Faced with pictures of odd clay creatures sporting prominent heads and pointy limbs, students at Carnegie Mellon were asked to identify which “aliens” were friendly and which were not…
Some had somewhat lumpy, misshapen heads. Others had smoother domes. After students assigned each alien to a category, they were told whether they had guessed right or wrong, learning as they went that smooth heads were friendly and lumpy heads were not.
The experimenter, Dr. Gary Lupyan, who is now doing postdoctoral research at Cornell, added a little item of information to one test group. He told the group that previous subjects had found it helpful to label the aliens, calling the friendly ones “leebish” and the unfriendly ones “grecious,” or vice versa.
When the participants found out whether their choice was right or wrong, they were also shown the appropriate label. All the participants eventually learned the difference between the aliens, but the group using labels learned much faster. Naming, Dr. Lupyan concluded, helps to create mental categories.
The finding may not seem surprising, but it is fodder for one side in a traditional debate about language and perception, including the thinking that creates and names groups.
In stark form, the debate was: Does language shape what we perceive, a position associated with the late Benjamin Lee Whorf, or are our perceptions pure sensory impressions, immune to the arbitrary ways that language carves up the world?
The latest research changes the framework, perhaps the language of the debate, suggesting that language clearly affects some thinking as a special device added to an ancient mental skill set. Just as adding features to a cellphone or camera can backfire, language is not always helpful. For the most part, it enhances thinking. But it can trip us up, too…
The story goes on to discuss other experiments, including Lera Boroditsky’s study of color perception (see her remarks here); it’s all very thought-provoking. (Thanks, Bonnie!)