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Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Language Is a Window into the Mind

Question: Why study language?

Steven Pinker: What I basically try to do is understand human nature, how the mind works, what makes us tick.  What are the patterns of thought, and emotion and motivation that characterize our species?  I focus on language partly because you can’t make a living out of studying human nature.  It’s just too big a topic.  You’ve got to pick something tractable to study.  For me it has been language, and indeed for much of my career one little corner of language, namely regular and irregular verbs.  And I have my reasons for focusing on that particular corner. I think it sheds light on larger questions about what makes the mind work. But language as a general topic is, I think, a good entrée into human nature for a number of reasons.  It’s distinctively human.  If you’re interested in general in what makes humans unlike mice and birds, language is a pretty good place to start not only because of language itself – the fact that we make noise with our mouths in order to get ideas across, but because language has to be fine-tuned for the kinds of thoughts and the kinds of social relationships that humans want to share and negotiate with one another.  So it’s a window into human nature.  It’s also figured into debates on human nature, perhaps most famously with Chomsky in the late 1950s using language as a way to rehabilitate the idea of innate mental structure, something that was virtually taboo in the 1950s.  He said language was a very good candidate for something that is innately and uniquely human.  So it’s an opening wedge for the idea that important parts of the mind are innately structured.  It’s also a prime case of mental computation.  It’s very hard to make sense of language, of our ability to string words into new combinations, sentences that other people have never heard before but can very quickly understand for the first time without appealing to the idea that we have a mental algorithm, a set of rules, or a recipe or a formula that picks words out of a memory store and strings them together in combinations where the order, as well as the choice of words is meaningful.  So language sheds light on the idea that the mind is a computational system.

Question: Why is language veiled?

 

PINKER: My main preoccupation today is using language as a window into human nature.  I’ve studied language in the past as an example of human computation.  What are the kinds of simple operations of look up in combination that the mind is capable of?  How is language structured?  What I’m turning to now is the interface between language and the rest of the mind – how language can illuminate our social relationships.  For example, why is so much of language use veiled, or indirect, or done via innuendo rather than people blurting out exactly what they mean?  Why do I say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great?” instead of “Give me the salt.”  Why does someone make a sexual overture in terms of, “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” rather than, “Do you want to have sex?”  Why are threats so often veiled you know, “Nice store you got there. Would be a real shame if something happened to it.”  Given that the listener knows exactly what the speaker had in mind, it’s not that anyone is fooled by this charade; but nonetheless some aspect of the social relationship seems to be preserved if the request is slipped in between the lines.  I’m interested in what that says about human relationships, about hypocrisy and taboo.  Also what it says about the kinds of relationships we have like dominance versus intimacy, and communality versus exchange and reciprocity.  Just to be concrete, why do you say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great.”  Well in issuing an imperative, you’re kind of changing the relationship.  You’re turning it into one of dominance.  You’re saying to a friend or to a stranger, “I’m going to act as if I can boss you around and presuppose your compliance.”  You may not want to move the relationship in that direction.  At the same time you want the damn salt. So if you say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great,” it’s such a non sequitor the intelligence of the listener can figure out that it really is a request.  But both of you know that you haven’t actually turned the relationship into a superior-inferior.  I think that’s the key to understanding all of these.  That the sexual overture, the veiled threat, the veiled bribe and so on are ways of preserving one of several kinds of relationships at the same time as we transact the business of life such as requests, such as sexual overtures that might be inconsistent with the relationship that we have with the person.  So it’s in a way of using language as a way of doing social psychology.  
I’m also interested in the effective memory on language.  Why is so much language metaphorical?  Not in terms of poetic ornamentation.  We don’t even realize that they’re metaphorical.  We say something like, “He moved the meeting from 3:00 to 4:00,” we’re using the metaphor of time as a line, as a spacial dimension of a meeting as a thing, and a rescheduling as causing emotion.  If we say, “I have to force myself to be polite,” without realizing it using a metaphor of our natural inclination as inertia; a change in inclination as the application of force; and indeed as conflicting tendencies as different object or people inside our skull being shoved around.  It’s almost hard to find an example of language that’s not metaphorical.  So what does that say about the human mind?  Does it say that we actually can never think abstractly, but deep down we always have little cartoons in our head of little pucks being slid around on the ice, or people shoving each other inside the skull?  Or does it mean that we really do think abstractly, but that deep in the midst of history when the first coiner of expressions like “force so and so to be nice” or “move the meeting” came about, they needed some kind of verbiage.  And so they cooked up a metaphor on the spot.  It’s better than saying ________ if you can say force, because at least some people might have some chance of knowing what you’re talking about.  But ever since we’d been repeating the metaphor dumbly, and we really do think abstractly, that’s an interesting question about what makes us tick inspired by language, and I’d like to get some insight into it.

