The effects of verbal labels on cognition and perception: Toward a theory of language augmented thought

Lupyan, G.

University of Wisconsin-Madison

To what degree is normal human cognition actually language-augmented cognition? Despite a preponderance of empirical findings showing effects of language on various aspects of cognition, there has been slow progress in understanding the mechanisms of such effects. Most research in this area assumes strict distinction between the “verbal” representations of language and the “nonverbal” representations assumed to underlie basic cognitive and perceptual processes (e.g., Wolff & Holmes, 2010, for review). I will argue that a much clearer understanding of the relationship between language and cognition can be achieved by rejecting this distinction and adopting an interactive framework in which language modulates ongoing cognitive and perceptual processing in a flexible and task-dependent manner.

First, I present an overview of empirical findings from my own lab of linguistic effects on putatively nonverbal processes such as categorization, memory, cognitive control, and basic visual processing. For example, simply referring to a triangle by its name (“triangle”) can affect visual judgments of its orientation and relative side-length, and simply hearing a verbal label can make an otherwise invisible object, visible. Second, I show that down-regulating activity in cortical areas classically associated with language processing using neuro-stimulation (TMS and tDCS), affects performance on “nonverbal” perceptual and cognitive tasks similar to impairments observed in aphasia. Third, I present evidence that representations of both familiar and newly learned concepts are different when activated via verbal versus nonverbal means. Finally, I outline a connectionist model of “language augmented thought” which provides a simple and intuitive account of how experience with verbal labels augments the on-line dynamics of processes involved in categorization, perception, and memory.