Plastic brains and how we see colours might be the clue to how the understanding of emotions can vary from person-to-person, culture-to-culture.
Recently, I read two very interesting and thought-provoking books: Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass and Bruce E. Wexler’s Brain and Culture. By taking these two works together, I think hints at how the nature/nurture question in Emotion research can be solved by the way we learn to understand the world as children through language.
More than Words
Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, follows a linguistic Alice through a wonderland of cultural construction. Split into two parts, it begins by taking us through ‘the language mirror’ into the rather troubled relationship between colours and the words we use to describe them.
As it turns out, the languages you speak can change how you understand colour. In some languages — like Russian for example — light blue and dark blue are two different colours. Other languages don’t differentiate black and blue, or green and yellow. The people who speak these languages can see that these are different shades of colour, they just group different bits of the visible light spectrum in different ways.
British Prime Minster William Gladstone’s was one of the first people to notice that different language speakers treat colours differently. In a book he wrote about Greek poet Homer, Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, noticed the poet’s rather odd use of colours. Both Homer’s Iliad and his Odyssey are filled with wine-soaked seas, black skies and violet sheep. That different people talk about colours differently is not a new observation.
Deutscher noticed something that Gladstone did not. He argues that as societies become more complex, the more labels for colours we find. The reason for this, Deutscher thinks, is because simple cultures don’t need complicated words. For example, if you live in a jungle, the only useful words for colours might be ‘green’ and ‘brown’ for the trees, ‘red’ and ‘yellow’ for ripeness, and perhaps ‘white’ for light and ‘black’ for dark. Therefore, other colours aren’t needed. With this set, you can describe the sky as a darkened green, or a lightened form of black. Thee word ‘blue’ is not needed.
Deutscher points out that children find colour words very difficult to learn; they are often able to identify square or triangular shapes long before a yellow or red ones. Understanding colours does not seem to be innate, even if seeing them is.
There is a worrying idea that goes along with Deutscher’s argument. Something called the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. To cut a long story short, this hypothesis suggests that our understanding of the world is developed through language, and that we cannot understand anything for which our language lacks the words. This means that people with different languages live in entirely other worlds from each other: you actually see the world differently depending on what language you speak.
The Wharf-Sapir hypothesis came from a study of the ‘Hopi’ people by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s, who in turn based his ideas on previous work by Edward Sapir (among others). Whorf’s study suggested that the Hopi language had ‘no words, grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call “time”, or to past, present, or future’ and that as a result the Hopi ‘has no general notion or intuition of time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at an equal rate’. According to Whorf, the Hopi saw the world differently to English speakers; so differently that it’s impossible for us to grasp their understanding, or rather lack of understanding, of time.
Whorf’s hypothesis is flawed for a number of reasons. One of the most famous reasons comes from philosopher Donald Davidson who in ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’ and it’s very simple. In the article, Davidson suggested that the ‘triangulation’ — the ability for different people to point to a the same thing and agree what it is — makes translation of anything possible.
Deutscher,too, has no time for Whorf. For example, he points out that English speakers are quite capable of understanding what is meant by taking joy from another’s misfortune, with or without the word schadenfreude.
There is another problem with Whorf’s hypothesis, however. Whorf didn’t really study the Hopi language in the round. He studied the Hopi language as described to him by a member of the Hopi he knew who lived locally. When anthropological linguist Ekkehart Malotki eventually did a proper study of the Hopi in the early 1980s, it led to the a page of his book becoming one of the greatest examples of academic pwnage in history.
Turn page vii of the introduction to Malotki’s book Hopi Time, and you’ll find a virtually blank page with the words:
“After a long and careful study and analysis, the Hopi language is seen to contain no words, grammatical forms, constructions, or expressions that refer directly to what we call ‘time’.” (Benjamin Lee Whorf ‘An American Indian Model of the Universe’, 1936)
pu’ antsa pay qavongvaqw pay su’its talavay kuyvansat, pàasatham pu’ pan piw maanat taatayna [Then indeed, the following day, quite early in the morning at the hour when people pray to the sun, around that time then, he woke up the girl again] (Ekkehart Maltoki, Hopi Field Notes, 1980)
Ouch indeed. Would you like more cream for your burn, Dr Whorf?
Deutscher doesn’t think that the idea of language affecting a worldview should be dismissed altogether, though. Instead, he gives the example of groups who use geographical centres for direction — north, east, south, and west — rather than egocentric ones — such as left and right — as evidence for what he calls the ‘Boas-Jokobson Principle.’ He names this after, linguists Franz Boas and Roman Jakobson from whom Deutscher drew the idea.
Deutscher’s Boas-Jokobson Principle suggests that not all language can change a worldview, but the bits of language that must be expressed a certain can. For example, if an English person were asked who they were going away this weekend, they could answer without giving away the gender of the person they are going away with; in many languages where nouns and adjectives are gendered — such as French — it wouldn’t be so easy.
Deutscher, whose first language is Modern Hebrew, points out that Hebrew has one word for both hand and arm, so they ‘think’ of the hand and arm as one unit as they have no other choice. This does not mean that they cannot understand that there might be a boundary, anymore than an English person might be unable to understand that an apple is masculine to a German. According to Deustcher, these forced words do affect his understanding of secondary languages at a deep level, no matter how fluent he becomes in those secondary languages.
Coming back to colours, Deutscher reminds us that what we see is not what is real. Humans, contrary to popular belief, do not see with their eyes but with the workings of their occipital lobes. Colours and objects are filtered, distorted, and tweaked to fit the patterns our mind has come to expect through a combination of billions of years of evolution, culture, upbringing, and language.
