CARTA: Imagination: Lera Boroditsky – Building Complex Knowledge with Language and Imagination



(whooshing and beeping tones) (cheerful piano and string music) – [Man] We are the paradoxical ape, bipedal, naked, large-brained. Long the master of fire,
tools, and language, but still trying to understand ourselves. Aware that death is inevitable, yet filled with optimism. We grow up slowly. We hand down knowledge. We empathize and deceive. We shape the future from
our shared understanding of the past. CARTA brings together experts
from diverse disciplines, to exchange insights on who
we are and how we got here, an exploration made possible
by the generosity of humans, like you.
(uplifting orchestra music) (upbeat electronic music) (upbeat electronic music) – I like to start with this very, kind of, self-flattering question of: How do we get so smart?
(audience chuckles) How are we humans able to think about all of the complex and
sophisticated things that we think about? How do we invent them? And specifically, there's a puzzle because, ultimately,
we're physical creatures. And we get only physical
information from the world. So we get photons in our eyes. We get pressure waves in our ears. We're subject to gravity, and we bend our toes and flex our knees to try to defy gravity and stay upright. And we can push on things and
exert pressure on the world. And that somehow, through this
super-physical interaction, we end up with really fancy ideas. Like, we think about goals and principles and truth and justice. We invent ideas like time
travel and imaginary numbers. How do we do that? How does that set of physical interactions and brains that are evolved for these basic physical interactions, how do they create this wonderful,
abstract world of ideas? And these abstract ideas are the things that actually make
being human so much fun. So if you go to a dinner party, and the only things you talk about are physical, concrete things. Like if all you can say is,
"Boy, this podium is wooden (knocks on podium) "and solid." You're not gonna get invited
back to that dinner party. (audience chuckles)
The things that we talk about, the things that we obsess
about, all day long, are these abstract things. How do our minds create these? Now, this is a problem
that has vexed scholars for centuries. Plato thought about it,
so he thought about: How would you teach someone
an abstract idea, like virtue? And he ends up concluding
that it's impossible. And we can't learn these things,
so we must recollect them from past incarnations of our souls. Darwin, actually, also ran into this. So Alfred Wallace, the co-originator of the Theory of Evolution with Darwin, gave up on the Theory of Evolution because he got so vexed by this idea of how brains that evolved
for physical interaction, how natural selection could have created brains that then invent
symphonies or play chess or do any of the kinds of
complex things that we do. And Darwin tried to
intervene, writing to Wallace, "I hope you have not
murdered too completely "your own and my child." Don't throw the baby out with bathwater. We can save this evolution thing. So how do we actually
create these abstract ideas? I'm gonna give you one, specific example, and that is how we think about time. Now, I do a lotta work on time. I'm not the only one obsessed with time. The work "time" is actually
the most frequent noun in English. And that's kind of interesting because, of course, we can't see time. We can't touch time. We can't smell time. We can't taste time. It's abstract. But at the same time, it creates the very basis of our experience. You can't experience
anything outside of time. So how do we conceptualize
this abstract entity? I'll take it one step further and ask: How do we think about
something like time travel? How do we invent that idea? Of course, it's not
through physical experience of your own, with time travel. It's not because you actually traveled to some other time and came back, and now you can recollect that idea. So here's a story of how we might come up with
an idea like time travel. In lots of languages, we talk about time, using spatial metaphors. So we'll say things like, "We're approaching the holidays" or "We're coming up on Christmas." "We're coming up on the deadline." Well, if we're coming up on the holidays, time is a path on which I'm traveling. I'm traveling from the past to the future. Once you have that analogy
in place, that metaphor, that time is a path that you can travel, well, a path you can travel
in whatever direction you want and whatever speed you want. So once you set that analogy, you can now extend it and think about something that goes beyond what's possible in your
physical experience. You've invented the idea of time travel, just by extending this little analogy. There are a couple of
