Tag Archives: Cognition

Real Life Applications of Cognitive Linguistics

Shopping's Goat...

Image by ImAges ImprObables via Flickr

I have said it before and I will say it again: ANYTHING that requires thought benefits from a cognitive linguistic perspective.

We use language to help in making sense of the world, this goes for broad and general topics as well as specific expert domains; language is the medium of meaning, wherever that meaning occurs.

The idea I use in my professional life as an organizational culture planner is to use cognitive science to make sense out of the systems of thought expressed in the routine tasks of the organization and to see how they are described through culture in the form of business practices and personnel behaviors.  If I can see how thought and culture relate via language structures (i.e., conceptual metaphors, conceptual blends, force-dynamics, attention, figure-ground relations, et cetera), then I can help grow organizational culture from an informed perspective.


If you take the communication produced in an average business meeting, break it up into sections that identify the underlying conceptual metaphors, see who communicates what message, and trace the outcomes of the meeting, you can start to get a feel for what drives the organization.


Because design is an artifact of human creativity, it reflects the processes of perception.  Pick up any art criticism, architecture and landscape writing, or pulp design magazine, and you will see a range of conceptual structures at play in the terms of the movement of a visual scene, the oscillation of figure and ground (which in many cases roughly correlate to grammatical subject and object), the directing of attention, and the general semiotic structure of the actual design or the commentary; each aspect of the design reflects conception and perception.


Since technology is used in every aspect of life, we can start to see how it becomes a part of culture and cognition; in fact, technology in many respects helps us to distribute our cognitive load across a piece of technology. Pieces of technology are like material anchors that helps us escape from merely thinking with our minds and instead enable us to think with our environment.  This is a matter of conceptual blending, and it plays out in the decisions we make using thought and language, since technology is a tool that helps us learn, decide, and act on collected knowledge.  This is as relevant for super-computers as it is for using a wooden ruler; technology of all forms enables us to actually have something to say about the sensed environment.


When people want to relate to each other, they use language and other models of symbolization to communicate.  One of the most frustrating and most interesting aspects of communication situations is knowing whether communication is actually happening, or if it is in fact failing.  A lot of this depends on negotiating the common ground to see what each party shares.  Since the language we use for communicating relies so heavily on metaphors, it is often interesting to look at which metaphors people use to communicate, and whether or not those metaphors are understood by the other conversation partners. This holds true for relationship counseling, for customer service relations, and for friendships.  Any time people get together, they use meaningful structures to communicate, and cognitive science offers a suite of tools to analyze that communication.

The idea I use in my work is to exploit the nuances in language and behavior to gain insight into what problems the organization is facing.  I use a three-pronged approach to collect, analyze, and present that data.  I then help the organization to see how to use the results in a meaningful way to produce actionable solutions.  What this does for me is invaluable; I get to have a good time working on different problems, and I get to see how different people work together to help me find solutions that work for them.

I welcome opportunities to participate in translating ideas into cultural practices and love to engage in productive collaboration with people who are open and curious.

Let me know if you want to talk. DM me: @SportLinguist, or leave a comment on the contact page.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Protected: Haiman’s view of Iconic and Economic Motivation

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Tagged , , , ,

On Failure & Resilience in Optimization of Human Systems, Ecological Systems, and Networked Systems of Systems

I was recently watching Eleanor Saitta’s talk called “Your Infrastructure Will Kill You“.  Part of her talk outlined how optimization equals fragility (more or less).  That to the degree that something is cleaner, more elegant, or more efficient, it is fragile, and a break in the system can be potentially catastrophic.

