Our minds use syntax to understand actions, just like with language

Illustration for article titled Our minds use syntax to understand actions, just like with language

Syntax is found in all languages: verbs, subjects, and objects are arranged in predictable patterns that allow us to comprehend the action being described. And syntax goes deeper than language, as it's actually hardwired into our understanding of the world.


Although different languages arrange the main parts of a sentence in different ways, all languages have some basic pattern that allow listeners to easily understand what a person is saying. In English, that order is subject —> verb —> object. It's why "the man eats the fish" means something different than "the fish eats the man", and why "eats the man the fish" doesn't really mean much of anything.

Now it turns out those same syntactical processes also affect how our minds understand the world outside of language. Princeton researchers investigate whether people view events syntactically by examining two different chains of events that require different types of syntax to describe.

The first type is linear syntax, in which action A leads to action B which leads to outcome C. An example would be a student writes an essay for a class, turns that essay into her teacher, and then receives a grade from the teacher. Those events have to occur in that order for the chain of events to make logical sense.

On the other hand, let's say the essay in question was a research paper. In that case, a different, non-linear syntax would be used to describe these events: the student goes to the library to read works on the paper's subject, the student interviews various experts on the topic, and then she writes the paper. In that instance, actions A and B could happen in either order and they would still lead to outcome C.

The researchers wanted to figure out whether our minds understand those events in fundamentally different ways. To do that, they gave test subjects multiple sentences to read. Previous studies have shown that people read sentences faster if they all have the same grammatical form. Here, the grammatical form was the same in all cases, but some people got sentences with all the same syntax, and others got varied sentences that featured different kinds of syntax.

As it turned out, the hypothesis was correct - people did read the sentences with all the same syntax faster than those with variation. As lead researcher Matthew Botvinick explains, this means the readers possess a deep understanding of how actions and goals are supposed to fit together:

"It's the underlying knowledge structure that kind of glues actions together. Otherwise, you could watch somebody do something and say it's just a random sequence of actions."


[Via Psychological Science. Image via Batman #130 — here, Batman uses his knowledge of syntax to attempt to stop the aliens and their giant disembodied hand from stealing zinc. The aliens use their familiarity with syntax to decipher English. Life is complex.]


Anekanta - spoon denier

This is interesting, but not unexpected. The big question, though, is the degree to which culture shapes our expectations of what order in which actions must occur.

Using language as an example, there's a finite, but large, number of possible grammars that the human brain can process. But as we develop, that large number of possibilities is pared down to the specific grammar (or grammars) that we do use, until by about age 12 or so, our language patterns are pretty much fixed. (and learning a new language at this point is much more difficult).

So, when you're a young child, "The man eats the fish," "The man the fish eats" and "eats the man the fish" are all reasonable possibilities. But as you grow up in the English speaking world, the first sentence pattern is used more often, so the other two fall away. But if you grew up in Japan, you'd learn the second pattern and lose the first and third. And if you grew up speaking Arabic or Irish Gaelic, the third pattern would be favoured.

So presumably, there is something similar at work with orders of events and actions.

It's not unexpected that totally different cultures can have totally different expectations of economic transactions, politics, etiquette, and so on. Stuff we take for granted in our own culture, down to our fundamental view of human nature, really may not fly in other cultures.

And is it possible that they could have totally different understandings of causality itself?

Maybe instead of kicking the fence and causing my foot to get hurt, my foot started hurting in the future, so I kicked the fence some time in the past?