideas about complicated abstract subjects? In this case, we are talking about language itself, but we could be talking about physics or sports or reality TV, all just by making noise. I consider language one of the most fascinating and deep scientific questions, especially because it is very closely tied to what it means to be human.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel; we could just take advantage of other people’s trial and error, experience and insight. We could also cooperate: strike deals with people, trade favors, and work toward a common goal. This makes humans very different from other species, and it’s something we wouldn’t be able to do if we didn’t have language. It also has many practical applications, ranging from optimizing computer-search and translation engines to helping people suffering from brain damage.

BW: What do you mean by “Language is an instinct” and a “biological adaptation shaped by natural selection”?

SP: I used it as the title of my book “The Language Instinct” to capture the idea that humans are biologically prepared to acquire language in a way that other species are not. For example, bats have an instinct to sense the world through sonar, and spiders have the instinct to weave webs. Humans are prepared by natural selection to acquire language. The term “natural selection” refers to the shaping of the organism’s biology over evolutionary time.

BW: What type of obstacles do you face studying different kinds of languages?

SP: Well, there are differences in their grammars. Most languages don’t have a written form because writing is a recent invention in the history of our species, probably no more than 5,000 years old, with alphabetic writing being more like 3,500 years old. It was invented a small number of times in human history, and each writing style, in fact, largely depends on where and who it originated from. Writing systems are very loosely tied to the grammar of a language; the same language can be written in different writing systems but nevertheless remain the same.

BW: How is experimental psychology used to study language?

SP: Some psycholinguists collect data based on speech errors that they use as evidence for the process of planning speech. There are experimental psychologists who present sentences to people on computers screens and have them press a key when they are ready for the next one; they look at word-by-word reading times to test the process of text comprehension. There are cognitive neuroscientists who look at language processing while people’s brains are scanned by functional neuroimaging or by magnetoencephalography. There are developmental psycholinguists who study the process of language acquisition in children, either by studying transcripts of their spontaneous speech or by carrying out experiments in which they engaged the children in little games.

BW: When it comes to studying psycholinguistics, is it better to study kids or adults?

SP: It depends on what question you ask, since psycholinguistics embraces all of the questions having to do with psychology of language. One of those questions is how do we learn language? Another is how do we use language? And the third is how do we learn a second language as adults?

BW: How does a deaf person process language differently than those who can hear?

SP: Well, that depends very much on whether they acquired a sign language. Sign languages are mostly processed in the same way as spoken languages. There’s the grammar and order of the words; words are composed of simpler units that have no real meaning. In the case of speech, those are vowels and consonants, but, in the case of signs, they are hand shapes, hand motions, and orientations.

Also, the left hemisphere mostly processes sign language. The parts of the brain that are involved in understanding meaning and syntax are largely overlapping, so if deaf people have a sign language, like American Sign Language, then much of the process is the same. Of course, the process of actually receiving the signal for sounds is different. In sign language, the visual cortex does most of the work, whereas in speech it’s mostly the auditory cortex.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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