ingredients to that story. One is, you have to be
able to make an analogy between physical experience
and something more abstract. But also, something has to encourage you, invite you to make that analogy. Something has to say,
"Well, why don't you try "thinking about moving in
time, like moving in space?" And then, you can go beyond that. How do we know that any part of this story that I just told you is true, that people actually do
these kinds of extensions. Let me give you a couple of examples. In English, we actually have
two, kind of opposing ways of talking about time. One talks about ourselves as moving from the past to the future. We call this the "ego-moving" metaphor. And we say things like, "We're
approaching the deadline." The other one goes in
the opposite direction. We're stationary, and
time is moving past us, like a train or a river. We call this the "time-moving" metaphor. And so, you might say something like, "The deadline is approaching." Now, in a strict, physical sense, if I'm approaching the deadline or the deadline is approaching me, those are the same. If time is really a uni-directional,
one-dimensional entity, it doesn't actually matter
which one of us is moving. But in space, it matters. So if I'm moving towards you, or you're moving towards me, those two things are different because there's a fixed ground
against which we're moving. So we can actually tell the difference of which one is happening. How do we know if people
really think about "I'm approaching the
deadline" as being different from "The deadline is approaching"? Do people really take these
spatial metaphors seriously? Here's one hint. Suppose I ask you: "Next
Wednesday's meeting "has been moved forward two days. "What day is the meeting, now
that it's been rescheduled?" (audience murmurs)
Who thinks Monday? Who thinks Friday? Okay, it's about normal. So if you're thinking of
time moving towards you, then moving the meeting forward is moving the meeting in the
direction of motion of time, from Wednesday to Monday. But if you think of yourself
as moving through time, then moving the meeting forward is moving the meeting in
your direction of motion, from Wednesday to Friday. And we can actually get people to imagine motion in space. So, for example, we'd say,
"Imagine how you'd maneuver "the chair to the X." And you either have to
imagine yourself scooting in a chair, somewhere. Or you imagine pulling a
rope to bring a chair to you. So in one case, you're
imagining yourself moving. In the other case, something
is coming towards you. And after people have
imagined one or the other, we slip in the seemingly
unrelated question about time. We say, "Next Wednesday's meeting has been "moved forward two days. "What day is the meeting?" And what we find is, people
who have been imagining themselves moving forward through space will say the meeting is now on Friday. People who have been imagining
something coming towards them will say the meeting is now on Monday. Course, they don't know that
they're being influenced by this imagination
exercise that we gave them. But what it's telling us is,
people are actively using the spatial image that they
created to think about time. Actually, these two scenarios in time are psychologically different from them. Now, the other thing about
how we think about time is that it differs from
culture to culture. So humans haven't invented just one way of thinking about time. But we invented many, many different ways. Let me give you just a few examples. So in English, of
course, we read and write from left to right. And it's natural to then
organize all kinds of things from left to right. So here, I'm showing you
pictures of my grandfather at different ages. And if I gave you this set
of cards, shuffled them, and said, "Please lay them
out in a correct order," chances are you would lay
them out exactly like this, from left to right. We consider this to be the correct order, the correct arrangement. But people who read and
write from right to left, for example, people who
read Arabic or Hebrew, will organize these
cards from right to left. So for them, the direction of time goes in the opposite direction. And just to give you
an intuition for this, here's a logo for a nutritional
supplement for kids. And you can read this logo very easily, and you can see what
it does for your child. When they tried using this
in Arabic-speaking countries, they ran into some problems
(audience chuckles) because if you read the
logo from right to left, it becomes quite
problematic and confusing, what it does for your child. Now, so far, I've given you examples of how time can travel
with respect to the body, either left to right or right to left. But it can also travel not with