In thinking about her comments I thought of a few examples where I have observed optimization creating a state of fragility, here are a few of my thoughts:

  • This has interesting considerations for general principles of design, specifically the form/function aspect of design. Probably the point at which form begins to extend beyond the needs of function the focus on form becomes gratuitous and potentially even hazardous (depending on the type of system).  Ironically, optimization in this case is not absolute optimization, but only optimization considering a specific set of requirements: when things are running smoothly then the system is optimized.
  • Another place for failure is when relationships are optimized; when the dispersal of information through a system relies on optimized relationships it only takes the breaking of one of the nodes in a network to create a chain reaction of subsequent nodes being uninformed.We think about how a well-connected network effectively distributes information, specifically in recent thought this informed an analysis of William Dawes vs. Paul Revere – showing how Revere’s relationship of network brokers enabled him to broadcast more extensively than Dawes’ impoverished closed network.  This is good thinking, except that it misses the point of threat: Revere was a weak link in that optimized chain of information; had he been eliminated his message would have been eliminated.  Revere and his network, although connected and optimized, were fragile.
  • In generative linguistics there is an optimization of the lexicon. Economy in space is valued above economy in processing; if this is opaque to you, I mean that generative linguistics tries to minimize the amount of information that it stores as unique units.  It is called “generative” because it generates complex utterances from values stored in the lexicon through recursion, instead of storing those values as wholes.  But there is a weakness; in optimizing the lexicon the generative power of the spell-out rules of Universal Grammar are fragile when it comes to dealing with actual language usage (which is the test of a linguistic theory, is it not?), and the rules fail to account for some foundational constructions of language (like idioms for example).

Ok, so there are lots of places where optimization leads to failure, but what are some ways in which optimization leads to resilience?  What are some solutions to these problems?

Redundancy is a great solution, but it is bulky.

  • When function is optimized it allows you to work backwards in the process of making things have better forms. This is actually how a lot of design progresses.  Think about how every piece of electronic technology that we have today had a larger predecessor.  Think about those clunky mobile phones from the eighties with the handset, base and cord in a leather bag, now look at the mobile phone you carry in your pocket.  Functionality was concept proven in the clunky design, and the form was optimized to enhance the function.
  • It seems to me that the optimization weakness in the Revere incident was that Revere was the weak link.  Instead of depending on the optimization of Revere’s relationships, perhaps the message itself needed optimization. One possible way to optimize the information load of a message is to abstract it (as was done with the signal of the hanging lanterns to indicate the route of attack), and another way is to reduce dependence upon a single messenger exploiting a network (In 1775 the sexton who hung the lanterns was a single messenger, Revere was a single messenger, et cetera).  Flooding a network with messengers bearing an abstracted signal would have been less fragile (put aside for the moment the need for secrecy in the 1775 incident).  In situations where secrecy is not vital, consider how this kind of network flooding would communicate the coherence of the message; when you hear the same thing from five people you at least start giving some credence to the constancy of the message.  In such cases what may have been unknown or even background information becomes salient and foregrounded through repeated exposure. Also, consider other types of signals that can be exploited to prompt a response of crowd mobilization, noises work particularly well.  Sirens and loud noises alert and orient people’s attentional systems toward the source of the signal, and that source becomes figural in the contextual noise of that signal.
  • Optimization can lead to resilience in online processing, like in a maximized lexicon that places the task of optimization on the processing skills required in the selection and extraction of form-meaning elements from the inventory.  Cognitive approaches to the lexicon seek to preserve economy in processing; instead of having a minimal lexicon with lots of processing rules, the cognitive approach has an ordered inventory of form-meaning pairings (including monomorphemic elements, constructions, and phrases that are learned whole), with an optimized processing system of constraints, schemas, and other elements of cognitive processing (see this week’s post on emergentist vs. universalist view for understanding the contrast in general cognitive processing vs. modular mind).
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

An Emergentist vs. Universalist view of Language and Cognition

Distributed cognition

Image by Lisa Brewster via Flickr

I wanted to present a list that outlines some of the main differences in thought about language between Emergentist and Universalist perspectives.  This is important I think because it shows how only certain kinds of programmers and mathematicians can work successfully within a Cognitive framework.

