Aug 162013

Science sometimes seems only to be playing catching-up by proving the obvious.

“We hypothesize that when information associated with verbal labels matches stimulus-driven activity, language can provide a boost to perception, propelling an otherwise invisible image into awareness,” Lupyan and Ward wrote in the study.

The findings suggest that perception may be more subjective and erratic than most of us would like to think.

via Using Language To See What Isn’t There.

Put this report next to a few lines from an essay in Attack of the Copula Spiders that deals with a western anthropologist and linguist who (because of grammatical constraints) cannot see what everyone else around him can see, a “bloodless one.” Makes you wonder what else is out there, the things our literate and prosaic minds cannot imagine.

An oral culture takes ages to begin to learn to translate the words of a literate culture into its own language. But a literate culture can never recover the oral consciousness which it has lost. We can write things down, record ritual, folklore and epic, and read about them later, but we cannot ever recall how it felt to be a druid. This “truth” is underlined by the experience of Daniel Everett, the anthropologist chiefly involved in studying the aforementioned Pirahã. He spent seven years with the tiny tribe and knows it as well as anyone who is not a native speaker. His major paper on the Pirahã is called “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã” and it concludes–actually it’s the last of the endnotes–with this amazing observation.

One morning in 1980, during a nine-month stay with the Pirahã, I awoke to yelling, crying, and whooping near the river’s edge, about fifty feet from where I was trying vainly to sleep. I went to the crowd, which included nearly every man, woman, and child in the village.  They were all pointing across the river and some were crying, some were yelling, and all were acting as though what they were seeing was very frightening. I looked across the river, but I could see nothing. I asked them what they were fussing about. One man answered incredulously, “Can’t you see him there?’ ‘I see nothing. What are you talking about?’ was my response. “There, on the other side, on that small strip of beach, is ‘igagaí a mean not-blood-one.’ There was nothing on the other side. But the people insisted that he was there in full view. This experience has haunted me ever since. It underscored how spirits are not merely fictional characters to the Pirahã, but concrete experiences.

Everett’s confusion over the experience of Pirahã ghosts, his sense of being haunted by a world of experience which he cannot share, relegated to an endnote, somehow draws into question the certainty of the entire modern project. In this encounter, basic ideas such as experience, fact, truth and evidence begin to shift suddenly and alarmingly (no wonder he shoved it into an endnote). His paper is about translation, about the difficulty of penetrating the other’s mind; but at the end he is vouchsafed an experience of otherness so alien as to be irremediably outside his ability even to sense what others around him are sensing. So that the title of his essay–“Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã”–could justifiably be inverted to read “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in English.” Though, of course, Everett does not see it that way and remains only “haunted” and perhaps ever so vaguely nostalgic–the modern mood.


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