Scientists show that language shapes perception

Feb 26, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Advances in cognitive neuroscience (the science of how the brain works when we think) have shown that what our eyes see and what our brain interprets are two different things. Professor Guillaume Thierry, Dr Panos Athanasopoulos and colleagues report in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA that our language causes our brains to perceive colours differently.

Dr Athanasopoulos explains: “Our language forces us to cut up the world in different ways. Greek speakers systematically use two different terms to refer to blue: the sky is ghalazio (light blue), never ble (dark blue), and a blue pen is ble but can never be ghalazio. English speakers would have no problem calling both the sky and a pen blue in an instant.”

To see whether language shapes our biological and physiological processes of colour perception, the researchers used a technique called event related brain potentials (ERPs). This technique tracks activity in the brain millisecond by millisecond.

Professor Thierry explains: “We know that the visual system in our brain begins processing stimuli like colour a few tens of milliseconds after light has hit the retina of the eye. We also know that language consciously invades our thinking about 200 milliseconds later. Using ERPs, we are able to look at very early stages of visual analysis, well before conscious language information is accessed.”

The researchers found differences in visual processing of light and dark blues between Greek and English speakers as early as 100 milliseconds, suggesting that indeed, speakers of different languages literally have differently structured minds.

More information: Unconscious effects of language-specific terminology on preattentive color perception, PNAS published online before print February 24, 2009, doi:10.1073/pnas.0811155106

Provided by Bangor University

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User comments : 6

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Corban
5 / 5 (1) Feb 26, 2009
So this is extending the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis by delving into color. Interesting.
GDM
5 / 5 (1) Feb 26, 2009
Agreed. That language can modify thinking should be well known (?) since the experimental language Loglan and it's successor Lojban (sp?) were developed many years ago (1970's). Has anyone heard of any further research progress from those groups?
nilbud
1 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2009
So if you know the word Azure your mind is different.
gmurphy
not rated yet Feb 27, 2009
nilbud, I would say that because your mind is trained in the language of English, your mind is subtly different from someone who speaks Spanish. This difference manifests as variations in how you perceive the world compared to the Spanish speaker. This has been shown in advertising in particular, where ads which contain the exact same meaning are interpreted differently when shown in different languages.
Birger
not rated yet Feb 27, 2009
...Beware Orwellian "Newspeak".
GDM
not rated yet Mar 02, 2009
Birger, "Newspeak" sought to limit thinking, and yes, beware of the "dittoheads". Loglan/Lojban sought to expand thinking and awareness by increasing the precision of a language.

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