One simple insight has driven much of the scientific study of how the structure and function of the brain results in thought and language:
The embodied approach entails several crucial questions. How much, and in exactly what ways, are thought and language products of our bodies? How, exactly, does our embodied nature shape the way we think and communicate?
Here are some of the findings discussed in the course of this book:
• Concrete words and concepts directly label embodied experience. Think of such short words in English as knee, kick, ask, red, want, sad.
• Spatial relations, for example, concepts expressed by words such as in, through, above, and around, can be seen as derived from specialised circuitry in the visual system: topographic maps of the visual field, orientation-sensitive cells.
• What is technically called „aspect“ in linguistics - the way we conceptualise the structure of events, reason about events, and express events in language - appears to stem from the neural structure of our system of motor control.
• Abstract thought grows out of concrete embodied experiences, typically sensorimotor experiences. Much of abstract thought makes use of reasoning based on the underlying embodied experience.
• Our systems of abstract and metaphorical thought and language arise from everyday experiences and the basic neural learning mechanism.
• Grammar consists of neural circuitry pairing embodied concepts with sound or sign. Grammar is not a separate faculty, but depends on embodied conceptual and phonological systems.
• Children first learn grammar by pairing sound combinations with familiar experiences.
Thought and language are thus very strongly shaped by the nature of our bodies, our brains, and our experience functioning in the everyday world.
What this means is that any approach to an embodied theory of language requires mechanisms of neural computation used to other purposes and adapted to thought and language - detailed structures and the visual system, the motor system, and basic neural learning mechanisms.
This has profound consequences:
• Thought (including abstract thought) and language make use of important brain structures found in other mammals. Most of the brain mechanisms used in thought and language are not unique to human beings.
• Thought and language neural systems. They work by neural computation, not formal symbol manipulation. The differences between these modes of computation and why they matter are examined as we go along.
• Thought and language are not disembodied symbol systems that happen to be realised in the human brain through its computation properties. Instead, thought and language are inherently embodied. They reflect the structure of human bodies and have the inherent properties of neural systems as well as the external physical and social environment.
The consequences of these findings for philosophy, politics, mathematics, and linguistics have been described elsewhere and repriced in chapter 27. This book focuses on the scientific foundations of neural computation and embodied language and their consequences for how we think about our societies and ourselves.
The integrated, multimodal nature of language
Because language is complex, linguists have traditionally broken its study artificially into levels or modules given names such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, the lexicon, semantics, discourse, and pragmatics. Most linguists specialise in the study of just one level or at the border between two adjacent and subfields. Such focused studies have told us a great deal about language and are still the norm.
However, real language is embodied, integrated, and multimodal. When your doctor asks you to lift your leg, your understanding involves a rich interaction among many neural systems. There is systematic structure to how all these components fit together to constitute language. The rules of patterns of language are called constructions.
Constructions integrate different facets of language - for example, phonology, pragmatics, semantics, and syntax. The request construction might specify a grammatical form, and intonation pattern, pragmatic constraints, and the intended meaning.
This integrated, multifaceted nature of language is hard to express and traditional theories, which focus on the separate levels and sometimes view each level as autonomous. But constructions can provide a natural description of the links between form and meaning that characterise the neural circuitry underlying real human language. They offer a high-level computational description of a neural theory of language (NTL).
An NTL does more than just provide a neural implementation of standard theories of thought and language. Rather it permits a more accurate and full account of our thoughts and language and the way they fit together. In particular, it allows the embodied and neural character of thought and language to take centre stage. The neural theory of language described in this book helps us characterise the integrated, embodied nature of language.