The short answer is no one knows. But, I think that we do not for a variety of reasons, which I will attempt to spell out in this post. I have hesitated on writing a piece on this question; although, I have touched on it in a number of posts¹ prior to this one. But, because of just the hint of uncertainty I have not called this conclusion a belief (see Can You Believe That? for a scale that indicates the level of certainty for my beliefs). I have not been sure if I could do this topic justice either. I now feel like the time has come, whether or not I would rank it as a belief proper. By the end of the post I might even be able to claim it as one. I will be exploring the notion that we do not think in language and finding what I may.
I will first spell out what I believe language and thought are. Language will be the easier of two to pin down; although, not without its difficulties, but to decide what we, or I, think thought to be composed of is far more difficult. One issue that will be looked at is the difference between conscious and unconscious thought. I will present what I think is plausible evidence that there are distinct areas in the brain involved in thought and language and discuss their functional differences. I will move on from these discussions to the possible interactions between the two. I will finally wrap it up by presenting what by the end might rise to my level of a belief that we do not think in language.
So what is language? What do I see as its use? Do my ideas about language differ from others? And, how might be it be produced? So, here is one of dictionary.com’s definitions: “any system of formalized symbols, signs, sounds, gestures, or the like used or conceived as a means of communicating thought, emotion, etc.” I think this covers most of your bases when we talk about language. We use language to communicate with others, and as I will maintain later we actually use it to communicate with ourselves. We use words as core symbols and signs, and employ them using rules to perform verbal or written communication acts.
There is another way to view of language, and this is it contains both semantics and syntax. Semantics is where the meaning resides. This can be singular words, phrases, sentences, or larger conglomeration of these. Syntax is basically equivalent to grammar. This is the structure and rules one needs to use and follow in order to use language correctly. With these two things in place you have the ability to perform acts of communication.
There is yet another way of looking at language. This is what is the amount of information contained by a series of symbols, such as letters, words, or sentences. Information theory mathematically determines the amount of information. It is measured in terms of the randomness of the message. It uses basically the same equation as that that calculates the entropy of a closed physical system. In information theory the greater the randomness (entropy) the more information it contains. This sounds paradoxical, but when you see that it takes more to describe a random message then a more orderly one you get the correct picture. So, the clear message has less information in it. “This is a cat” has less information than “ndkjeflkjel.” It explains languages’ redundancy because of its low entropy state. Other than engineers and information theorists information theory is not really used in language studies much.
These are some of the ways language can be described, but what do we use it for? Do we think in it, or is it solely a means of communication? Why does it appear that we do think in language? First and foremost I think that it is a means of communication. It actually has no other role. What about its appearance in our thinking. At bottom I think we are communicating to ourselves when it feels like we are thinking in language. If you allow language to take on a different role, you could consider it as a sensory aide. It aids in sensing thought. Or, it could act as a translator of thoughts. In its role as a communication device this is how we communicate with ourselves. Who does not at sometimes talk to themselves?
I will take up these ideas further after I have delved into what thought is. So what is thought and is there only one way to think. You could say that thought is the workings of the brain. But is all activity of the brain to be considered thinking? Now there is a lot going on in the brain, which controls your bodily functions as well as produces emotions and processes sensory information. So, what processes of the brain constitute thought? For one thought is often equated with reasoning. But is there more to it than just that? I think that there may be. There would also be preprocessing, like bringing items from long term memory into working memory. So, I see memory as possibly a part of thought.
Then there are intentional items. “Intentional” here is how it is used in philosophy. It includes: thinking, willing, believing, wanting, feeling, desiring, and understanding. These and others can be understood as the workings of the mind. “Mind” here is peculiar. This is because what the brain is doing cannot be translate into mind doings. This is mainly so because there is no mind in a scientific examination of the brain. The mind does not, for the most part, appear in research papers. Even in psychology the term is sparse. Mind is a philosophical and folk psychological concept. There is a whole field of philosophy call “philosophy of mind,” and folk psychology is the everyday expression and examination of thought and behavior, and provides an explanation of them. Some philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, call it “the intentional stance.” Dennett and others believe using this approach is fruitful in examining the mind and explaining behavior. Others, like Paul and Patricia Churchland, reject folk psychology with the logical fall out that there is no mind. This approach is called “eliminative materialism.”
