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Thoughts and Language: Independent yet Interdependent

“Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

The debate about whether thoughts depend upon language or whether language in fact determines thoughts have been discussed for decades. Without challenging either the pure behaviorist perspective or the deterministic Whorfian hypothesis, one may safely (and not just diplomatically) state that language and thought are independent entities that function interdependently. To illustrate this, let us take the example of a phenomenon most of us would relate to. We receive a text reply from a dear friend whom we have known for a significant enough time period to understand his/her affective states with a decent enough degree of accuracy. The language, in the form of the text message in this case, helped us gauge the possible thoughts of the friend. For the friend on the other hand, the thoughts led to the use of certain words (or emojis) in a certain manner. So both were independent to begin with, but together they made a complete cohesive circle. What if however, language had emerged from an elaborate algorithm dependent more upon data than on unique individual human cognitive processes? The present article attempts to answer this question (and poses further questions).

Communication Patterns as Individual and Group Identity

“Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it's from Neptune.”

Noam Chomsky

Communicating with others is a very inherent need that humans have, and our specifically well- developed cerebral cortex with designated areas for language, emotions, empathy and rationalization adds to our capability to express this need in myriad ways. As our life experiences and dispositions are unique, the thought process and its consequent transformation in the form of language too could reflect this uniqueness. Our communication patterns (content as well as style) become part of our personality. Societal norms, schooling, peer influence however shape this unique style into something that is ‘acceptable to majority’. Over our lifespan, we pick up the styles of those around us and pass on our own style in the bargain as well. This process spreads like a nuclear reaction, changing everything that comes in the path, making it more or less similar to the ‘average’ elements in the process but also highly comprehensive. Few individuals are however able to evade this chin reaction to retain their own style. For majority of individuals however, individual heterogeneities combine to make collective homogeneities.

Prediction of Loss of Individual Styles and AI Determinism

“It was exciting to see her grow - both of us grow and change together. But then, that's the hard part - growing without growing apart, or changing without it scaring the other person.”

Spike Jonze, Her

Our brain though advanced compared to other creatures, still finds solace in homogeneity and avoids dissonance. In an age when communication across virtual platforms and across different social spheres and hierarchies is taking place almost since we wake up till the moment the day ends, our brain would prefer to ‘de-clutter’ this process by reducing the amount of thought required to put into the less important or less complicated communication tasks. In our struggle to manage and micro-manage and multitask and deliver output and meet deadlines, functional communication especially seems to be way too time consuming to engage conscious, independent or active thought processes. As if responding to the prayers of our tired lazy brains, AI enabled texting and mailing solutions make their appearance and soon become part of our ‘now natural’ typed communication behaviors. Choosing from among the AI-generated response options (words or even entire statements) gets preference over neglecting the suggestions and typing a personal unique message. As these AI-based solutions are based on machine learning, each time a user opts for the suggested option, the system is reinforced and the likelihood of that suggestion re-appearing consecutively for similar situations increases. With millions of users making a similar choice, it becomes a default option. Ironically this translates into the fact that we collectively choose to leave each other without much choice! Imagine a few years of such ‘popularization’ of words and statements and responses, and thus trillions and trillions of reinforcements to the learning machine. Could this possibly spell the end of individually crafted, uniquely thought and creatively expressed responses? Would we be creating individual, unique virtual copies of our social persona, one per user? Would AI itself create a universal language, while we would still be attempting to understand whether language determines thought or vice- versa?

 - Prof. Sairaj M. Patki, Assistant Professor (Psychology)

*Views expressed are personal.