Can You Upgrade the Nature of Your Thought?

By on February 22, 2016

Ever wondered how deaf people think? If you’re born deaf and you never learn what speechfast brain sounds like, how do you create an inner monologue?

The answer apparently is that deaf people think in sign language. That is to say that they visualize (feel more than see) what it would be like to sign what they are communicating internally. In one study it was shown that ‘inner signing’ also caused the activation of inferior frontal cortex (1), which is the same as it is for speaking people.

The interesting question though, is whether this can greatly affect thought in any way. Are certain sentences ‘quicker’ to sign than they are to sound out? Could that help you to reason faster?

And can a larger vocabulary help you to understand a greater number of concepts?

If you think in a particular language and use this language to manipulate thoughts, then it follows that changing the language you think in could alter your understanding of that information. As we’ll see, this may be the case to some extent – but things also get considerably more complicated than that…

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Does Language Change Thought

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis describes the basic theory that our chosen language shapes the way we think. The argument is that seeing as we use language during thought (hence our inner monologue), it probably follows that our language might also shape our thought. This is also sometimes referred to as ‘linguistic determinism’ and there have been many attempts by psychologists to either prove or disprove this theory. (Fun fact, the term ‘Sapir-Whorf’ is actually a misnomer as neither of the psychologists referenced actually put forward the idea!)

One example of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in action is the way in which our language impacts on our ability to perceive colour. That is to say that some studies have found that our ability to perceive the differences between shades of colour is influenced strongly by our ability to name them. Cultures with fewer colour terms literally can’t see the difference between some hues. Or in other words, if you have spent some time picking out wallpaper with your significant other, you might actually be able to see the distinctions between tan, beige and buttermilk…

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It’s not just that you now know they have names – it’s that those names make the colours a separate entity in your mind’s eye. Of course we could explain this as simple plasticity and that practice has enabled the differentiation of more shades of colour. But perhaps it is the existence of these labels that allows for said practice.

Not everyone agrees with this though. Some studies suggest that differences in colour perception are superficial; and that there is an underlying universal logic to our colour definitions based on our biology(2). Indeed, psychologists as far back as Chomsky have speculated that language might be the result of underlying mechanisms of the brain and that we all have an innate ability to ‘develop’ language based on certain fundamental rules. Maybe language can’t entirely alter the way we think because fundamentally, all language is the same?

Part of the problem is the difficulty in testing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It is incredibly difficult to isolate the impact of language versus lifestyle, culture and developmental differences.

But opportunities do arise. One particularly interesting current area of research for instance looks at a new Nicaraguan Sign Language or ‘NSL’. The language developed naturally as a result of new special education schools in the region, giving deaf students the first opportunity to spend time together in large groups and to develop a way to communicate between themselves. You can learn more about it in this fascinating post.

Because NSL is currently still in development, it’s actually possible for studies to compare the development of children with and without certain phrases and words in their vocabulary. For instance, signs for directions (left, right, over) have only been introduced more recently, which means that in the 1970s, children using the language could only abstractly describe the location of objects unless they were able to point to them. Studies comparing subjects from the 70s and 80s have shown that the ability to say things like left and right actually improves the ability to conceptualize those ideas and thereby perform better in tests of spatial reasoning and navigation (3).

It seems that at least some cognitive abilities are dependent to some degree on our use of language.

The question then becomes: are there more relational terms that we’re missing?

And what other words could be added to our vocabulary to help with other skills?

There’s also some incidental evidence for bilingualists thinking differently in different languages. I found this quote on a forum recently:

“Anecdotal: I speak two languages fluently, Korean and English, and I can think in either language. They give me very different style of thinking abilities. I prefer thinking in English, because I become more logical (it is my second-ish language).”

Loglan – The Logical Language

One guy, Dr. James Cooke Brown, decided to take this idea and run with it – inventing his own ‘constructed language’ that he hoped could influence the way people thought. As an invented language, the aim was to create something with more consistent rules and a more logical structure that could thereby lead to more efficient thinking.

Does it work? Unfortunately, I’m not certain that there have been any studies to confirm either way (not for lack of looking). Of course it takes a lot of work to learn a new language to the point that you could accurately study how it affects cognitive abilities, while the lingering effects of the older language might also cause difficulties with such research.

What’s more is that Brown copyrighted his language and prevented others from improving upon his work. Fortunately, with the internet being the internet, another group decided to create their own language heavily influenced by Loglan called Lojban. There are forums online where people speak Lojban freely and it’s in much wider use. Interestingly, it has also been shown that Lojban can be ‘translated’ into computer code with relative ease. Could you think in programming language? I’d actually argue that sometimes I do when I’m working on a difficult coding problem. However, I can’t imagine Java being more efficient for thinking about how to act in the real world…

If you want to check it out, then you can do so here.

