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.

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.

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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!

Thank you for your help. And if I separate the top from the legs, and put that other part on the floor, what is it? (Audience) A pile of wood, a table.

A table, a broken table. (Audience) Ikea! A table from Ikea, yeah. Thank you. (Audience) It’s a table top. A table top? Yes. Do you see where we are heading, trying to define that? We are heading to nowhere.

Let’s take a dictionary to save us. Webster’s says exactly, “A table is a piece of furniture with a flat surface designed for a particular purpose.” It’s useless. So we don’t know what a table is, do you agree? We don’t know what is a table, we can’t define a table, we can’t define anything. We don’t know what is anything. Take a few seconds to experience that feeling in you. It’s like a light instability in you. We don’t know what is anything. And you have seen how close we are to disagreement between each other. How narrow are the limits of our common agreement about what a thing as simple as a table should be.

But why then do we believe so strongly that meanings are shared? Well, it began as soon as language began to grow in each of us. At the time of birth, babies recognize the language of their mother. Then, they progressively build their mental world and react more and more to linguistic stimuli. Around twelve months, most babies say their first word. Mothers hear “mama”. Oh, yeah. Any father knows it is “papa”, but, you know they don’t want to be rude and usually say nothing. Mama: one word for one object. At the beginning, things have only first names.

But the child also hears the same word for very different objects, like a candy, like chocolate. Chocolate for tablets, for liquids, for powders, for pellets, and he progressively extracts from all these objects what he perceives they have in common, and sticks the word “chocolate” on this fuzzy set of attractions called a concept. It’s a fantastic ability, and it works if the level of coherence is high enough. The word chocolate is mostly used in similar situations where some chocolate can be really experienced by the child. He first– he may first say chocolate for anything sweet, then sweet and brown, and, guided by the feedback of people around, his concept of chocolate will come closer and closer to the common idea of what chocolate is for people around him or her.

Interactions are a key factor of success in this recursive process. Nobody defines chocolate to a kid. Nobody tries to define anything to a kid. You know how difficult it is when a kid asks you to define something. Interactions are the key factor of success in this recursive process.

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Let me tell you just one story about one of my patients I had when I was a speech and language pathologist. When Social Services brought us that healthy, young boy, he was eight years old, and all the tests we ran showed no signs of language development; nothing. He grew up in a family where people were talking to each other, where the TV set was always on, but where nobody ever spoke directly to him. No interaction, no language development.

Children are not sponges, and language is not a bath. Language is enabled and grows through interactions. And each interaction, each new occurrence of a word, may modify a concept, but we don’t like that at all. We want the world to not change, to be solid, to be stable. We want the world to have coherence. We love coherence, we starve for coherence, because coherence fights fears. As soon as our brain began to differentiate a self from an environment before our first birthday, we had to begin fighting primitive fears. Fear from vanishing, fear from losing parts of ourselves. We had to create an inner world and an outer world, a secure place inside.

A me, as a hermetic container for myself. This is a key factor for mental health. And then we projected that container model everywhere, injected it in every concept we were creating. By doing that, we all made the outer world a mirror of our cognitive processes. Every day, we populate the world with ourselves. But once we know that, once we feel that, we know what table is. What is table? It’s a magic spell to create tables. Yeah! Or chair. And we can create and destroy tables. We don’t know what is a table; we decide what is a table, and that is the point. So we can create and destroy tables, or anything, at will. And in both lie opportunities: the opportunity to explore the world around.

As long as you will see this as a table, it will remain a table. And yes, I agree. That is quite convenient. But when it comes to create new understandings, to know more, to learn from that object, then it is better to see our meanings and concepts as fuzzy, and artificial, and individual as they are, and it is better to see the naming act as the creation act it is, that modifies, and determines, and freezes the object we try to learn from. Destroy time, and you are open to general relativity. Destroy the container model, and you are ready for quantum physics. Let machines create their own concepts instead of filling them with ours, and you are at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence. And this game also helps us to argue less, or at least more quickly.

Often we fight about words, about words’ meanings, about words meanings ownership, to avoid any modification in our concepts. So maybe next time you are involved in an argument, you may try to dig out the core concepts, put that hidden set explicitly out, and destroy it, as we did, as with the table. Destroy it and see what remains. This is a fantastic tool to find new ground and new ways to agree. Thank you.

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