Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Emotionally-coloured synaesthesia and category-specific deficits

ITEM 1. More on a synaesthetic theme: an article in Nature News about a synaesthetic woman who sees colours around faces and names:
G.W. is a young woman who sees colours around words or things only when the object has an emotional association for her. Many synaesthetes see letters as coloured, for example in the word 'love', 'l' might be green, 'o' might be cream-yellow, 'v' might be crimson, and 'e' royal blue.

But instead G.W. sees the whole word 'love' as pink or orange because it is a positive word. She sees the word 'James', or James himself, as pink for the same reason: she likes him. Her case is described by Jamie Ward, a psychologist at University College London in the latest issue of Cognitive Neuropsychology.
I suppose this woman has a foolproof way of knowing whether she's gone "off" someone: wait for the pink hue around their name to fade to whatever colour non-positive words take on.

ITEM 2. Snooping around Cognitive Neuropsychology (the journal in which the above research was published), I came across an issue (vol. 20, 3-6, 2003) devoted entirely to category-specific deficits in the mental lexicon. This subfield began in 1983 when Warrington & McCarthy reported "a patient with preserved knowledge for animals, foods, and flowers, relative to inanimate objects". After that, all sorts of deficits began to be reported in different patients - e.g. human vs. non-human, animate vs. inanimate, implying that objects of similar category were in some way grouped together in the brain. Even more strongly, it's been claimed that these brain groupings are the result of evolutionary pressures, restricting a natural conceptual category to 'categories for which rapid and efficient identification could have had survival and productive advantages. Plausible candidates are the categories "animals", "plant life", "conspecifics", and possibly "tools".' (from Mahon & Caramazza 2003 in the issue cited).

I think it'd be interesting if syntactic correlates could be found for many of these specific concepts. We know already that many languages are sensitive to semantic categories such as human vs. non-human and animate vs. inanimate - for example, in English we can see a distinction between animate and inanimate nouns according to what form of possession they preferentially take. For example, "the boy's sister" is more natural to us than "the sister of the boy", while "the fruit's core" is less felicitous than "the core of the fruit". Or alienable vs inalienable possession reflecting the animacy hierarchy. Etc., etc.

My question is - are the less intuitive categories such as natural vs. man-made reflected in any language? I'm thinking about languages that divide up their nouns into much more specific categories. For example, Chinese, which assigns its nouns different classifiers [link to MSWord file], or Swahili, which has several noun classes, the division of which may be said to be loosely semantics-based. Do these divisions have any correlation with the sorts of "natural" conceptual categories that neuropsychologists have been studying through brain lesions and fMRI?

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