Again though, there are no studies demonstrating whether Lojban speakers actually do benefit from any improvements in their ability to grasp and manipulate concepts. Again, the amount of work it would take to adopt the language is probably too prohibitive.

Thinking Faster

As we’ll see in subsequent chapters, some aspects of thought actually don’t use language at all. And as we’ve seen in the previous chapter, language can probably only affect logic in particular domains.

But maybe what would be possible, would be to think a little quicker by having to sound out fewer syllables when mulling over topics. I can’t find the study for the life of me, but I remember reading about languages that used fewer syllables for their numbers and how this allowed them to perform sums more quickly because they had less to ‘word out’.

Could you respond quicker in conversation if you thought in abbreviations?

gregg shorthand

I’ve actually been playing with this idea a lot myself recently by trying to create my own short-hand for typing. I’m paid by the word, so the faster I write, the more I can earn. If I could replace certain words with certain symbols, even omit entire letters, I could potentially earn a lot more and work a lot quicker.

And if I did this for long enough, could I eventually replace those words with the symbols in my mind and think faster?

I created an app for this purpose but I’m having difficulty remembering to insert the shorthand at the moment.

But many versions of shorthand do exist. Gregg shorthand is one excellent example, which you can learn all about here.

Most likely for the purpose of thinking more quickly, the best method is simply to practice responding quickly in conversations, thereby creating more neural connections. Though it may also be possible to practice removing the need to ‘rehearse’ and ‘test’ what you’re going to say before you say it. Which may relate simply to confidence in what you’re about to say?

Embodied Cognition

If you read my recent post on embodied cognition, then you’ll know one theory for how our brains understand language.

We take for granted the idea that our brains understand English but think deeper and it’s apparent that there must be an additional ‘step’. How is it that we go from hearing the words or thinking them, to understanding the underlying meaning?

One old idea was that the brain had its own underlying ‘language’, which was hypothetically referred to as mentalese. Today though, more psychologists subscribe to the notion that our cognition is ‘embodied’. In other words, we interpret words and phrases by relating them to our physical experiences. Our understanding of reality is routed in our interactions with the world, through the use of our bodies. When we hear a story, we then ‘simulate’ what that story means by almost ‘feeling’ the experience.

When you hear someone talk about walking through a forest, areas in your brain light up as though you were walking and you can almost hear the sounds of rustling leaves. Likewise, when someone tells you they’re angry, you understand it by considering previous situations you’ve been in when someone has been angry and the way it has made you feel. By relating what you hear to your own bodily experiences, you give it meaning and context.

This might be why linguistic relativity doesn’t profoundly affect every area of our logic – because at the end of the day we still have visualize what’s happening to us. It could even explain some of the underlying similarities between languages and Chomsky’s ‘Language Acquisition Device’.

Perhaps the best way to think of this is by using the analogy of programming. Here our language can be thought of as a programming language – like Java or C – but the machine code and the binary ultimately remain the same. You can improve certain tasks by switching from BASIC to Java but ultimately you’re working with the same firmware and hardware. Would the most ‘logical’ language be the one most closely tied to this ‘machine code’?

This also tells us how an animal without language might think and plan. Perhaps they can’t grasp the same abstract concepts we can but instead they can ‘visualize’ themselves doing things and use this as a form of thought.

Thinking in Pictures

And we actually do this too – a lot. In fact, a lot more of our thought is ‘non-lingual’ than most of us imagine.

When I say the word ‘thought’ you might think instantly of your inner monologue and the ‘voice’ inside your head.

But when you plan a movement, you don’t use your inner voice. Instead, you visualize yourself going through those motions – and is that not a form of thought as well? In this case, it’s simply quicker for you to visualize than it is for you to literally think:

“I will place my foot there, then I will twist here, then I will pivot and transfer my weight about 30% onto that side…”

In fact, we tend to perform better in sports when we can switch off our inner monologues and focus just on visual and kinaesthetic thought. This is what’s known as ‘temporo-hypofrontality’ or a ‘flow state’.

Likewise, visualizing a situation is also a type of thought – called a ‘mental image’. Psychologist Allan Paivio suggested in 1971 that we think in both ‘image codes’ and ‘verbal codes’ (4). But it’s likely we think in many more ways too – such as when we can ‘feel’ the actions we’re imagining. And how about ear worms? Or composing music? We can also think ‘in’ math.