respect to the body at all. So here's an example. This is an aboriginal
community in Australia that I had a chance to work with. They live on the edge of Cape York. They're the Kuuk Thaayore people. And what's interesting about
languages like Kuuk Thaayore is they don't use words
like "left" and "right." Instead, they primarily
rely on words like, "north," "south," "east," and "west," cardinal direction terms. And when I say they primarily rely on cardinal direction terms, I really mean that at all scales. So even for body parts, you would say, "There's an ant on your southwest leg" or "Move your cup to the
north/northeast a little bit," (cup taps on podium)
things like that. Even the way you say
"hello," in Kuuk Thaayore is to say, "Which way are you heading?" And the answer should be something like, "North/northwest, in the far distance. "How about you?" So imagine, as you walk around
your day, everyone you greet, you have to report your heading direction. (audience chuckles)
That would get you oriented really quickly, right? Because, literally, you
could not get past "hello" without knowing which way is which. And let's just establish that
we don't think like this. Everyone close your eyes for a second. And I can see you, so I
can tell whether or not you've closed your eyes. Point southeast.
(audience chuckles) All right, you can open your eyes. I see points in every possible direction. (audience laughs)
At least, some of you are right.
(audience laughs) That's good. So people who speak
languages like Kuuk Thaayore actually stay oriented really well. They can point southeast
without hesitation. Even young children can do that. But I also wondered: How
do they think about time? So if they don't think
about left and right, with respect to space,
how do they lay out time? So remember, if I give you this task, I give you a bunch of cards to lay out. What would they do? So here's an example. This is one participant. They're sitting, facing south. And this is a bunch of different card sets they've laid out. And what they've done
is go from left to right in each case. Here's another participant. I'm sorry; this is the same participant on a different day, sitting facing north. And they've laid everything
out, now, from right to left. Here's a different person,
sitting, facing east. And they've laid everything out, coming towards the body. What's the pattern? It's the sun, from east to west. So for them, time is
locked on the landscape. It doesn't stay locked on the body. So for me, as an English speaker, if I'm facing this way,
then time goes this way. And if I'm facing this way,
then time goes this way. And if I'm facing this way,
then time goes this way. Very egocentric of me to
make the dimension of time chase me around, every
time I turn my body. Instead, for the Kuuk Thaayore, time always goes in the same direction, with respect to the landscape, regardless of which way
their body is facing. And this isn't the only
way that time can flow, according to the landscape. So, for example, a work by Rafael Nunez, here at UCSD, shows that
time doesn't even have to go in a straight line. So, for example, for the
Yupno of Papua, New Guinea, time flows into the village at one angle. And then, once it hits the village, it takes a turn and flows
out at a different angle. And this has to do with the mouth and the source
of the Yupno River, which are important
geographical locations. So people around the world have imagined all kinds of ways to organize
this very basic dimension, whether it goes left to
right, right to left. There are vertical organizations, organizations that go on the landscape, in all kinds of different ways. There's a really rich variety
that humans have invented, around the world. Now, you could ask: How
deeply rooted is this imagined time, in our idea of space? So if you were to disable
the part of the brain that processes a particular part of space, would that also disrupt
our ability to imagine that part of time? And we actually had a
chance to test this idea, by looking at patients
who've suffered strokes in their right parietal lobe. So here, I'm showing you the
brain of Federico Fellini, after he suffered a stroke
in his right parietal lobe. And this kind of stroke
often results in neglect, on the opposite side of the stroke. If you have left neglect,
in everyday life, you might not notice food on
the left side of your plate. You might only eat the food on
the ride side of your plate, even though you're still hungry. You might only put makeup
on one side of your face or shave one side of your face. You might only read words
on one side of the page. People with neglect seem to not notice, not pay attention to,
