Lakoff lecture that debuts his current neural theory and has a detail concerning “meander”

Here’s a video of a lecture Lakoff recently gave at the Central European University. It’s cued to the beginning, but the segement that particularly interests me starts at about 11:03:

The specific point that interests me concerns the verb “to meander.” Here’s what Lakoff says; he’s talking about work done by Teenie Matlock:

What she pointed out, experimentally, was that if you take the difference between the road runs through the valley and the road meanders through the valley it takes longer to understand meander. Because you’re tracing it in your mind, you’re tracing the path, eventhough the road is just sitting there, right? You’re understanding it in terms of motion.

Why does that interest me? “Kubla Khan”, what else?

ll. 3-7, look at the verbs:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns meaureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:

ll. 25-26

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,

There, in line 25, we have meandering, one of the verbs Lakoff mentioned. I’m not sure of the significance except that THAT part of the poem is set in a conceptual space that is structured by time while the earlier lines, which also mention the rive, is set in a conceptual space that is structured by space.

Finally, I do have a quibble with this FORM IS MOTION business. It is this, when researching Beethoven’s Anvil I looked at some of the literature on navigation and found that, contrary to my intuitions, that navigation by landmarks is a secondary method, not primary. The primary method is dead-reckoning. In dead-reckoning distance traversed is a function of elapsed time and speed. If you walk for three hours (on one heading) at the rate of four miles per hour you will have traversed 12 miles.

What’s interesting is that speed conflates/combines time AND space. And it seems to be primitive here. Whatever the nervous system is doing, it’s NOT noting distance and then dividing by time to come up with speed. Why not? Because you can’t do that until the traverse is complete. Rather, it’s got an ongoing estimate of speed and that’s what it uses.

I’ve not read their latest stuff on this, on the one hand, nor have I really tried to think this through, on the other hand. So maybe they’ve got it all worked out. But at the moment I’m thinking they don’t.

Also, THIS has to be differentiated from judging form relative to eye movements used to trace form, which Lakoff and Turner alluded to in More Than Cool Reason. These are two different mechanisms, eye tracing and navigation. They may both involve time and space, but they’re neurally and functionally different. How does THAT difference show up in language?

Addendum: These are just notes:

Lakoff is discussing Narayanan’s work (c. 16:00): The neural system that runs the body – “that will tell you how to do it” – also runs language. Translation: we have episodic vs. systemic cognition – terms from the model David Hays developed with his students in the 1970s, though also common in the cognitive science of the time. The episodic system that coordinates body motion ALSO “runs” NL semantics (but not NL articulation or writing). This is where we get aspect. Aspect is associated with modality in the Hays model & you can find in there in Mechanisms of Language (I’ve not actually checked to see if aspect is discussed as such, but the machinery is certainly there..

Terry Regier: Compute image schemas from combinations of topic maps in the brain, both sensory and motor.

At birth: 100 billion neurons at birth. 1000 to 10K connections each. These have been drastically trimmed back by 5 years.

c. 25:00: “All thought is physical.”

I’m thinking that Piaget on the biological roots of math would be interesting here, Biology and Knowledge, pp. 305-344. See also Gärdenfors, Conceptual Spaces, pp. 162 ff.

c. 35:00 or so, maybe a bit earlier or later, Lakoff discusses frames. Mentions Fillmore. So far this is all stuff from the 1970s. Bottom-level frames are realized in terms of image schemas.

c. 39:00: “Metaphor is a map from frame to frame, schema to schema.” Well, maybe this is over-reaching a bit.

c. 45:00: Cascades. Stanislaw Dehaene on reading. Numbers and letters are recognized in different parts of the brain. Neural ensembles linked across different neurofunctionalareas (NFA’s, my term) that operate together in a unitary act of recognition or cognition. Lakoff talks about layers, with ensembles linked across layers. So, we’ve got a cascade that gives us a shape 5 or so layers in. Letters are recognized at the next layer in one NFA while numerals are recognized at the next layer in a different NFA. These cascades are “active all the way down.” Hence the term cascade.

And, wouldn’t you know, “meaning works the same way.” But the cascades are more complex.

c. 54:00: Across is a relation where a trajector moves from one (topographic) region to another where there is yet a different region in between the two containing the terminal points of the path. The one in between is called the landmark. Across would be at the relational level in Powers’s hierarchy and episodic in Hays.

c. 58:30: Damasio, convergence / divergence zones. High-level cascades. Narayanan: coordinating schemas/nodes. Complicated inputs & outputs.

