Language affects thought—in just half the brain, study finds
Special to World Science
Scientists and philosophers have wondered whether each person’s language determines, to some extent, how he or she sees the world.
“Every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others,” wrote the 20th-century
American linguist Benjamin Whorf. And through language, he added, a person “analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his
Whorf famously argued that Eskimos have 200 words for snow, indicating
that they think differently about the substance than do, say,
English-speakers. Other scientists have disputed that the word count is that high, or that it really reflects different ways of thinking.
Whorf’s whole theory remains intensely debated.
But a new study purports to provide clarification.
Researchers found that Whorf was correct—but only for the left half of the brain, which, aptly enough, handles language.
“Previous studies addressing the possible influence of language on perception have tended to look for a simple yes or no answer to the question. Our findings suggest a more complex picture,” the researchers wrote, in this week’s early online edition of the research journal
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A well-studied case of how language might filter perceptions is in the realm of
color. Most languages, unlike English, have one word for both blue and green.
Proponents of the Whorf hypothesis argue that speakers of such languages
actually see less difference between blue and green than
English-speakers do, because the language doesn’t mark the distinction.
The researchers, Aubrey L. Gilbert of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues studied this issue, examining whether people might see this distinction differently depending on which half of their brain they use.
Volunteers were presented with various shades of blue and one green, all chosen to be close to what people generally consider the blue-green “boundary,” so that they were hard to tell apart.
The researchers found that language influenced people’s perceptions only if the colors were in their right visual field, which the left half of the brain controls. In these cases, they found, the brain tends to sharpen the distinctions between “blue” and “green,” while blurring the differences between shades that fall under the same category. This is what one would expect to happen if language were influencing the perception process, they noted.
Moreover, the differences between the left- and right- brain performance was weakened if the participants simultaneously performed a task that engaged word skills, the researchers found. Presumably, they added, this happened because this second task distracted the brain’s language centers so that they were no longer available to contaminate the color naming test performance.
If the volunteers performed a different distractor task, not involving words, the normal pattern of left- and right- brain differences in color naming returned.
“It appears that people view the right (but not the left) half of their visual world through the lens of their native language,” the researchers wrote, “providing an unexpected resolution to the language- and-thought debate.”
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