things on the left side of space, for them. This member of Kiss doesn't have neglect as far as I know. But this is how he would do his makeup, if he would.
(audience chuckles) So we wondered: How would patients, who neglect the left side
of space, think about time? So we told patients about a guy, David, fictional guy, David, who
likes doing some things 10 years ago and will like
doing different things, 10 years from now. So 10 years ago, he liked strawberries, but 10 years from now,
he will like cherries. And they just had to remember these facts. And we had a couple of control groups. We had healthy controls and also patients who'd had a stroke, but didn't show signs of neglect. So let me show you data from
the two control groups, first. So the solid bars, here, show you the items that people got right. And everything to the right of the center is things to do with the future. Everything to the left of the center is things to do with the past. The shaded areas are where
people made mistakes. Now, of course, both
groups made some mistakes, but the mistakes are symmetrical, around the past and the future. Here's what the neglect
patients look like. They were heavily shifted to the right. They weren't able to recognize, correctly, things that had do with the past, with the left side of the mental timeline. And instead, they misattributed
a whole lot of things to the right. So when you damage the part of the brain that's responsible for representing
the left side of space, you also damage the imagined left, the time that you imagine on
the left side of your body. Now, I've been giving
a lot of examples about how we imagine time and space and how metaphors and cultural artifacts, like reading and writing, invite us to make different kinds of analogies. But, of course, these ideas go far beyond how we think about time. Because metaphors are
ubiquitous in our experience. Just about anything that's
complex or interesting is at least partially imagined. And the way we talk about these complex, interesting things is
suffused with metaphor. So if you're talking about
a relationship problem, you might say, "Well,
we're spinning our wheels. "Our relationship is off track." If we're talking about the
economy, you might say, "We need to jump-start the economy." And the idea is that a quick stimulus is what the economy needs,
to get going, again. Or you might say that we
need "prop up the economy." And then, you're using a different set of physical metaphors, to think about what needs to happen. When we talk theories or
ideas, we could talk about "poking holes" or "warming up to ideas." With social issues, we talk about immigrants as "seeping into the country," as if they're some kind
of nefarious substance or crime as "preying" or
"infecting" our neighborhoods. And these metaphors have
psychological weight. So, for example, in our
lab, we've looked at how people want to approach
a crime problem in a city. If you tell them that "Crime is a beast, "plaguing their city" or
"preying on their city," as opposed to "Crime is a virus." If you tell them, "Crime is a beast," they want to do the kinds of things you would normally do to contain a beast. So they want harsher enforcement measures. If you tell them, "Crime is a virus," they want to take a more
epidemiological approach. They wanna diagnose the problem, maybe inoculate the population, do things that are more reform-oriented. So these metaphors have
real, psychological weight. So coming back to this question
of: How do we get so smart? My answer would be that
our brains are masters at doing dynamic, opportunistic bricolage. They recycle and reuse
machinery that has evolved for simple, perceptual motor tasks. They recycle and reuse the
knowledge that we acquire through physical experience. But also, language is an
incredibly powerful tool that invites us to conjure up those ideas and recombine them in
all kinds of novel ways because language supplies
us with a large stock of units, but an infinite
ability to recombine them. So I can, right now,
take a bunch of words, put them in a new configuration and invite you to imagine something you've never imagined before. So I could say, "Imagine
a circle of hedgehogs "dancing the polka on top of a crepe "that is traveling through time, "from paleolithic times to now, "to puzzle us about how they are able "to make such fine,
thin pastry, back then." (audience laughs)
Now, if everything has gone relatively well
in your life, so far, you haven't had that
thought before, right? (audience laughs)
And so, you're welcome. That is through the power of language, we can conjure up all kinds of ideas, an infinite set of new ideas, by recombining things from
our physical experience and from other abstract ideas
we've built in the past. Thank you very much.
(audience applause) (upbeat electronic music)

