3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 8 May 2013
George Lakoff, the author of the foreword to Bergen's work (and his former teacher), claims that Louder than Words "is a stunningly beautiful synthesis of the new science of meaning" (xi). Indeed, Benjamin K. Bergen, an Associate Professor at the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California, turned out to be a very skillful writer, who provides a thorough answer to the question about how human mind extracts meaning from language. Moreover, the style in which Bergen leads his argumentation in Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning (2012) is eloquent and scientific, yet plain enough to be understood by a non-scientist. Humorous anecdotes interweave with descriptions of scientific experiments, which makes the book a really enjoyable read.
Bergen explains his interest in the issue of meaning by claiming that "making meaning might be one of the most important things we do" and "what's perhaps most remarkable about it is that we hardly notice we're doing anything at all" (3). In his research, Bergen deals mostly with meaning that is conveyed through language, which as he observes, people (and only them) use "to make sense of the world" (3).
In the first parts of chapter I of his book, Bergen provides a brief account of the previous theories of meaning, paying particular attention to Mentalese, which he describes as "one of the most important and influential ideas people have had about meaning and the mind" (9). Even though Bergen pays tribute to this theory, he also enumerates its shortcomings. Mentalese does not allow us to really understand words, as he confirms, it only provides some mental definitions and do not break the vicious circle of defining words in terms of other words. And this is where cognitive science offers its helpful hand.
According to Bergen, the theory defining meaning in terms of language of thought is not as convincing as the cognitive account from the 1970s called embodiment, which connects meaning with the experience of human body. However promising, embodiment still needed to be developed, since it was not concrete enough to compete with Mentalese. So here comes the third theory under the name of the embodied simulation hypothesis. And it is actually this hypothesis which Bergen's book is devoted to.
Bergen introduces this idea already in the first chapter of the book, where he puts forward a hypothesis according to which "we understand our language by simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things that language describes" (13). Bergen perceives language as another cognitive function evoking mental images and relying on embodied simulation. We are able to simulate (create mental experiences of) what language presents to us in the same way like we can imagine sounds, tastes, images or actions without having the actual referent in front of us. The embodied simulation hypothesis allows us to perceive meaning as something more than just abstract symbols stored in our mind. With the aid of this theory, meaning becomes "a creative process, in which people construct virtual experiences - embodied simulations - in their mind's eye" (16).
In the remaining ten chapters of his book, Bergen presents to us numerous experiments devoted to the embodied simulation hypothesis. Focusing on its application without the presence of language and carrying on to the simulation people make with reference to words and grammar, Bergen is doing his best to convince the readers that the hypothesis he describes is worth so much attention. The number of scientific data often supported by illustrations included in the book, as well as anecdotes describing real characters and events (e.g. the introduction of the technique of visualization as one of the methods improving abilities of athletes in 1980s) makes Bergen's stand about the superiority of the embodied simulation hypothesis over the earlier theories of meaning justified.
Bergen points out that embodied simulation hypothesis allows us to search for meaning not only in words, but also in language in general - hence even though words are perceived as the primary bearers of meaning, grammar supports this function by providing the principles of combining them into larger units. Grammar can also influence the way we simulate e.g. by changing the perspective (like in the situations when grammatical person is changed from he into you, the perspective from which we take part in the simulation changes from the observer into the participant). Embodied simulation relies to a great extent on individual experiences (according to your experience you can simulate a word dog as a cute Yorkshire Terrier or a fierce Rottweiler), and on the cultural differences, which is significant with respect to translation. Embodied simulation can be also applied with reference to abstract concepts, which as Bergen claims, may be understood through "concrete, though metaphorical simulation" which was supported by numerous experiments, such as the one whose results show that we understand metaphors faster when we simulate the actual action they refer to, e.g. "grasp a concept activates the motor apparatus responsible for performing the same action" (199 - 200). The simulation people make while encountering language may also explain why it is so enjoyable to read novels - due to the process of simulation we experience the world about which we read as if we took part in the described events.
To sum up, Louder Than Words is a well written, solid work presenting a very interesting account of the newest theory of meaning. The interdisciplinary character of the work resulting from its cognitive background should make the book interesting for psychologists, linguists, translators and anyone interested in finding the answer for a very old question about the nature of meaning.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 24 July 2014
Bergen’s book was well worth the read. For myself, it was very much an introduction to embodied language thought, although I’ve seen some materials by Lakoff. Bergen’s style is friendly and easy to follow. He brings a lot of very practical evidence to our attention. This is one very valuable facet of the book. Sometimes self-fulfilling prophecy may seem to be the practice of the day? Generally though – the experiments he describes seem very genuine and the results that he reports are thought provoking.
The thought of language being integrally linked to the body has fascinating implications for notions of resurrection and eternity. Some people’s belief in eternity is ghostly, as if eternity has to do with wandering spirits. Bergen’s work implies that full bodily resurrection is more likely. (Bergen does not mention this link to resurrection.)
Bergen makes it clear that his account is ‘work in progress’. I felt however that he was too reluctant to draw conclusions and could have been more daring. I love the probing into what embodied language could imply for abstract thought. That whole field seems to be fascinating. Sometimes he underplays the impact of context (in this case simulation) on meaning, thus underplaying a vital field especially for intercultural communication. His work and that of his colleagues has many practical implications that still need to be drawn more fully. The main weakness of the book seems to me to be it’s failure to integrate parallel discussions going on in fields other than cognitive studies. My thoughts go to Paul Grice on pragmatics and then more recently Sperber and Wilson’s work on relevance. The latter seems to run closely in parallel with Bergen’s ‘discoveries’, and his book is much the weaker for not linking to their research, and to that on pragmatics in general.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 4 October 2014
I bought the book after being amazed by Lakoff's various books on the mind and metaphor, and his work linking embodied cognition to language, hearing this book was from one of his students, and endorsed by him, I thought id give it a try, unfortunately it was not really worth it.
Over simplified, and engaging. Bergen uses allot of metaphor to try and express an overview of embodied cognition, but in doing so seems to create a convoluted and uninformative piece of writing. Perhaps a good overview for anyone not actually looking to learn about the subject, but just have a general idea of what Embodied Cognition encompasses, but you may end up with the wrong ideas, and so I wouldn't recommend it even for that.
All in all its a very simple overview of some amazing new ideas in cognitive science, but was not for me, didn't give it one star as I think the more books there are on this subject, the better, and its a hard thing to write about for people not informed on the subject.
If your looking for an overview of Embodied Cognition, i would strongly recommend "Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds" As I found this both well written, and easy to follow, as well as being wonderfully referenced, allowing you to explore further the points that take your fancy.