Whether or not we can fully figure out how the brain produces thoughts, there appears to be nothing to replace folk psychology with, currently. Try talking about anything to do with thought without using folk psychology. You cannot as of now say my brain is doing so and so, which would be the scientific way of stating what is happening. So, I will continue to use mind and other intentional concepts. I have no other way of communicating my views to you, and neither does anyone else, including the Churchlands, however correct their eliminative materialism may be.
So, let us take a look at some of the concepts involved in the intentional stance. It should be obvious why “thinking” would appear in the list, no matter how hard its meaning is to pin down. But, why should “feelings” show up here and how does it relate to thinking? Well, feeling and thought are intimately connected. They always go together. But even more, feelings are the conscious part of our emotions; and consciousness is language intensive; and language is a sign of thought (and maybe part of thought itself). The others like “believing” and “desiring” could be considered the end product of thought. So, for that matter could “think” itself. We often conclude a thought with “I think.”
There is one more thing to say about thought in general, and that is the type of thinking involved in a thought act. One of the most common modes of thought is visual thinking. People use terms like “I see” or “I am imagining it in my mind’s eye” when they engage in this type of thinking. There are also thought processes connected to a particular type of thought, like musical or mathematical thinking. There is also mindfulness. This is where you focus on your thoughts and feelings centered around an item of contemplation. One of the most common ones is your breathing.
So, how does the brain produce what in folk psychology is called thoughts or thinking. Again they have not figure it all out—not by a long shot. But, there are areas in the prefrontal cortex that are implicated in forethought. It can be seen in imaging studies that show energy usage in areas in the brain indicating the parts of the brain that have lit up because of glucose having been taken up by neurons that has been tagged with a tracer. The areas considered active are those that light up in the imaging process. Also people with injury or lobotomies to this part of the brain people lose almost the complete ability to plan. And when you include memory the hippocampus is active during those times too. I am sure there are other areas as well that are either part of thinking or necessary for it to occur. After all the brain is seriously interconnect. There are only 100 billion brain cells compared to the gigantic 100 trillion synaptic connections. And this does not even count hormonal interactions. Plus if you have seen any of those brain imaging pictures there are other areas that show glucose usage during thought.
Before I move on to the connection between language and thought, I want to discuss conscious and unconscious thought. Conscious thought is thought that we are aware of having. If you are not aware of a thought it cannot be conscious. I think this is where the belief that we think in language arises. How are we usually aware of are thoughts? I would say most often in the terms of link propositions. Thought A, thought B, thought A is a sequence of a possible thought stream. “Boy am I hungry.” “I will have oatmeal.” “Boy am I hungry!” They can also occur in the form of arguments. Thought A, thought B, thought C. “The weather report says it’s going to rain.” Looking outside, “the sky looks like a storm is coming.” “I better bring the umbrella.”
So, what is unconscious thought? Simply, unconscious thought is thought, or thought processes, that we have no awareness of. How, do we even know it is occurring or occurs at all? It seems like we often have thoughts that come out of nowhere, or suddenly pop into consciousness. We can tell by brain scans that the brain is active during conscious thought. Since we are conscious most of the time and the brain is responsible, it is probably difficult to determine what brain activity correlates with unconscious thought. And not all brain activity produces thought. So, even if there is no conscious thought occurring, and there is still brain activity, that activity does not necessarily equate with unconscious thought.
Is there such a thing as unconscious thought? Unless there is evidence I do not know about (which is very possible) there is no valid demonstration that there is. This, of course, does not mean it does not exist. My thesis would suggest, or demand, that there is. For now it will be an open question, so I will look at it both ways.