Consider these characteristics of an Emergentist (Cognitive) view:

  1. Singular Mind (General Cognitive Abilities)
  2. Distributed Cognition
  3. Neo-Empiricist
  4. The Complex System IS the primitive
  5. Prototypes
  6. Online and Dynamic Processing
  7. Usage Based View of Language
  8. Falsifiable
  9. The Appropriate Level of Granularity is the Form-Meaning Pair (i.e., constructions)

Now, compare that list with this Universalist (usually Generative) view on the same issues:

  1. Modular Mind
  2. Localization in Neuroscience
  3. Innate
  4. Atomistic, Reduce!
  5. Feature based categories & Atomistic Set Theory
  6. Stable Structures and “Switches” that enable cognition
  7. Competence Based View of Language
  8. Language is the de facto expected product of the mind
  9. Reductionism refines phenomena out of existence

Can some middle perspective be taken that combines both extremes?  What are your thoughts?

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Foundational Cognitive Skills that Babies Need in Language Development

Reading on a Friday night

Image by mr brown via Flickr

As mentioned (yesterday’s post) three skills emerge from this acceptance of the triadic perspective:

1) Joint Attention Frame; 2)Intention Reading; and 3) Cultural Learning (Pattern Finding).  Joint Attention is the ability to coordinate attention with another individual on a third entity.  These third entities move from strictly concrete entities to more abstract entities as time goes by.  Without the ability to have a joint attention frame the transfer of knowledge would be impossible and the ability to converse with others in a meaningful way is equally impossible.  The process of intention reading is critical to understanding how others can have their behaviors influenced and likewise how the self can be influenced by the intentions of others.  Although not explicitly stated in Tomasello’s 2003 text, this particular cognitive skill would seem to be the foundation of basic relational strategies like the establishment of trust and credibility.  The final skill is pattern finding which enables cultural learning as the infant observes behavioral, intentional, and relational patterns in the contextual cultural community.  The child develops a sense for how things are done by intentional agents as the child attends to the patterns demonstrated through the everyday lives of those intentional agents with whom the child relates.

Tagged , , , ,

What I got for Christmas…

Integrantes de Daft Punk, banda francesa de mú...

Image via Wikipedia

  1. Daft Punk’s film “Electroma”
  2. Daft Punk’s album “Human After All”
  3. Gilles Fauconnier’s & Mark Turner’s “The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities”
  4. Stephen C. Levinson’s “Space in Language and Cognition: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity”
  5. Stephen C. Levinson & David Wilkin’s “Grammars of Space: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity”


Tagged , , , , ,

SWEET! My paper made a Top Ten Download List!

I checked my email this morning and received a message telling me that my recently distributed paper “Figure-Ground Organization in Attention and Construal” made it on a top ten list for downloads yesterday from both the Cognition & the Arts eJournal and the Cognitive Linguistics: Cognition, Language, Gesture eJournal…Awesome!

I hope you check it out! http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=1714063.


Tagged , , , , , , ,

Cognitive Mindfulness #16

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Image via Wikipedia

I am rereading a book that I have been rereading on a consistent basis for the last twelve years, this time I am thinking more about consciousness than I have in previous readings; accordingly this passage stuck out in a more dynamic way than I remember from times past:

Self-consciousness, however, does not hinder the experience of the present.  It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest.  So long as I lose myself in a tree, say, I can scent its leafy breath or estimate its board feet of lumber, I can draw its fruits or boil tea on its branches, and the tree stays tree.  But the second I become aware of myself at any of these activities – looking over my own shoulder, as it were – the tree vanishes, uprooted from the spot and flung out of sight as if it had never grown.  And time, which had flowed down into the tree bearing new revelations like floating leaves at every moment, ceases.  It dams, stills, stagnates. [82, Dillard]

I am aiming to be more at home in the present, but I am trying not to think too much about it since, paradoxically, the very effort of focusing on the present relegates it to an artifact of the past and a moment to which I become an outside observer who does not belong.


