Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Can you think it if you can't say it?

Our current textbooks are fabulous at summarizing mounds of existing research and reaching a conclusion, but how often do our students get to form their own conclusions about psychological phenomena? At first, this might seem like an overwhelming task that would take way too much time, but we have an advantage in our "young" science of psychology: in many other sciences (e.g. physics, astronomy), you need to get to graduate school before you really get to do original research, but in psychology MANY important issues are still "undecided" and the relevant research is accessible and understandable. Students won't be able to form a final decisive "conclusion" about the issue (and we shouldn't pretend that anyone can) but the experience to looking at the evidence and forming a "conclusion for right now" is a valuable part of critical thinking.

I think the connection between thinking and language is one example of an accessible "open" issue. How much does our language impact our thinking? This NYTimes article provides a good overview of the issues, includes the ups and downs of Whorf's linguistic relatively hypothesis (and it includes one of my favorite untranslateable German words: Schadenfreude).

A recent Radiolab podcast looked at the topic in three different ways:
1) a teacher's breakthrough with a deaf adult who grew up with no language (this one made be cry!)
2) a neurologist's story about her brain injury that left her without any language or "brain chatter"
3) a summary of a longitudinal research project with an isolated group of deaf children in Nicaragua who developed their own language whil researchers watched! (full disclosure and bragging: One of my former students was involved in this research.)

posted by Rob McEntarffer


Anonymous said...

We're exploring language and thought issues in several domains in Nicaraguan Sign Language right now. Jennie Pyers is doing very cool work about how you need to learn mental verbs in order to pass false belief theory of mind (mentioned in the radiolab piece), and that you can see this progression even in adulthood. Ann Senghas and I have been working on number words and age of acquisition lately. We're investigating the issue of if you can track exact quantity without knowledge of number words or a counting list by looking at signers who learned to count in childhood, adulthood, or not based on how old they were when the language was born. It seems like an adult would have awfully good motivation to develop a strategy to track exact quantity given s/he lives in a society in which you use money, play games with dice, etc., but it's looking like if you can't count then you're in trouble when it comes to tracking exact number. Hopefully we'll have something (published) to say about this very soon!

Molly Flaherty (the former student)
The University of Chicago

Rob Mc said...

Thanks for posting this Molly! I'm glad (and proud) that you get to do this cool, important work. I bet many psych teachers reading the blog would love to hear updates when you publish more of your work. Thanks thanks thanks!