But, you know, doing this all at the neural level is a bit like trying to figure out what a computer is doing by examining the travel of impulses in the physical circuits. It’s not quite that bad, but it’s in that direction. There doesn’t seem to be anything like the notion of degress that Hays and I have (cf. Principles and Development of Natural Intelligences).

c. 1:04:50: Two kinds of neural firing, one involving neurotransmitters and the other involving charges. We’ve got a soup of neurochemicals in synaptic space. Neurotransmitters permit the flow of potassium (out) and sodium ions (in) to and from neurons. Charges build up inside the center of the neural cell body and then fire down the axon (when a threshold has been reached), letting sodium ions in as the charge moves down the axon, and when it reaches the ends of the dendrites (Lakoff’s pods) neurotransmitters are released into the synaptic cleft.

[Lakoff overdoes it with the "awesomeness" of it all.]

c. 1:08:00: Grammar links up structure of grammar & structure of meaning through the cascades, via the coordinating “nodes.”

Stops for questions at 1:09:00. I’ve not listened to the Q&A.

  • Jona Sassenhagen

    I’m not going to comment on the plausibility of his theory, but whenever he’s talking about neurons, he’s somewhere between eclectic/confused and wrong. For example, cortical columns span multiple cortical layers (that’s why they’re called columns), and neurotransmitters are not hormones (neurotransmitters implement local, fast synaptic transmission between neurons, hormones travel through the blood and affect all kinds of cells; yes, there is some overlap). That may be just marginalia, but it’s the same when he’s talking about central concepts regarding his theory of the neural implementation of metaphorical cognition.
    The “two kinds of neural firing” probably refers to the difference between action potentials and post-synaptic potentials, the nature whichof Lakoff has completely confused the author about.

  • Bill Benzon

    Ah, yes, Lakoff is none too clear about the neural stuff. As far as I can tell, for example, he doesn’t really see a substantial difference between the neural elements in standard-issue computer neural network computing regimes and real neurons, though the former resemble the latter about as much as the smiley face icon resembles the Mona Lisa. And that, in turn, means that his neural model isn’t really a neural model, though maybe it’s like one in the way the truthiness is like truth. (John Sowa has some remarks about this in his review of Philosophy in the Flesh).

    I glad you find his “two kinds of firing” stuff to be, shall we say, opaque. I was wondering what he was up to there, hence the confusion in my notes.

    Lakoff seems to have been in Big Think mode for the last decade or two, or even more. He’s got a Theory of Everything by the tail and by jimminy he’s going to wrestle that sucker to the ground. Still, he’s a smart guy and so it pays to look in on him every once in awhile.

    In any event, my professional interests are such that I HAVE to pay attention to him. I happen to think he way overplays the cognitive metaphor stuff and I was unable to finish reading Philosophy in the Flesh. Once he strays too far from local small scale examples the whole thing is so loose and vague as to be worthless. I think he and Johnson had a good idea* back in their original book, but they’ve developed it in a slap-dash way. So what we’ve got is a pile of examples, some quite interesting, in search of a deeper account. And I’m afraid the “neural theory” isn’t that deeper account.

    *I think the stuff on image schemas, for example, is useful. On that and other aspects of cognitive metaphor, I’d check out Peter Gärdenfors, Conceptual Spaces: The Geometry of Thought (2000) pp. 160 ff. The book is really good in general (& the conceptual spaces have nothing to do with the mental spaces of Fauconnier and Turner).

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  • Christian Kliesch

    I’m listening to the talk right now, I am not very convinced by the meander vs. run example. Does anyone have the exact reference to the Matlock paper Lakoff is referring to?

    My issue is that we don’t need body schemas to understand why meander takes longer to process than run. It suffices to assume that meander is a much less commonly used word, and that run is very commonly used in all sorts of metaphors, figurative speech (“run the programme”, “run the analysis”, “runs through the city”). Google’s ngram viewer gives you a detail of just how striking the difference is: – a similar picture with the entire phrase “[runs/meanders] through the valley”.

    So we may not necessarily need to understand the road in terms of motion, it may suffice that we are more used to expect “run”, rather than “meander”, and that’s why we are quicker to respond. But my guess is that in a paper, this issue s/would have been addressed, there is sufficient randomisation, etc., to prevent this from being a confound, and I would be curious about the methodology.

  • Bill Benzon

    I found the paper, and the discussion of “meander” wasn’t very helpful. It was simply listed as one of a number of cases, but no work was actually done with it.