After providing all the funding for The Brain from Top to Bottom for over 10 years, the CIHR Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction informed us that because of budget cuts, they were going to be forced to stop sponsoring us as of March 31st, 2013.

We have approached a number of organizations, all of which have recognized the value of our work. But we have not managed to find the funding we need. We must therefore ask our readers for donations so that we can continue updating and adding new content to The Brain from Top to Bottom web site and blog.

Please, rest assured that we are doing our utmost to continue our mission of providing the general public with the best possible information about the brain and neuroscience in the original spirit of the Internet: the desire to share information free of charge and with no adverstising.

Whether your support is moral, financial, or both, thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen

Friday, 15 November 2013
Language as a Window into Human Nature

In previous posts in this blog, we have drawn your attention to various lectures in the RSA Animate series, in which experts is a variety of fields give online talks while cartoon illustrations are drawn in sped-up fashion to accompany their voice-over. This week we’d like to tell you about another RSA Animate lecture. This one is about language, and it is given by Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker.

This talk draws on ideas from Pinker’s 2007 book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, whose explanations about the origins of swearing and curse words have been summarized in another post in this blog. In this RSA Animate lecture, Pinker draws our attention to the fact that language always does two things at once: it conveys a message, and it negotiates a social relationship between the person who is speaking and the person or persons who are listening. Consequently, language always functions on these two levels simultaneously.

For example, if you say something like “If you could pass the salt, that would be awesome”, you are making both a request and a display of politeness. You really want the salt, but you don’t want to offend the other person by seeming to demand it. So instead, you use this formulation, which seems more like the expression of a vague desire. But your intended meaning is unmistakable, and the other person instantly passes you the salt with a smile.

The same kind of veiled communication is going on when the speaker at a fundraising dinner says something like “We’re counting on you to show leadership in our campaign” (i.e., give us as much money as you can), or when a romantic date ends with one person asking the other to come upstairs for a drink (i.e., to have sex). When you think about it, a good part of our conversation operates in this way, taking the context into account, lubricating our social relationships, and preserving the fiction that our own desires coincide with other people’s, which is far from always the case.

i_lien RSA Animate – Language as a Window into Human Nature
i_lien The Stuff of Thought

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