Language

Action, cognition and Language                                                                                                                                          Most of the papers written on the subject of humor concentrate on the nature of verbal humor, and its social and medical effects. Not all humorous events entail language, but if we are to fathom how language in a particular format evokes laughter, we must first grasp the connection between language and the reality we believe it conveys.

If our cognitive systems, in concert with our emotive systems, are to act as efficient agents of our survival they must, for most of the time, convey reality with a fairly high degree of accuracy. Our ability to consider situations and plan future actions demands that reality is somehow simulated in the brain, which, during our evolutionary history, would have entailed the development of a system that utilized processes that facilitated meaningful movements, such as body maps and stored sequences of muscular contractions (Cruse, 2003).
Like a flight simulator, which never leaves the ground, the brain is able to simulate, without actually instigating action, and so is able to practice, plan and invent. Language represents a natural progression as it is an extension of this initial exaptation. The development of language did not require a completely new system of neural processes as it arose from the association of sounds with aspects of the world that continued to exist in a simulated form even in their absence. In the beginning, language may have described the world in metaphorical terms, but finally, when, through feedback, our ability to conceptualize reached the point where we could contemplate language itself in terms of cognition, we developed logical thought by a further separation of cognition and emotion.

Language, even in technological societies, lies closer to that of the hunter-gatherer than the logician, and as Pinker (1997) has pointed out, we use space and motion as a metaphor for abstract ideas, even when describing things that are static, as in the sentence, "The bruise went from dark red to black". This is not surprising as language conjures, and is conjured by, a simulation of a reality defined by movement and change. Language has meaning on both semantic and emotional levels. Different situations have different emotional flavors and are mapped in terms of potential and appropriate action. Verbal communications are mapped in a similar manner, the emotional flavor changing in response to the ideas expressed, like an appropriate musical backing to the lyrics of a song.

Specification is relatively new development in the evolution of cognitive systems and is a function of language. How new is demonstrated by our continuing use of metaphor, and more specifically by words such as "glas" in Welsh, which covers shades of green, blue and gray. There is a word in Japanese that is used in a similar fashion, "aoi" , which means green, blue or pale -presumably because vegetation and the sky are the continuous backdrop from which highly colored flowers, birds and insects stand out. Some New Guinea Highland languages have terms for only black and white. The separation of colors from contexts is obviously relatively new, and such distinctions have their neural correlates in the differences in the way information is processed in the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The history of both language and science is the history of specification, but on an organismal level, below the neural systems that support language and culture, the brain functions within broad contexts and emotionally maps general forms into which specific instances fall. ( Loss is the general form, a child losing a toy to another child, or the death of a spouse, are specifics.)

The relationship between specification and metaphor is interesting as it has a bearing on certain laughter evoking events. The statements below are from the Metaphysics of Aristotle. .

The same attribute cannot belong and not belong to the same thing at the same time and in the same respect.

Not to have one meaning is to have no meaning.

It is impossible for anyone to believe the same thing to be and not to be.

By writing these words, Aristotle built a conceptual wall between the "civilized" world, in which precise thinking was favored, and that of the hunter-gatherers, where distinction dissolving and metaphorical thought prevailed.

I do not view the use of metaphor as a literary device so much as a facet of brain function. Before specification and scientific analysis, that probed beneath the surface of things, classification functioned on a very superficial level. Form was paramount, and still is to young children, who will happily declare a large pink kangaroo to be a mouse. I believe, for the hominid brain, if two things looked the same they were the same and with the advent of language they were given the same name. In the Yaghan language of Patagonia, sleet has a name meaning fish scales, and even in western technological societies we cannot resist using metaphorical slang, as we do when we call diamonds "ice". This propensity of our brains to bracket together objects that are completely different, except for appearance, can cause conflict and the subsequent disinhibition of laughter.

One day, while I was sitting in our living room, my wife walked past with a handbag over her shoulder. On the bottom of the bag there were four prominent, rounded plastic studs, one at each corner. I burst into laughter, as the image immediately brought to mind a young heifer's udder. On another occasion I witnessed the behavior of a newscaster, on Australian television, who was unable to control his laughter because he could not get the vision of a cockerel out of his head when a picture of a boy with a bright red Mohican haircut appeared on the screen.

