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How does our brain do that?
Thread poster: Jacek Krankowski
Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
English to Polish
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Jan 7, 2003

By Yehouda Harpaz

30.\"It is a great mystery how the brain can do what it does.\" This statement is simply ridiculous. The implementation of each neuron would require the computation power of something like a standard PC, and the brain has tens of billions of these. With this kind of computation power, it is not a mystery how the brain can do what it does, and in fact it is obvious that it makes it possible for the brain to perform these tasks in a huge number of different ways.

In principle, the question \"how the brain does what it does\" could still be an interesting question. However, the most interesting functions of the brains are done in the cerebral cortex, in which the connectivity (and hence the actual computation) varies stochastically across individuals. Thus, for most of tasks, the answer is simply \"each brain does it in one of the myriad ways that it is possible to do it.\" If you find this answer disappointing, you are not the only one: I also found it very disappointing. That, however, doesn\'t change the fact that it is a direct conclusion from what we know about the brain.

The interesting question that is left open is \"how does the brain know what tasks it should perform?\". A heap of randomly connected neurons would not be expected to generate a coherent behavior. Thus there must be some mechanism that directs the cerebral cortex to acquire proper activity patterns, and it this mechanism which is the real mystery of the brain.

31.\"Language is very complex and difficult to learn, and it is amazing how children learn it.\"

It is quite common to find such statements. This is not only from Chomsky and other believers of Universal Grammar, but also from other camps (For example: \"Your three-year-old child may know nothing of politics or calculus, but she’s a genius at learning language.\" ).

The problem is that this statement is simply false. Language itself is pretty simple, and the only problem is that it requires remembering many arbitrary associations. The real problem is in actually using it: to generate a meaningful communication or understand it, the communicating agent needs to have understanding of the world, and this is indeed difficult.

The argument for the complexity of language is normally based on one or more of these arguments:

Comparing with computers: It is very difficult to teach computers language

That is clearly a consequence of the fact that computers don\'t understand the world. They can generate language, but not meaningful communication.

Comparing with linguists: Linguists work for years to define the grammar that a child learns in months

That is because the child does not learn the formal grammar, it learns to communicate, by using some (learned) rules, which gives the child an approximation of the grammar. As the child grows, he/she adds rules that improve the accuracy. The linguist, on the other hand, looks for a short format description that gets everything right (which is actually impossible, as language changes all the time).

Comparing with adults: children are much better than adults in learning language

The reasons for that are explained in section 12 above.

[ This Message was edited byn2003-01-07 09:52]

[ This Message was edited byn2003-01-07 09:53]

[ This Message was edited by:on2003-01-07 16:02]

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Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
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About the Author Jan 7, 2003

Yehouda Harpaz obviously does not believe in Chomsky\'s psycholinguistics:

A few definitions by John Lyons:

This Message was edited byn2003-01-07 09:29]

[ This Message was edited by:on2003-01-07 13:23]

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Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
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What is language anyhow? Jan 7, 2003

An excellent overview of Whorf, Nelson, Vygotsky, De Saussure, Chomsky, Pinker, Jackendoff, Lenneberg, Deacon, Lieberman, Fillmore, Dowty, Schank, Katz, Gazdar, Montague, Wierzbicka, Langacker, Fauconnier, Peirce, Morris, Preto, Thom, Gregory, Dennett, Hoffmeyer, Sebeock, Fetzer

By Piero Scaruffi

What are jokes and why do we make them

The current paradigm is that language developed because it had an evolutionary function. In other words, it helped us survive. Most linguists and anthropologists believe that the \"help\" provided by language consists in exchanging information about the environment. A member of a group can warn the member of another group about an impending danger or the source of water or the route taken by a predator.

This may be true, but it hardly explains the way we use language every day. When we write an essay, we may be matter of factual, but most of the day we are not. For example, we make jokes all the time. A human being who does not make jokes and does not laugh at jokes made by others is considered a case for a psychoanalyst. Jokes are an essential part of the use of language.

Jokes are a peculiar way to use language. We use words to express something that is not true, but could be true, and the brain somehow relates to this inconsistency and… we laugh.

There must be a reason why humans make jokes. There must be a reason why we use language to make jokes.

If closer inspection, we may not be so sure that the main function of language is communicating information about the environment.

If a tiger attacks you, I will not read you an essay on survival of the fittest: I will just scream \"run!\" We don\'t need the complex, sophisticated structure of language to \"communicate\" about us and the environment. If you are starving, I may just point to the refrigerator. For most practical purposes, street signs communicate information about locations better than geography books. It is at least debatable whether we need language to communicate information about the environment which is relevant to survival. We can express most or all of that information in very simple formats, often with just one word.

On the other hand, if we want to make a joke, we need to master the whole power of the language. Every beginner in a foreign language knows that the hardest part is understanding jokes, and the second hardest is making them. Joking does require the whole complex structure of language, and, at closer inspection, it is the only feature of human life that requires it.

Jokes are probably very important for our survival. A joke is a practice: we laugh because we realize that somebody terrible would happen in that circumstance: the logic of the world would be violated, or a practical disaster would occur. The situation is \"funny\" because it has to be avoided. Being funny, helps remember that we should avoid it.

Joking may very well be an important way to learn to move in the environment without having to do it first person, without having to pay the consequences for a mistake.

In that case, it would be more than justified that our brain evolved a very sophisticated tool to make jokes: language.

Ultimately, language may have evolved to allow us to make more and more useful jokes.

[ This Message was edited by:on2003-01-07 16:02]

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aivars  Identity Verified
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jokes, a serious matter Jan 12, 2003

Freud analyzed the structure of the joke mechanism and his conclusions were more or less that a joke occurs when a word or situation takes a sudden change in meaning. We expect certain thing to happen and the unexpected twist causes a release of tension that is experienced as pleasure. This explains why we don\'t laugh at joke told twice.

Humor also seems related with the occurrence of something unexpected, imagine your boss arriving to the office wearing a bird suit.

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Jacek Krankowski  Identity Verified
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Learning while joking Jan 12, 2003


I was helping my daughter with how whales and dolphins swim when your bird suit message arrived and thus effectively fixed this \"cetaceans\" term in my memory. Humour is of great help in the process of learning!

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How does our brain do that?

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