My Brains Cells Made Me Do It

by Translation Guy on October 20, 2010

I’ll bet you figure you can learn just about anything. Now maybe your rocket science isn’t so good―at least not if you’re reading this blog, since we know most of our readers are more humanities and natural science types―but given enough thought, you could get it. Especially you multi-cultural translator types, with all your multiple language abilities and such, you could probably figure out anything. Hey, they don’t call language the sum of all human knowledge for nothing. And maybe that’s just the problem.

Stanislas Dehaene, an experimental cognitive psychologist at the Collège de France, describes it this way: “A classical, though often implicit view…is that the human brain, unlike that of other animals, is a learning machine that can adapt to essentially any novel cultural task, however complex…. We humans would be liberated from our past instincts and be able to invent entirely new cultural forms.”

Dehaene has mapped enough brains with neuroscans to come to a different conclusion. He thinks the brain (and that means your brain too, not to put too fine a point on it) is a lot more limited than you think. “It places strong limits on the range of possible cultural forms. Essentially the brain did not evolve for culture, but culture evolved to be learnable by the brain.” This would explain Lady Gaga. But that is not the only implication of his research.

Dehaene believes that, despite difference in the details, all human cultures are essentially the same. The universals―mythology, marriage, language, politics, everything in fact―are traceable to specific brain systems. You’re not going to find any Kool-Aid in the fridge if there’s no pitcher to mix it up; you’ve got to have the pitcher first. So the required brain system must predate human culture, and predate humans, for that matter. Call it the primate pitcher.

In reading, for example, the shapes of all human writing systems have evolved towards simplified forms compatible with the way that all primate see.  I mean, when was the last time you tweeted in cuneiform?

Neuroscientist Mark Changizi has discovered that all human writing systems, from Chinese to ABCs, use the same basic shapes. Even macaque monkey brainwaves show that some of these shapes are already part of primate visual systems―no, not because monkeys type, but because those same forms are also useful for coding natural visual scenes. “The monkey brain already contains neurons that preferentially respond to an alphabet of these naturally occurring shapes, including T, L and Y. Human brains have recycled these old visual patterns to turn them into a cultural code for language,” says Dehaene.

But since reading is such a recent event in primate history, beginning only a few hundred generations ago, what were pre-literate humans using the reading part of the brain for? Or for that matter, how do illiterates use that portion of their brain that’s currently out to non-literary lunch? Dehaene has found that this part of the brain has a preference for pictures of objects and faces. “We are also finding that this region is especially attuned to small features present in the contours of natural shapes.” Interesting how, in English, we often “read” someone’s expression.

Lots of fascinating implications here, many of which you will not be able to consider due to the limits of that brain structure of yours, inherited from your primate ancestors. Zinggg. Right over your head… Oh well. Could you pass the bananas, please?

For more on the implications of these cognitive patterns and their implications for learning and reading disabilities, please check out Gareth Cook’s interview with Dehaene in Scientific American Mind, from which I cribbed most of this post.


  1. Cheryl Horn says:

    Ken, you need to read ‘The language of demons and angels’ – I think you’ll enjoy it my man.

  2. Sugar Cookie says:

    the Web is the sum of all human knowledge plus porn.

  3. You’re right Ken, and each person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge

  4. Paige Henson says:

    Hey! I’m sure that we have some rocket scientists in the crowd… anyone… no?…

  5. If so, ‘the study of speakers’ situations and hearers’ responses’ might be ‘equivalent to the sum total of all human knowledge’, just a thought.

LiveZilla Live Chat Software