Again, the question that interests me is whether we might be able to think more efficiently and more quickly if we were to sometimes rely a little less on language and switch to alternate modes as necessary.

And now you’re probably thinking I’m nuts – but actually there are already people doing this and there are already examples that people use right now.

Given up?

One example is in math. Some students are actually taught to use a ‘mental abacus’ in order to perform math by visualizing an abacus – which apparently allows for much faster mental arithmetic. Right now, this system is being taught right now throughout China, Singapore, Japan and several other countries for this reason.

quicksilver math

Not only is using the mental abacus faster but it is also interesting because it allows for better multitasking. Someone using a mental abacus to perform math can listen to a story at the same time with far less of an impact on their performance and accuracy (5).

Likewise, certain synaesthetes describe using a visual ‘grid’ to perform math almost involuntarily. Savant Daniel Tammet explains in Thinking in Numbers how he thinks people would be better at math if they could give it more context – if they could get a feel for the ‘size’ of numbers allowing them to estimate far more accurately. The human calculator ‘Scott Flansburg’ had his brainwaves measured on Stan Lee’s Superhumans where it was shown that he wasn’t activating Brodmann area 44 (used for math, music perception and semantic processing) but rather had activity higher up and also in the motor cortex; the motor cortex being the part of the brain responsible for movement, sensation and the mapping of our body. The conclusion was that he almost uses his body and physical intelligence to perform the math intuitively – allowing him to perform some complex sums faster than using a calculator. Could we find a way to ‘switch’ to this method of performing math?

There are of course many other examples where we can use visualization and ‘visual thought’ in order to act as an alternative or prop for specific mental tasks. One example that springs to mind is the use of ‘memory palaces’ in order to store and retrieve information.

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Another very cool one is speed reading – the best speed readers can read by simply looking at the words and then absorbing their meaning, rather than having to sound them out.

Then there are athletes who can practice things like their golf swing or dance moves, simply by going through the motions mentally. Visualization can of course be used as a tool for relaxation, or even overcoming phobias.

So perhaps in some situations the best way to improve our thought is to replace language with images and sensations. The question is which areas of your own thought would benefit from a change in approach?

Unsymbolized Thought

Another type of thought is described by psychologist Russel T. Hurlburt in his book Describing Inner Experience? Proponent Meets Sceptic (why the question mark??). For the text, Hurlburt had participants carry a beeper and write down exactly what their inner mental experience was whenever it went off.

What he found was that people didn’t only think in words but also images, kinaesthetic experiences and other modes (6). Two particularly interesting points to come from this study were a) that participants varied greatly in their internal experiences and b) that some people described a state of ‘knowing’ without thinking. He described this phenomenon as ‘unsymbolized thought’ which is essentially the thought that precedes the inner verbalization. It makes sense that at some point we must know what we want to think before we think it. And it also seems to be distinct from visualization or ‘feeling’ our thoughts.

Empathy is also particularly interesting as this is a type of unsymbolized thought. We know how someone is feeling simply by looking at them and we never have to work it out logically. This is due to the firing of ‘mirror neurons’ but phenomenologically, it’s quite unique and interesting.

Individual Differences and the Nature of Thought

What we can take from all this is that the nature of thought is much more multi-layered and complicated than it is portrayed in films and movies. And it’s probably a fair bit more complicated than it appears subjectively too. You definitely do not think in a nice, linear inner monologue. You are not a comic book.

Instead, we think in a collection of words, images, intentions and pure reason. Different types of thought are more efficient in different contexts and it may be true that we can hone some of these tools to think ‘better’ if we really try.

What’s also interesting is just how differently we all think. And I know this from surveying my own friends and family. I think very much in a monologue (or at least, I think I do), while my wife says she rarely has a monologue and relies more on unsymbolized thought. Interestingly, she is definitely ‘quicker’ than me in conversation.

I’m also quite a visual thinker and can quickly call to mind the layout of a room or an imagined drawing. My friend on the other hand is such a logical thinker that he has almost no visual memory at all. He says that the only way he could remember the position of a DVD on a shelf would be to count the DVDs from the left and commit that number to memory. I, on the other hand, would simply take a mental ‘snapshot’ of the shelf. Again, our skills are quite varied possibly as a result: this friend is able to memorize the numbers on a debit card after only seeing it briefly!

No system of thinking is ‘right or wrong’. But it’s definitely interesting to consider how different our inner experiences are and how we might be able to upgrade our thought processes by switching from one modality to another.

I’ll leave you with a cool scene from The Ultimates

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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