Cognitive Science: An Introduction/The Language of Thought and Intra-brain Communication
Since the dawn of man, the cognitive phenomenon of thought and reason has on one hand, advanced us into a high-thinking species with extremely elaborate and complex societal, technological, and mental structures. On the other hand, our seemingly extraordinary intelligent species has become more and more perplexed by the mechanisms that have led us to be where we are. The mystery of consciousness has been a largely unanswered question for as long as we have pondered it. Consciousness is described as the state of being aware of oneself; to be aware of sensations such as emotion, volition and thought. Upon centuries of extensive studies and experiments, we have identified that our consciousness is somehow deeply tied with the brain and its mechanisms – the firing of neural pathways in our brain which creates a sensation, memory, or thought that is then digested by the process of perception. This mysterious collaboration between the container of our consciousness that we refer to as the mind and the physical nature of neural, chemical, and biological mechanisms of the brain create vital cognitive processes such as thought. The mind-brain problem presents as follows: how can the collection of physical matter that composes the brain, create or lead to non-physical sensory phenomena such as thought, emotion, and moral values?
The Neurological Basis of Thought: the Default Mode Network (DMN) edit
Determining the neuroscientific basis of thought and cognitive processing is an ongoing and daunting task. It often involves the study of brain activity and identifying regions that play a role in specific types of cognition. It is well known among scientists in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) plays a major role in the orchestration of thoughts and ideas, especially those that are goal-oriented. While this has held true in many regards, more recent studies are beginning to show that the internal communication of the brain and the generation of thoughts originates from a much more vast neural network known as the default mode network (abbreviated as DMN), which has been identified using fMRI. This network recruits many areas of the brain (including the PFC), notably the Posterior Cingulate Cortex (PCC), Inferior Parietal Lobules (IPL), and the hippocampus.
In order to make sense of the role of the DMN and its correlation with thought, it is important to distinguish the different types of thought one experiences, namely spontaneous thought and goal-directed thought. Spontaneous thought should not be interpreted as completely random, but rather the natural flow of thoughts when one is presented with minimal cognitive constraint; this includes dreaming, mind-wandering, and creative thinking. The DMN oscillates at a strong, low frequency and is strongly correlated with one’s focus on their state of mind, including memory retrieval or thinking about the future. It is thought to be most active in passive moments of thought and creative thinking. In terms of the types of thought one experiences on a daily basis, the above studies seem to suggest that the prefrontal cortex is mostly responsible for the orchestration of goal-oriented thoughts, where cognitive constraints are high (such as completing a task); during the more passive moments, where thoughts are of a spontaneous nature, the brain recruits the components of the brain that compose the DMN, not just the prefrontal cortex.
The Language of Thought edit
The concept of the language of thought may seem trivial to most people. Most people imagine that they think in the language that they are most familiar with, or perhaps the one they were first introduced to. While neuroscience can answer many things about the nature and actuality of what a thought is and how it originates in the brain, the experience of thought requires a different approach. Philosophers, linguists, and cognitive scientists alike have come together to explore the concept of the language of thought. In brief, the Language of Thought hypothesis (often abbreviated as LOTH) states that thoughts possess a language-like structure, and that all thinking occurs in some kind of mental language (sometimes referred to as Mentalese).
While this hypothesis remains largely unexplored, there are recent studies which may accredit the theory. One such study looked at five home signers’ ability to communicate with those like them as well as others. A home signer refers to a deaf person with no ability to learn a spoken language and have not been exposed to any standardized method of sign language and thus create their own signing to express their thoughts. The findings of the study were that individuals with no concept of conventional language still grasped fundamental linguistic concepts such as morphology and morphosyntax. These findings suggest that the nature of thought itself, especially in regards to communication may have some linguistic properties. Another study in support of the hypothesis attempted to determine a generalized “word-order” for the construction of thoughts. The study looked at the speed at which subjects would recall the verb, subject and agent of simple statements. The study found that in general, the subject was determined the quickest, whilst the verb took the longest to recall. This suggests that the language of thought, in general, tends to operate and is constructed in a subject-object-verb structure.
The concept of thought and the underlying connections between the mind and brain can be studied from several different approaches. Neurologically, it seems that consciousness of thought and thought itself stem from several regions in the brain that work harmoniously in the default mode network that allow us to engage in different types of thought. From a linguistic and philosophical perspective, studies have shown that our experience of thought may be less abstract and more structured, possessing language-like features that exist despite the knowledge of a standardized form of communication. There is still much to uncover about the way our mind and brain communicate and the underlying connection between them. Whether studying the brain and the creation of thought and emotion from a neurological and biological standpoint, or studying the linguistic and philosophical structure of the thoughts we produce - one cannot help but wonder where this connection lies. While the mind-brain problem remains a mystery, the discoveries regarding the way we operate from a wide range of fields is uncovering more and more every day about the nature of consciousness and thought.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2020). “Consciousness”.
- Alegre, A., & Zumaeta, P. (2015). Relationship between mind and brain: A proposal of solution based on forms of intra- and extra-individual negentropy. Propósitos y Representaciones, 3 (1), 265-311.
- Miller, E. K., Freedman, D. J., & Wallis, J. D. (2002). The prefrontal cortex: Categories, concepts and cognition. In Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
- Cieri, F., & Esposito, R. (2019). Psychoanalysis and neuroscience: The bridge between mind and brain. Frontiers in Psychology.
- Christoff, K., Irving, Z. C., Fox, K. C. R., Spreng, R. N., & Andrews-Hanna, J. R. (2016). Mind-wandering as spontaneous thought: A dynamic framework. Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
- Ekhtiari, H., Nasseri, P., Yavari, F., Mokri, A., & Monterosso, J. (2016). Neuroscience of drug craving for addiction medicine: From circuits to therapies. In Progress in Brain Research.
- Buckner, R. L. (2013). The brain’s default network: Origins and implications for the study of psychosis. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience.
- Rescorla, M. (2019) The Language of Thought Hypothesis. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
- Coppola, M., & Brentari, D. (2014). From iconic handshapes to grammatical contrasts: Longitudinal evidence from a child homesigner. Frontiers in Psychology.
- Maruits, L. (2011). Representation, information theory, and basic word order. University of Adelaide.