As we will see, in the final section of this essay, the processing of language - specifically the language of jokes - permeates all the main regions of the brain. This is not surprising as language represents our apprehension of the world encoded in sonic and symbolic form. What does surprise is that the higher centers of the brain are not the only areas associated with the processing of language, but the much older, lower centers as well.

The true study of language, in the contexts of laughter and humor, is not the study of words and sentences but a study of their neural correlates. The laughter process existed before the joke and predetermined the form of the joke, and the cognitive and emotive correlates of words existed before words and initially determined the general form of language. There is no need for some inherent universal grammar to explain the form of language, as language, on a basic level, merely mirrors a simulative appreciation of reality. 

Only when we consider the first verbal utterances of our ancestors, and not the subsequent learning and use of those utterances, do we fully appreciate that the "meaning" of words are inherent in the cognitive and emotive systems of preverbal humans. On an organismal level, we apprehend our external and internal worlds in a similar manner to the apes.We have an appreciation of the sequences of events, objects, actions, the interplay of objects, the interplay of objects with ourselves, and our emotional responses to objects and events. Our ancestors associated paticular utterances with objects and actions and the feelings that these evoked, and after doing so often enough, while perceiving aspects of the environment, the utterances would then elicit both their simulated reality and concomitant emotions even in their absence. Language evokes what could be viewed as a muted form of reality and all the areas of the brain respond to it in a similar, but muted, manner as they would to perceived reality. This means that even the older brain areas are active when we listen to language. Two such areas are the hippocampus and rhinal cortex. However, I do not believe that these areas take part in some form of translation of language but deal with memory and sequencing as they would if responding to an actual event.

The meaning of a word cannot be found in a dictionary, you can only find other words, which for you might have meaning. Something can be said to have meaning for an individual if there is a neural system in place ( whether innate or learned ) that can process the information it contains or set in train appropriate responses. The brain does not "understand" language; words merely evoke their cognitive and emotive correlates. The brains of children have to refine the cognitive and emotive correlates of a word to the degree that these closely match those of the preceding generation, before they can be said to have truly "understood" it.

Language evolved on the back of a highly developed cognitive system working in concert with an emotive system that interpreted information in terms of appropriate action. There is no reason to assume that the basic processes that triggered staccato vocalization in our pre-verbal, hominid ancestors are not the same processes that trigger laughter in modern Homo sapiens. If, as suggested, laughter is a form of displacement activity, that in the past was induced by any situation that involved motivational conflict, then it is highly probable that the specifics of jokes are also unimportant as far as the laughter process is concerned. In many cases it is not the language of the joke that is important but the way the mechanism of the joke evokes emotions and juxtapositions conflicting emotive subcontexts on a much lower, organismal level.

With a little rewording, almost all of the authoritative material ever published on the topic of humor can be fitted into a coherent theory. Without a unifying aspect operating below the level of language, writers have been free to highlight what they see as the most important characteristic of humor and put this forward as representing its true essence. The problem has been that the specificity that language imposes on our thought processes, and is required for intercourse in the cultural milieu, is not applicable at the deeper levels of neural processing. It would be grossly inefficient to have a neurophysiological system that reacted to specific situations, and on an organismal level our brains pay close attention to only two broad categories, situations that help and situations that harm; leading to three basic responses, approach, avoidance and freezing. Human lives are characterized by though, language and the complex social milieu that these cognitive and communicative phenomena have brought about. We tend to forget that although thought may guide our actions, it is action, not thought, that is essential to our survival. The complexity imposed by the specificity of language can be seen as being funneled down to the deep, emotive, organismal level, where everything is interpreted in terms of motivation and potential action.

We make a grave mistake when, for want of knowledge, precise definitions and an appropriate lexicon, we parade intellectual analyses as the neural processes behind certain phenomena. This, of course, is unavoidable, but we must be aware that the "story" of what we believe is taking place, couched in terms used in everyday cultural intercourse - outside coherent space/time frames and unrelated to other pertinent fields of enquiry - may be little more than an application of the presuppositions and biases required to validate existence within a cultural milieu. The cultural does not necessarily map onto the organismal.


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