Exploring the Thought Bubble

Ray Jackendoff looks through the lens of linguistics to discover what’s going on in our heads as we think and speak
“The form of the thought itself is not conscious, not available to introspection,” Ray Jackendoff says. Instead, “we experience our thought through the pronunciation of words that are associated with the thought.” Illustration: iStock
June 4, 2012

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We’re all rational beings, right? When we talk, or write or make decisions, we pretty much assume that what we’re doing has been clearly thought out. But is that really true?

Ray Jackendoff sets out to explore the notion of our rationality in his new book, A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning (Oxford University Press). Instead of focusing on the psychology of how we process information, as writers such as Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Kahneman have in recent years, Jackendoff peers through the lens of linguistics, using language to gain insight into the workings of the mind. His explorations draw him far afield into fundamental questions about visual experience, free will, consciousness and even music, art and education.

When we’re thinking, when we’re converting our thoughts to speech and when we’re understanding what other people say, what happens in our heads is far more complex than we realize, says Jackendoff, the Seth Merrin Professor of Philosophy and co-director of Tufts’ Center for Cognitive Studies. We often assume that our “thinking” consists of internal conversations, using wordssentences in our heads. But that’s not so.

“The form of the thought itself is not conscious, not available to introspection,” Jackendoff says. His explanation for those sentences in our heads is that “we experience our thought through the pronunciation of words that are associated with the thought.”

In the book, written for a general audience as well as experts—there are more jokes than footnotes—Jackendoff takes readers on a grand tour of the core ideas in linguistics, the study of human language. That means starting with the most basic ideas, such as how we translate sounds into meaning. “All there is out in the world are sound waves,” Jackendoff writes. “It’s an incredible computational feat for the brain to understand these waves as speech sounds and words.”

He peppers the text with real-world examples that highlight the gap between the way we believe we process our thoughts and what actually happens.

For example, read these two sentences:

Joe jumped until the bell rang.
Joe jumped when the bell rang.

In the first case, it’s clear that Joe had been jumping repeatedly, and in the second that he only jumped once. It’s the same word, jump, but with very different meanings. How exactly did you know the difference, and know it almost instantly?

"The problem we face is how to balance intuition and rationality," says Ray Jackendoff. Photo: Alonso NicholsOr take what linguists call “reference transfer” when we use the name of one thing to talk about something else. Jackendoff cites these examples: Plato is up there on the top shelf, next to Wittgenstein. Or, one waitress talking to another: The ham sandwich in the corner wants some coffee. We know intuitively that the first sentence is about a book, not Plato in the flesh. And the sandwich in the second sentence is the customer eating one.

Behind our conscious thought is a much more complex system at work, automatically making sense of words and building meaning. How does the mind perform all these feats? In some sense, it’s beyond us to directly experience how we do it, because that kind of thinking is inaccessible to ordinary introspection. It’s what Jackendoff calls intuitive thinking—and it’s a large chunk of what our minds do every waking moment.

“My position is that we should respect intuitive thought,” says Jackendoff. “The problem we face is how to balance intuition and rationality. I don’t know how that’s to be done, but I think a lot of philosophy could grow out of this question.”

Some psychologists, such as Kahneman, refer to System 1 and System 2: the automatic mind and the rational mind. They and other experts have said we should be wary of what our automatic thinking comes up with. They caution that we may be making judgments without rational thought, even though we often don’t realize it.

But Jackendoff remains focused on seeking a happy medium between intuition and rationality. “We should just recognize the importance of finding the appropriate balance between the two,” he writes, “which may differ from problem to problem and from moment to moment. And finding this balance may itself take a combination of reasoning and hunches.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.