Friday, April 29, 2005

Words and meaning

A word and its meaning are inseparable in common life. Utter a word and its image, its meaning is in your brain. Well, its not always an image - it is a mental construct which has images, sound, feelings and other sensations. So, every word is associated with its mental construct in the mind.
The interesting thing about this construct is that it varies from one person to another. For example, the word "computer", could produce one or more of the following constructs in a person's mind:
1. The desktop PC, black colored monitor, dusty keyboard, mouse wheel stuck, smell of old books lying beside, black coffee while emailing, yahoo!, ...
2. Intel x86 architecture, Motorola micro-controllers, embedded systems project, boring classes, beautiful gardens outside the class,...
3. An incomprehensible box, stupid pop-up messages, mysteriously located data, pots of money for software engineers, none for me,house in a mess, unpaid bills,...

My hypothesis is that when we recall a word, all the mental constructs associated with that word are "loaded" into the current, active part of the brain. As life progresses, the number and variety of mental constructs for the same word changes continuously.
Now, the meaning of a word is very closely connected to the set of mental constructs one has for that word. And since the mental constructs differ from one person to another the meaning of the same word differs too. There are some of the mental constructs that are common among the vast majority of the people who use the word. For example, the word "bucket" conjures at least one common mental construct among the people who use the word - i.e. a kind of container with a set of shapes. (that in turn is made up of quite a complicated set of constructs)
But, what is meaning? If it is a set of mental constructs that vary from person to person, then it something much more interesting than a dictionary listing.
How does someone understand the "meaning" of a concept? When a child is shown a picture of 2 sheep in order to teach the child the concept of numbers, and in particular, the number "two"- observe the number of concepts impinging on the child's mind - the green background color of the picture, white sheep, all the various body parts of the sheep, wool, and the fact that there are "two" sheep. How does the child understand the concept of the number "two" in the mess of all the concepts presented?
I guess, it doesn't happen with just one attempt. The child is presented with a number of such examples with so many different concepts. And then - this is the wonder of the human brain - it abstracts the concept of the number "two". Probably, it recognizes that the construct corresponding to the concept "two" is the intersection of all the mental constructs derived from all the various examples.
But then, still the concept of meaning is not clear. What is meaning? Lets take a look at the computer. What is "two" for the computer? It is a binary nibble - "0010", which in turn is a a particular combination of voltages in the electronic circuitry. When you write the number "2" in a text document, the computer understands (of course, because man programmed it to) that it is the same "0010".
I noticed a splendid semblence. The meaning of "two" is merely a representation, a particular pattern, beyond which it has not esoteric "meaning". Could that be true for the human brain as well? Our concepts, meanings, understanding - they are all patterns that have been formed through evolution. The moment we encounter a concept, the associated pattern is recalled. Nothing has any meaning implicitly, its just the collection of mental constructs that are stored physically in the brain. Meaning has really no meaning!



Anonymous chandrachud said...

hi.. this is chan.
will be following ur blog with some interest..

Tue May 03, 10:45:00 AM 2005  
Blogger Sanketh said...

vibes, nice one. did a course in cognitive science this sem. bloody interesting. My term paper was on concepts. It really is an involved discussion. There are several theories around. The definitional view stuck around for real long till the 70s when Prototypes (some kind of statistical averaging of features) took over. Now we have a theory of concepts as mini-theories and also one theory which support concepts as being atomic and without structure. There is a book by Fodor on Concepts. This may be a good start. Loads of philosophy and psychological litt.

take it easy fella.

Wed May 04, 06:00:00 PM 2005  
Blogger Vaibhav said...

Thanks Sankey for the book's info. Will try to get hold of it. Cognitive Science - should take this course sometime in life!!

Thu May 05, 06:08:00 AM 2005  
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