We know in limited ways how thought is produced by the brain, but what do we know of how the brain produces language? We do know of two areas of the brain that when damage make dealing with language difficult, or more likely, impossible. Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas have been long recognized as regions of the brain that contribute to language processing. The areas are named after the scientists that discovered their connection with language. These cannot be the only areas involved or dedicated that deals with language. Obviously, auditory and visual processing are needed to hear or read.
The interesting thing is that these language areas are not located where thought processes are thought to reside. This might not be strictly true if we do think in language because the language areas would be part of the thought producing areas. One reason to think that this is not so is there is more areas active than just the language areas in conscious thought. If we think in language these should be the only areas active during thinking unless the other active areas also deal in thought. One piece of evidence goes against this. Phineas Gage had an unfortunate accident where a metal rod enter his skull and brain. Later he showed poor judgement and held no firm plans, but yet showed no deficit in his language capabilities. This makes it seem like there is more to thought then just using language.
But, thought and language are so tightly married to each other in consciousness, that there must be brain connections between these areas. This seems very plausible because the brain and its functional regions are linked up by neural pathways. Like feelings and thought,* language and thought appear together in consciousness practically all the time. It seems like everytime I am aware of a thought or thinking about something it is being spelled out in language. This seems true even in the rare times when I am actively using visual techniques.
So, what does all this mean for thinking in language? Let us see. My comments here are mainly in a philosophical mode. Not wholly so because I will insert what is known (very little) of what the brain is doing where appropriate. But, my first comment is observational. This is the fluidity of language in its usage. It appears to me that the ease of which we speak without, most of the time, thinking twice, so to speak, is significant. Rarely do I pause to think of a word I want to speak; even rarer a whole sentence.
Then, take language comprehension. We do an amazing job of understanding both spoken and written language. We do this so smoothly and effectively without needing to hit the pause and replay button with some exceptions like dyslexia in reading. Is language processing thought? I would say it is a precursor to thought, especially if you restrict thought to reasoning. A factor in language comprehension is the redundancy of natural languages. This is where information theory can help to understand it. Whatever language is it is certainly done by the brain.
So, we hardly stop or pause when we speak or when we hear a speaker or when we read the written word. This could indicate, when you put them altogether, that, whatever language maybe, language is independent of thought. It is only an indication; one can argue the opposite. But I feel this situation leans towards my view. It seems more natural to assume that, even if language is thought about as thought, it is either an afterthought in speech production, or pre-thought in language comprehension. If you allow that only reasoning can be what thought consists of, then language would be independent of thought.
Is there any neuroscientific evidence that would back up my claim? The biggest piece comes from the fact that there are at least two specific areas in the brain known to be dedicated to language functions: Broca’s and Wernicke’s. These cannot be the only areas involved. They are functionally specific. Broca’s area enables us to produce speech and in its articulation, while Wernicke’s allows language comprehension. They are also connected by neural pathways. There is also the angular gyrus, which appears to integrate sensory information.
Another finding that the brain separates language and thought production is that when there is damage to certain areas of the prefrontal cortex, it destroys the ability to perform forethought (i.e. future forward thinking). Yet, it does not destroy the ability to use language. Lobotomy patients have this part of the prefrontal cortex destroyed in the mistaken idea that it will cure their mental illness (which thankfully is rarely used these days). Because of this they have both the deficit of forethought and the ability to use language.
Another avenue of support is the wild child, like the wolf boy, who was raised by wolves supposedly. These children, when found, have no language skills and do not go on to develop them. They do have rudimentary communication capability, but is a far cry from basic language capabilities. But, these children obviously think. Only a Skinnerian type behaviorist would deny this as they consider thinking as in a block box. It is funny that they have no way of studying it, and then reifying it, and then deny that it exists.
There are many different languages found around the globe with more that have past out of knowledge or use. So, if we can give the same self-report of a thought in two or more languages, what does that mean for the question of this post. To me it indicates that thought is indeed independent of language unless you include language as being part of thought.