23 thoughts on “CARTA: Imagination: Lera Boroditsky – Building Complex Knowledge with Language and Imagination”

  1. Boring woman – in every speech, she uses the sentence "if everything has gone right in your life up to now, you had not had this thought before" – she does, what so many Clowns of Entertainment do:she provokes cheap laughs from a sheepish audience.

  2. time-emit live-evil mom-mom dad-dad god-dog i can't stop listening and i know-wonk that-taht she-ehs brain-niard washing-gnihsaw me-em. Goddess-sseddoG of

    NO=NO=<(**)> = YES =YES

    TIME 1 3 5 9 17 9 5 3 1 EMIT

  3. Lera Boroditsky's presentation can be another way to understand critical discourse analysis or vice versa.

  4. In regard to the early question about how abstract thought could develop organically, it is only necessary to consider studies of how creativity works. Creativity is normally defined as doing/saying/thinking something that has never been done/said/thought before. This is a workable description but it is also somewhat misleading. The overwhelming majority of creative activity (not all, but the exceptions are inconsequential) can be broken down to taking two or more different but similar things and mentally combining them in some way. For example, when you look at a tree you know that it is a 3-dimensional object and your see it as such. If you walk around it you can see how the branches extend in every direction. Even when you stand back from it, your brain allows you to see it that way even though in reality the light that you are sending is all coming from one direction and all you are really seeing is a connection of lines and colors in a fixed pattern. Now, if you can take that pattern of lines that you see and mentally combine it with a similar pattern of lines that you mark onto a piece of paper then you have just invented the concept of artistic representation of objects (aka drawing).

    This is a very abstract process. It becomes even more abstract if you try to draw something from memory. But at the same time the process of mentally combining disparate things has very concrete benefits. That is how you can decide that if eating one plant makes you sick, then another different but similar plant might also make you sick.

    And right there is the link that describes how abstract thought can evolve in a concrete environment.

  5. Brilliant ideas! I watched and listened to all her presentations on Youtube. Can I have some more? If all my teachers are as articulate as she is, I will always be enrolled in courses 🙂

  6. Excellent and fascinating talk. One aspect of the talk however brings up a dilemma. Time travel is presented as though it is a concept that emerged from how we think of time and space (english speakers anyway I'm presuming). However, the reality is that time travel was invented by a single person, just as all inventions are created – they all come from a single person and never from groups. Inventors change reality by creating new concepts and things. Once these concepts and things are assimilated they then become conventional or everyday symbols, at that point they are part of a new reality. They will eventually be replaced though by other concepts and things that are invented by someone in the future. That is the nature of reality. It does not change from group think, it changes because of individuals who have imagination, creativity and the ability to solve problems in new ways.

  7. What concept is this?????time moves towards you or you move towards time???????You live at the present time and you move ahead with plans for the future. tgis is how it must be. You cannot just sit on a chair and wait for your imaginary servants to bring you whatever you wish. You must work to earn a living, you must study, you must work for your children and do it enthousiasticly. Your theories sound more like Einstein's theories that nobody could understand untill recently when the true meaning of his theories has been deschifered. It was also about this imaginary travel in time and the travel of light from one person to another. So how can we resolve the causes of the psychological problems many people in the west have ???????????I know how. You as a cognitive scientist do you know the causes and the solutions?????????????????????

  8. I have a question: if I understand the 'neglect' group experiment, the people suffering from neglect were damaged in the right side of their brain, which controlled the left side of their body, and they were associating the left with the past, hence the poor recollection of things attributed to the past.. Were they attributing left with the past because their brains were wired to associate time moving left to right in that way because of language? Is that the implication? In other words, if the same experiment had been conducted in an Arabic-speaking country (with patients with the same stroke damage), the patients would have been bad at attributing things to the future, attributing them instead to the past?
    And my next question would be, would that impact those two groups of patients differently in everyday life? Ie would the English-speaking patients live somewhat more in the future, and the Arabic-speaking ones more in the past?

  9. Hello Lera. Very interesting presentation. I thought about this 'left and right' theory very often myself. I'm just an ordinary man nothing to do with your profession. We know the origin of both types of writings. How does this influence our mind and thinking, we don't know. We have some great personalities president Bill Clinton and Obama, writings with the left hand, others with the right hand. Is there some personality differences between them? We also know that Jewish people lighting two candles on Shabbat night. One for the present one for the past. There isn't lightening for the future because the future is uncertain. But if we can make an imaginary number (s) and enlightening the future I can win on lotto millions of dollars. Why didn't gave us the G'd spirit the third candle to lighten?

  10. I’m not sure, that your researches about neglected people are correct. My mother in low really doesn’t fell the left side of her face, but she instead has much more problems with remembering her past, and no problems with future🤷‍♀️

  11. We use spatial terms to talk about all things; concrete and abstract. Time's no exception unless its expressed in mathematical terms.

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