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Language bootstraps cognitive complexity

Periodic Reporting for period 5 - LANGBOOT (Language bootstraps cognitive complexity)

Reporting period: 2023-06-01 to 2023-11-30

Language and cognition have a close, but cryptic, relationship. Is language just another tool in humans' diverse cognitive toolkit; important for communication, but not necessary for complex, high-level thought? Or is it language that allows us to form and manipulate complex thoughts in the first place? Distinguishing between these possibilities is vital to understanding our most fundamental cognitive faculties and the origin of modern human cognition itself.

The LANGBOOT project proposed that language bootstraps the cognitive complexity of the human mind by enhancing its ability to form and manipulate more elaborate mental representations than would otherwise be possible. In an innovative programme of investigation, we used uses cutting-edge methods from experimental psychology, psycholinguistics, cognitive modelling, and corpus linguistics to examine how words interact with conceptual knowledge gleaned from perceptual and action experience across a range of fundamental cognitive tasks. We tested whether and how language provides indispensable aid to cognitive processing in categorisation, memory performance, and abstract thought, and how such aid could have influenced cognitive evolution.

These investigations let us answer the important questions of whether language provides critical enhancement to the achievable complexity of cognition, and whether language use could have brought about the sudden flowering of art, fine tools and culture that are the hallmarks of complex cognition in modern humans. The overall objective was to develop a comprehensive, multidisciplinary perspective on the role of language in cognition.
We started the programme of research by laying the groundwork for our computational model. We collected data from over 5,000 participants to establish the perceptual and action experience underlying the entire conceptual knowledge of an adult speaker of English. We also analysed billions of words of English text in order to map out how well language can capture different forms of conceptual relationship. By running experiments with people and running model simulations, we were able to examine how people mentally represent concepts in different kinds of tasks and determine whether language was involved.

We first investigated how people categorise the world around them and discovered that information from both perception-action and language is important to how concepts are divided them into categories, but that language helps people to make faster and more accurate judgements. We next examined memory, where we showed that language helps people to remember larger numbers of objects and events by making mental representations more efficient. We also found that language aids performance in creative tasks by helping people to make new links between concepts. Overall, this research suggests that people use language to support both concrete and abstract thinking even when there is no specific need to do so. Our findings have helped us develop theories of how language and perception-action experience work together to help people mentally represent concepts under different circumstances. By attaching words to ideas, language allows people to form and manipulate more complex mental representations than would otherwise be possible.

We have published this research in journal and conference papers, made all their materials and data publicly available, disseminated the results at international scientific meetings, and created tools to help other scientists carry out related research.
The research programme has advanced the state of the art in many ways. Our groundbreaking methods involved creating the largest ever semantic database for the English language and the first computational model that combines language and perception-action experience at the full scale of an adult conceptual system (approximately 40 thousand concepts). We have discovered new ways that language affects cognition, including that linguistic information affects thinking even in tasks that do not involve language (e.g. judging pictures or remembering events), and that language increases the number of concepts that can held in working memory. Overall, our work has transformed understanding of how different forms of perception and action experience are important to different kinds of concepts, how language experience can capture the different ways concepts are related to one another, and how language provides humans with indispensable aid in thinking complex thoughts.