Animals do not use language; although they do use forms of communication. Mammals have a neocortex and some amount of prefrontal cortex as well. We have these anatomical parts of the brain; mammals have these areas also; these areas are implicated in thought processes; we think, [. . .]; therefore animals think. The missing link in this argument is “all animals with these brain areas think.”^ Without this the argument is by analogy. But, we don’t know if this premise is true, so we are limited to the argument by analogy. These arguments do not logically produce a sure truth. They only make the conclusion possible. We often have to settle for this—–possibility. But, if animals do think and do not use language than they cannot possibly think in language. This does not mean, however, that humans do not think in language, but again in adds a level of plausibility that we do not.
With these points in mind, how do I answer my title question – Do We Think in Language? These points were language fluidity, the smoothness of language comprehension, the apparent different locations of brain activity for thought and language, that damage to one area at least of thought production does not limit the ability to use language, the case of the wild child, the use of multiple languages to convey the same thought, and animal communication and thought. I do not think I have a slam dunk argument to answer if we do not think in language. But, I think I have made a case for this conclusion’s plausibility. This claim is based on defining thought as reasoning. If you include other types of thought, the claim loses some, but not all, of its plausibility. Often that is the best that philosophy of mind can do. There is just to little knowledge of the brain for exact answers here. This lack of knowledge is the main reason why the exploration of this question still belongs to philosophy.
So, if we don’t think in language, how do we think, and what is the function(s) of language—its use. As for how we think, it is obviously done by the brain. I believe that some form of materialism is correct, and dualism should be put to rest. But, the brain is vast in the number of neurons, and even vaster in its interconnections among them. There are many functional areas of the brain. And, some but not all are involved in rational thought. These areas contribute to different functions of thought, like parts of the prefrontal cortex involved in forethought. Visual style thinking obviously makes use of the visual processing of the brain, which again uses different areas. Musical thought, like visual thinking, involves another sensory system—this is auditory processing. Mathematical thinking uses logical thinking. There are certainly areas of the brain that are active in this mode of thinking.
Now for language, if we do not think in language, what is its use(s). Its uses involve acts of communication. We use language to communicate to others what we are thinking. This reporting to others of what we think, makes it different from thought itself. It is similar to the difference of saying a word and mentioning a word.† Thinking would be analogous to saying a word, and communication would be akin to mentioning a word. We not only communicate are thoughts to others but also to ourselves—dear diary. We write sticky notes to remind ourselves of things; we talk to ourselves; and we deliberate with ourselves.
These days we use many apps to communicate to ourselves, like calender apps, to do list apps, and project management apps. Language is complex and so are its uses. Not only do we share are thoughts with others, we request things from others, we give orders to others, and we ask questions of others. We also communicate things by special languages. Think of logical symbolism. And, in the modern world some of us communicate to a machine (computer). There are now many many programming languages. There are also different levels of these languages. Higher level ones use a limited vocabulary highly depended on correct syntax and mathematical symbolism; mid-level languages, like assembly ones, use limited three letter commands: and there are low level ones using nothing but binary numbers, using boolean arithmetic.
I also think that language is similar to a sensory organ. You are probably familiar with the standard five: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Some also include other senses, such as body positioning (proprioception). My claim here is that language senses our thoughts; it senses our thoughts and communicates it to us in our conscious awareness.
So, what is my confidence level in regards to my belief in my conclusion that we do not think in language? I say it has reach my level of belief.‡ If you include language, which obviously, I do not, as thought itself, it would change things considerably. It would be obvious that we do think in language as far as its use is concern. But, some (I may be one) limit thought to reasoning (i.e. rational thought). If you do this than it is possible to see this as language functioning as preprocessing and postprocessing operations, and the actual reasoning does not use language itself, than my belief is saved. If not I must drop my confidence to just think or even to feel.
So, with some qualifications I believe we do not think in language.
* I have a future post in mind for this pairing.
^ By the way if we have the additional premise, “we think” becomes a superfluous one.
† When we say a word we are referring to a thing or concept, or whatnot. When we mention a word, we are referring to the word itself as in defining its meaning.
‡ Look at the blog post mentioned in the first paragraph for a description of how I talk about my level of confidence in my beliefs. There are four levels – feeling, thinking, believing, and firmly believing.