How Words Create Worlds: Sebastien Christian at TEDxCambridge 2014 (Transcript)

Sebastien Christian – Human perception & cognition specialist

Good evening. When I became a fan of TED a few years ago, I immediately liked this man. I really wanted to meet him someday, and yes, that’s not even a joke.

Now I know that this would not happen, but for me, TED remains strongly personified. I have built my very own meaning of the word TED. Each of us, we build meaning from our individual experiences, but we believe, far too much, that these meanings are shared, and we fight a lot because of that. That belief is the root of misunderstandings, of communication failures, of so many arguments.

But we can turn this false belief into a fantastic tool, a tool to argue less, and a tool to explore the world around us. This belief is also a barrier to knowledge and progress. I have spent many years working with deaf and autistic children. Every day, I tried to help them develop their language and build a normalized model of the world with it. And they taught me fundamental things. They taught me fundamental things about what language is, how it grows, what it is built from. Let me explain.

I will request your participation. I will need your participation, so please don’t raise hands, shout out answers, play with me, tell what you think. You are ready. We’ll play it exactly how it was.

First, I need you to answer a first question. You ready? It’s a tough one. What is this? (Audience) A table. Yeah, you did great. Those of you who did not shout the answer knew it, right? Just want to be sure. It may seem difficult to answer this question, because you may feel it is too obvious. Actually, you have done something quite complex, though. You have given a name to an object you have never seen before. To do that, you have isolated it from the environment, then you have extracted some of its main characteristics along with contextual elements, and then you went through what is called an inferential process to give the thing a name. These children taught me that tables do not exist. That anything does. And they did it every day with a simple game over and over and over. Of course, it works with anything.

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And I finally called that game “Let’s destroy a table.” Or “Let’s destroy anything,” but today the victim is a table. So let’s destroy a table together. I want us to share this experience I had so many times with them. If it is so obvious that this is a table, we should be able to define what is a table to someone who does not know what it means for us, so that, next time, this person sees something that we would call “table”, he or she would call it a table too. That would be a success, and the ability to give the same name to a new object is a very basic property of a social group.

So, let’s try it together to define what is a table for this person. You ready? A table is –, fill in the blanks. A table is…

(Audience) Flat. Flat. Is flat. Is… (Audience) A surface. A surface, OK. It’s a surface, like a wall? (Audience) Raised horizontal. Horizontal surface, OK. If I do that, what is this object? It’s a table. I would have to figure out, like, all the positions in space the thing can take, so… OK, so not that. Other characteristics? (Audience) Has legs. Has legs. OK. Three legs. Two legs is table? (Audience) Maybe, I don’t know. Maybe. One leg? You know tables with one leg? (Audience) Yes. Yes.

Table with no leg? (Audience) – Yes. – No. Oh, you don’t agree. Some say yes, some say no. So, number of legs: not relevant. Maybe dimensions.

That height is a table? (Audience) Yes. That height would be a table? (Audience) Yes. Yes. That high? Hmm… no. That high… it’s a table? (Audience) Yes. Yes? No? Don’t agree anymore. OK, that size is a table? Right? (Audience) You have to describe it and what it’s for, not— OK, what it’s for. So if I can eat on it, it’s a table. Yeah? Everything I can eat on, would be a table or not? (Audience) No. Not really. If I can– If I sit on it, it’s still a table? (Audience) Now you’re using it as a chair. Yes. I use it as a chair, so… OK, forget that. And if I– Doesn’t work! Just doesn’t work. What’s the difference between a table and a bed, if I can lie on it like–, or a chair? If I put a mattress on the table, it becomes a bed? (Audience) Yes. No. Yes? No? OK!

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