How language colors perception

Can you tell which aliens are good and which are evil, the Smoothheads or the Bumpyheads, based on whether they are called “leebish” or “grecious”? If so, you’re a good candidate for testing at Carnegie Mellon, where researchers have shown that naming things with labels creates mental categories, helping people learn faster. So reports today’s New York Times, in the article, When Language Can Hold the Answer:

The finding may not seem surprising, but it is fodder for one side in a traditional debate about language and perception, including the thinking that creates and names groups.

In stark form, the debate was: Does language shape what we perceive, a position associated with the late Benjamin Lee Whorf, or are our perceptions pure sensory impressions, immune to the arbitrary ways that language carves up the world?

The latest research changes the framework, perhaps the language of the debate, suggesting that language clearly affects some thinking as a special device added to an ancient mental skill set. Just as adding features to a cellphone or camera can backfire, language is not always helpful. For the most part, it enhances thinking. But it can trip us up, too.

The gist is that language “greases the wheels of perception.” However, after that initial greasing, it can then get in the way:

In another experiment, Dr. Lupyan showed subjects a series of chairs and tables using pictures from the Ikea catalog. Some subjects were asked to press a button indicating that the picture was of a table or a chair. Other subjects pressed a button to make a nonverbal judgment about the pictures, for example, to indicate whether they liked them or not. Dr. Lupyan found that the subjects who used words to label the objects had more trouble remembering whether they’d seen a specific chair before than subjects who had only pressed a button in a nonverbal task.

Language helps us learn novel categories, and it licenses our unusual ability to operate on an abstract plane, Dr. Lupyan said. The problem is that after a category has been learned, it can distort the memory of specific objects, getting between us and the rest of the nonabstract world.