Steven Pinker: My main preoccupation today is using language as a window into human nature.  I’ve studied language in the past as an example of human computation.  What are the kinds of simple operations of look up in combination that the mind is capable of?  How is language structured?  What I’m turning to now is the interface between language and the rest of the mind – how language can illuminate our social relationships.  For example, why is so much of language use veiled, or indirect, or done via innuendo rather than people blurting out exactly what they mean?  Why do I say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great?” instead of “Give me the salt.”  Why does someone make a sexual overture in terms of, “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” rather than, “Do you want to have sex?”  Why are threats so often veiled you know, “Nice store you got there. Would be a real shame if something happened to it.”  Given that the listener knows exactly what the speaker had in mind, it’s not that anyone is fooled by this charade; but nonetheless some aspect of the social relationship seems to be preserved if the request is slipped in between the lines.  I’m interested in what that says about human relationships, about hypocrisy and taboo.  Also what it says about the kinds of relationships we have like dominance versus intimacy, and communality versus exchange and reciprocity.  Just to be concrete, why do you say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great.”  Well in issuing an imperative, you’re kind of changing the relationship.  You’re turning it into one of dominance.  You’re saying to a friend or to a stranger, “I’m going to act as if I can boss you around and presuppose your compliance.”  You may not want to move the relationship in that direction.  At the same time you want the damn salt. So if you say, “If you could pass the salt that would be great,” it’s such a non sequitor the intelligence of the listener can figure out that it really is a request.  But both of you know that you haven’t actually turned the relationship into a superior-inferior.  I think that’s the key to understanding all of these.  That the sexual overture, the veiled threat, the veiled bribe and so on are ways of preserving one of several kinds of relationships at the same time as we transact the business of life such as requests, such as sexual overtures that might be inconsistent with the relationship that we have with the person.  So it’s in a way of using language as a way of doing social psychology.  

Question: Why do we use metaphors?

Steven Pinker: I’m also interested in the effective memory on language.  Why is so much language metaphorical?  Not in terms of poetic ornamentation.  We don’t even realize that they’re metaphorical.  We say something like, “He moved the meeting from 3:00 to 4:00,” we’re using the metaphor of time as a line, as a spacial dimension of a meeting as a thing, and a rescheduling as causing emotion.  If we say, “I have to force myself to be polite,” without realizing it using a metaphor of our natural inclination as inertia; a change in inclination as the application of force; and indeed as conflicting tendencies as different object or people inside our skull being shoved around.  It’s almost hard to find an example of language that’s not metaphorical.  So what does that say about the human mind?  Does it say that we actually can never think abstractly, but deep down we always have little cartoons in our head of little pucks being slid around on the ice, or people shoving each other inside the skull?  Or does it mean that we really do think abstractly, but that deep in the midst of history when the first coiner of expressions like “force so and so to be nice” or “move the meeting” came about, they needed some kind of verbiage.  And so they cooked up a metaphor on the spot.  It’s better than saying ________ if you can say force, because at least some people might have some chance of knowing what you’re talking about.  But ever since we’d been repeating the metaphor dumbly, and we really do think abstractly, that’s an interesting question about what makes us tick inspired by language, and I’d like to get some insight into it.

Psychologist Steven Pinker studies the interface between language and human computation, which he argues is the key to understanding human nature.

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A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

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  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
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Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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