Dillard, A. (1974).  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Harper Perennial

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Language Is a System

Language makes use of ecological elements (symbolic function, communicative function, et cetera) to provide an integrated “tool” with which meaning can be expressed and understood.

Being a system implies the interrelationship of components where a change in stimulus, neurological mechanism or linguistic mechanism alters the system output.  Meaning changes when one element changes, so, as in the case of active vs. passive syntactic arrangements, any syntactic change must entail a semantic change.

The elements of language follow certain regularities in collocations, arrangements and combinations that emerge from meaning and categorization. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Cognitive Mindfulness #13

Viewers of the Jonas Burgert painting Second D...

Image via Wikipedia

In the book The Artful Mind (edited by Mark Turner), Merlin Donald describes art as being characterized by seven features:

  1. Art is aimed at influencing the minds of an audience, and may therefore be called a form of cognitive engineering.
  2. It always occurs in the context of distributed cognition.
  3. It is constructivist in nature, aimed at the deliberate refinement and elaboration of worldviews.
  4. Most art is metacognitive in its role – that is, it engages in self-reflection, both individually and socially.
  5. The forms and media of art are technology-driven.
  6. The role of the artist and the local social definition of art are not necessarily fixed and are products of the current social-cognitive network.
  7. Nevertheless, art, unlike most conventional engineering, is always aimed at a cognitive outcome.

[Merlin Donald, page 19 in The Artful Mind]

This list of characteristics gives me a good sense of context for how to approach art as a producer and a consumer in a way that recognizes and honors the important role that Art has played in the evolution of social cognition.  I appreciate the imagery of cognitive engineering – this is the “magic synthesis” as Arieti would call it.  I want to engage more in the act of engineering cognitive understanding through my art, for me this means approaching the creative process from the vantage point of an artist and a scientist, a generalist and a specialist, a teacher and a learner. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Cognitive Mindfulness #12

We face the future; the past is behind us.

In English we talk about the future being ahead of us, forward in time, in front of us, what lies ahead, what is to come, what we are facing, what our week looks like, what we see approaching.

We talk about the past as being behind us, something that we look back on, something we have passed through (and as such is behind us), what our year looked like.

This is the way that we use our body and our experience to shape our understanding of the sequence of events in our life, to make sense out of TIME in terms of SPACE. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Cognitive Science & Engineering by Deductive Reasoning

Flywheel from old factory

Image via Wikipedia

Here is a brief passage from my book The Art of War Against Boredom.  I wrote this passage around 8 years ago, and while it is influenced by my background in descriptive linguistics as opposed to strict cognitive linguistics, I still feel that it has something to say about the cognitive enterprise.  For example, in cognitive linguistics the actual language in use reflects the mental processing which produced that actual language.  In this passage below, the designed object reflects the mathematical processes which drove the production of the designed object.  I recognize that this can be interpreted through a generative lens too, but the passage isn’t meant to illustrate linguistic theory, it is a folk-methodology for problem solving.  Anyway, the designed object reflects the process of production. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Cognitive Mindfulness #4

Cover of "A Simpler Way"

Cover of A Simpler Way

A quote from one of my favorite books

“The universe is a living, creative, experimenting experience of discovering what’s possible at all levels of scale, from microbe to cosmos.”

“Life’s natural tendency is to organize.  Life organizes into greater levels of complexity to support more diversity and greater sustainability.”

“Life organizes around a self.  Organization is always an act of creating an identity.”

Wheatley, M.J. & Kellner-Rogers, M. (1996). A simpler way, Berrett-Koehler (page 3)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Cognitive Economy and Perceived World Structure

In Cognitive Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology there are two principles that govern the well-formedness of categories: Cognitive Economy and Perceived World Structure.

Cognitive Economy (CE) assumes that categories form with the most bang for their buck; that they try to get as much as possible for as little effort as possible.  Kind of like Target’s Brand Promise: “Expect More, Pay Less”; when we make categories in our minds we try to make them as informative as possible with as little expenditure of mental energy as possible. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,