So it’s possible that people really do see the sky as grue, or blueack. Russians see the dark sea as one colour and the bright sky as another and find it odd that we don’t. It also means that if children learn how to recognise where North, South, East and West are at all times from an early age, it becomes as natural a part of their universe as left and right.
The second book, Bruce E. Wexler Brain and Culture, turns around a simple premise: the human brain is plastic, able to mould itself not only around evolved innate patterns, but also through external input. This is especially true during childhood and adolescence, as it is in this period that our neuronal structures are particularly plastic, and so the external influences of our youths shape the ways we view the world for the rest of our lives.
Each generation has a different developmental experience, as influences come not only from parenting but also beyond — extended family, friends, the TV, and so on. Each generation then attempts to shape the environment based on the mental world they created develop while they were young. As Wrexler explains, it is the ‘ability to shape the environment that in turn shapes our brains that has allowed human adaptability and capability to develop at a much faster rate than is possible through alteration of the genetic code itself’.
In short, brains have evolved to be shaped by society and culture.
Wrexler’s is a biocultural approach to the nature/nurture debate; a biological explanation for what cultural psychologists call ‘mutual constitution’: the feedback and influence on brain and behavior caused equally by psychology, society, and culture.
So how does it work?
Well, firstly, as children, our brains are pretty plastic — not in the sense that they are made from oil and you can wrap a sandwich in them but in the sense that they can be moulded and remoulded. In the adult brain, the plasticity continues but slows down; this is why at Latin class I still bang my head on the table over simple words like mox, while my younger cohorts take to it like a rubber duck to soapy bath water. The important point is that young plastic brains are pretty mouldable.
Wexler identifies two main ways that he thinks this moulding happens: ‘imitation’, and ‘internalization and identification’. Imitation is just that, copying others either by doing things that help us reach our goals — imitation of ends — or by copying actions that help us judge someone or something — imitation of values.
The best way I can think to explain this is with a common or garden adolescent. Lets call her ‘Julie’ and her friend ‘Helen’ to protect the innocent.
Julie comes home one day and says, “Dad, I want to be a vegan?”
Dad looks at her with a mixture of confusion and respect, and replies: “okay, why?”
“Because Helen became a vegan” says Julie “and she’s dropped two dress sizes [imitation of ends].”
“I see,” answers Dad, “is that really the best reason to become a vegan?”
“Well, I don’t want to be fat cus Helen says that fat people are disgusting [imitation of values]”.
“If Helen told you to jump of a cliff, would you do it?” asks dad.
(and so on…)
The other way Wexler thinks the the brain is shaped is through ‘Internalization and Identification’. This is how a child learns to understand feelings, attitudes, beliefs, worldviews, and so on, from those around them. They internalise beliefs and identify with holders of beliefs that seem to help them in some way. Be that fitting in, doing better at sport, or playing with the best toys.
What is particularly striking to Wrexler is how divergent people have all hit upon something similar ideas. The idea that the adult seems to be created by the child is nothing new: a famous supposedly 17th century supposedly Jesuit quote is “Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man.”
Different branches of psychology have their own frameworks for this Jesuit idea. Freud’s psychoanalytic ‘assimilation of one ego to another one’; behavioral psychology’s observations of the greater susceptibility of children to forms of conditioning; cognitive psychology’s accelerated ‘schemata’ (patterns of thought and behavior) development; anthropology’s theories of ‘learning through play’; even observations of the workings of ‘memes’ from psychologists like Susan Blackmore.
What does this mean for language? Wrexler points out that ‘language itself is only realized through imitation’. Areas of the brain are linked to understanding and speech, such as Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, but if these areas are damaged in children, their brains are plastic enough to find other ways to understand language in another area.
Bringing these two books together, we have a scenario in which language is developed alongside our propsitional attitudes (beliefs, desires, doubts — in short the building blocks of a worldview) and is, in fact the best way in which propositional attitudes can be articulated one to another. If our language does not have a word for blue, it is difficult for us to understand the concept of blue just as English speakers cannot conceive of light and dark blue as separate entities, but Russian speakers can. Language is the tool by which our parents shaped our plastic neurons, and while we can understand other linguistic schemes, our own primary language will remain embedded in our sociocultural cores.
And now, some emotions.
What if emotions are similar? What if the neurochemicals and other complex reactions within our brains and bodies are innate and there are universal feelings that are felt by everybody, just as every healthy eye will see light with a wavelength of 462nm and a frequency of 645Thz (blue). These feelings, or ‘affects’, just like the colours, are evolved responses, helping us to mate, remain in groups, avoid danger etc. But, we can only understand them according the words our cultures provides us with during childhood.
If a culture wants to call the neurochemical release that creates a need to run away by its own discrete term, say, flight, and another emotion for the need to defend yourself caused by similar sensations, say, fight, while another culture ties these similar chemical releases to both fleeing and preparedness for fighting, like the English fear, then they are different because the understandings are different. The English would have the emotional equivalent of grue, while our hypothetical (also known as a 17th-century English speaker) would have green and blue. This doesn’t mean that the light that causes grue, green, or blue doesn’t exist universally, but nor does it mean that grue, green, or blue are universal. They are understood by the cultures in the only they way they can; through the pathways created by the developmental of language.
This is a way to end the nature/nurture, psychology/culture dichotomy facing emotion research, and in fact suggests an anthropological approach to studying emotions in history; using comparative and ethnographic techniques to see if, say, 15th century love and modern love occupy the same place in the emotional spectrum and, if not, what that can tell us about people and emotions, then and now.
As usual, the answer to the nature/nurture question might be “yes”.