The mystery of how people succeed in representing abstract things has engaged scholars for a long time. This dissertation research tests the idea that some conceptual structures are not constructed entirely de novo, rather they arise through the reuse or functional redirection of existing structures. The fact that people talk about time in terms of space may be a clue that they think about time using spatial representations. The experiments in this research project inquire about relationships between language and thought using simple psychophysical tasks with entirely nonlinguistic, non-symbolic stimuli and responses (e.g., lines and dots). By using psychophysical paradigms, relationships will be explored between abstract and concrete domains of knowledge, guided by patterns in language, but free of the potential confounds associated with using linguistic stimuli to investigate nonlinguistic mental representations. Experiments will be conducted in the US, Spain, France and China. Broader impacts. This research aims to understand the impact of cross-linguistic diversity on human cognition. To this end, it is necessary to recruit research personnel who speak a variety of languages. This project has already involved students and colleagues who are native speakers of English, French, Greek, Italian, Mandarin, and Spanish, and has fostered potentially lasting international collaborations. This project encourages the participation of undergraduate researchers from minority groups that are underrepresented in the sciences, by making their cultural and linguistic heritage the focus of scientific inquiry. By exploring previously hidden links between language and thought, and by asking how these connections may be shaped by newly discovered cross-linguistic differences, this project has the potential to advance our knowledge of human cognitive diversity, to enhance cross-cultural understanding, and to address one of the central questions in the cognitive sciences: what is universal in the human mind, and what is shaped by our particular linguistic and cultural experience?

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Thomas J. Baerwald
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology
United States
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