As part of our Ask the Brain series, Anna Ivanova, a graduate student who studies how the brain processes language in the labs of Nancy Kanwisher and Evelina Fedorenko, answers the question, “Can we think without language?”
Imagine a woman – let’s call her Sue. One day Sue gets a stroke that destroys large areas of brain tissue within her left hemisphere. As a result, she develops a condition known as global aphasia, meaning she can no longer produce or understand phrases and sentences. The question is: to what extent are Sue’s thinking abilities preserved?
Many writers and philosophers have drawn a strong connection between language and thought. Oscar Wilde called language “the parent, and not the child, of thought.” Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” And Bertrand Russell stated that the role of language is “to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it.” Given this view, Sue should have irreparable damage to her cognitive abilities when she loses access to language. Do neuroscientists agree? Not quite.
Neuroimaging evidence has revealed a specialized set of regions within the human brain that respond strongly and selectively to language.
This language system seems to be distinct from regions that are linked to our ability to plan, remember, reminisce on past and future, reason in social situations, experience empathy, make moral decisions, and construct one’s self-image. Thus, vast portions of our everyday cognitive experiences appear to be unrelated to language per se.
But what about Sue? Can she really think the way we do?
While we cannot directly measure what it’s like to think like a neurotypical adult, we can probe Sue’s cognitive abilities by asking her to perform a variety of different tasks. Turns out, patients with global aphasia can solve arithmetic problems, reason about intentions of others, and engage in complex causal reasoning tasks. They can tell whether a drawing depicts a real-life event and laugh when in doesn’t. Some of them play chess in their spare time. Some even engage in creative tasks – a composer Vissarion Shebalin continued to write music even after a stroke that left him severely aphasic.
Some readers might find these results surprising, given that their own thoughts seem to be tied to language so closely. If you find yourself in that category, I have a surprise for you – research has established that not everybody has inner speech experiences. A bilingual friend of mine sometimes gets asked if she thinks in English or Polish, but she doesn’t quite get the question (“how can you think in a language?”). Another friend of mine claims that he “thinks in landscapes,” a sentiment that conveys the pictorial nature of some people’s thoughts. Therefore, even inner speech does not appear to be necessary for thought.
Have we solved the mystery then? Can we claim that language and thought are completely independent and Bertrand Russell was wrong? Only to some extent. We have shown that damage to the language system within an adult human brain leaves most other cognitive functions intact. However, when it comes to the language-thought link across the entire lifespan, the picture is far less clear. While available evidence is scarce, it does indicate that some of the cognitive functions discussed above are, at least to some extent, acquired through language.
Perhaps the clearest case is numbers. There are certain tribes around the world whose languages do not have number words – some might only have words for one through five (Munduruku), and some won’t even have those (Pirahã). Speakers of Pirahã have been shown to make mistakes on one-to-one matching tasks (“get as many sticks as there are balls”), suggesting that language plays an important role in bootstrapping exact number manipulations.
Another way to examine the influence of language on cognition over time is by studying cases when language access is delayed. Deaf children born into hearing families often do not get exposure to sign languages for the first few months or even years of life; such language deprivation has been shown to impair their ability to engage in social interactions and reason about the intentions of others. Thus, while the language system may not be directly involved in the process of thinking, it is crucial for acquiring enough information to properly set up various cognitive domains.
Even after her stroke, our patient Sue will have access to a wide range of cognitive abilities. She will be able to think by drawing on neural systems underlying many non-linguistic skills, such as numerical cognition, planning, and social reasoning. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that at least some of those systems might have relied on language back when Sue was a child. While the static view of the human mind suggests that language and thought are largely disconnected, the dynamic view hints at a rich nature of language-thought interactions across development.
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