Towards a Unified Theory of Perception, Cognition, Language, Reality and realities.

“Out of the stream of sensation, the mind carves objects in space and actions in time…” (Tversky, 2004)
“[The] truth is modeled as an object in the domain of a semantic model to which sentences are mapped by an interpretation function.” (Hinzen, 2003)
“A truth judgment as such has no correspondence to anything in ‘reality’.” (Hinzen, 2003)


Reality, with an R, is a sea of stimuli. The human mind is what gives us our ability to use tools, and it should come as no surprise that pattern recognition itself is one of the tools in our array. It should also come as no surprise that even when we see  meaningless patterns the mind restlessly strives to make them meaningful as simply as possible.

“Perception is unavoidably selective: we can’t see all there is to see. There are of course physiological limits (both for the human species and for individuals); some argue that there are limits to cognitive capacity. And then there are the constraints of our locational viewpoint: we can’t see things from every angle at once. But in addition to such physical limits we focus on salient features and ignore details which are irrelevant to our current purposes or interests. Selectivity thus involves omission. Some commentators use the ‘filter’ metaphor – we ‘filter out’ data, but this suggests a certain passivity: we may also ‘seek out’ data of a certain kind.”

It is important to reinforce this concept: Out of a sea of stimuli, we abstract a reality, but this is a second order affair. There still exists a primacy of un-speakable Reality.

A word is not an object itself, but represents a concept in our mind.

For the purposes of this debate, I will delineate two different categories of what is ‘real’. When I use the word ‘Reality’, I will be referring to the level of objective phenomena which make up Universe. When I use the word ‘reality’ I will be talking about the subjectively valid world which exists in each and every one of our heads. It is important to note that the primary data-points are not the words with which we describe them. The words themselves are a second order phenomena, and can never express the totality of the objects for whom they are referents. In short, the map is not the territory, the menu is not the meal.

It is part of our evolutionary heritage that the tools we use are both physical, and linguistic artifacts. The tools we use to convey meaning are no less important than the tools we use to create fire.

“[The brain] does not simply take in information through the senses and store it. Instead, it processes the information in various ways that are dependent on the design of the processor. For example, light rays that enter the lenses of the eyes are projected onto the retinas upside down. However, we experience the world as being rightside up. The brain flips the image as it processes the information. If you wear a pair of glasses specially designed to invert the images, you will at first experience the disorientation of trying to move about in an upside-down world. After a few hours, however, your brain will rewire itself and, though the inputs remain reversed, will deliver to your conscious experience a world turned rightside up again. Take the glasses off and you will again experience disorientation until your brain reprograms itself. The point is that nothing is experienced as it is in itself but rather as it is as a result of a certain kind of processing that the brain was designed by natural selection to do. ”

The ability to engage in pattern recognition leads, inexorably, towards categorical perception. But, again, these categories are mapped onto reality, they do not exist in the literally un-speakable level of objective phenomena. However, “The cost of these advantages is a loss of particularity and uniqueness in perception and recall. For Romantics, it is also regarded as inducing a sense of distance from the world. The way we categorize phenomena seems to be a ‘natural’ ‘reflection of reality’, leading us to forget the role of categorization in constructing the world

“There is research evidence that verbal labels may influence the recall of visual images. In a well-known experiment by Carmichael, Hogan and Walter (1932), observers were shown simple line drawings each of which was associated with either of two verbal captions – e.g. a drawing of two circles linked by a straight line bore either the caption ‘eye-glasses’ or the caption ‘dumb-bells’. The observers were then asked to reproduce the drawings. Their reproductions showed a strong tendency to distort the original image to make it closer to the verbal label which had been attached to it.”

The realities which we abstract are often what we expect to see. That is, believing is seeing. The human brain seems to use certain perceptual shortcuts, and new data is filtered through them. The filtering principle is pragnänz; the simplest and most stable patterns are preferred.

In fact, it seems that often the most important details are those of which we believe, not those which we see. There is a simple experiment which you can try in the comfort of your own nervous system. Have a friend hold up a newspaper to you, and stand just outside of your visual range for reading text. Make sure that the newspaper is not one which you have ever seen before. At the start of the experiment, verify that the words on the page are not clear to you, and you cannot read them. If you can read them, start with a new page of the paper which you have not seen and a farther distance. Now, once you have established the distance have your partner read the headlines to you. You should discover something truly amazing, namely, that all of a sudden some of the headlines become clear, and you can read them.

Obviously the words you heard spoken did not somehow enable your eyes to function with greater acuity.

They did, however, inform your brain of which patterns it should be looking for.

In cases of categorical perception, the language we use  can directly inform the categories through which we filter Reality. In tests of categorical color perception, informants drew different boundaries depending on their linguistic background.  That is, those with three different colors in their language, split the spectrum into three groups. And so on.For quite some time Behaviorism explained these phenomena as purely mechanical responses to stimuli. It should be noted that,

“[i]n the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, psychologists were suddenly confronted by anomalies that could not be accounted for by the Behaviorists’ stimulus-response model. In his devastating review of Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior, the linguist Noam Chomsky pointed out the inability of Behaviorism to account for certain aspects of language, such as the creation of utterances that are completely original and yet completely grammatical. People do not simply parrot back what they have heard. Instead, they make up entirely new sentences, ones that have never before occurred in the history of language use, based on internalized structures and rules.”
[original citation lost]

For all the external influences, there is still a personal aspect in the creation of language. It should be noted, as language is designed to reflect Reality, that there will therefore be different realities based on these differing linguistic constructions.

The Sapir/Whorf hypothesis (more accurately the Sapir/Whorf/Korzybski hypothesis, and hereafter refered to as S/W/K) states that Reality is coded differently through language and thus creates various realities.

“Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression in their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection: The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached…Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose…We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”

Whorf went on to write “We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds–and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way–an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.”

Problems arise, however, when we attempt to isolate exactly what role language plays in the creation of realities and the formation of thought, and how our thoughts inform the use of language. Other problems include the fact that some concepts do translate with a 1:1 correlation between languages. As such, a strong S/W/K seems unfounded, but, a weak S/W/K may indeed be a good jumping off point.

“Despite all these problems facing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, there have been several studies performed that support at least the weaker linguistic relativity hypothesis. In 1954, Brown and Lenneberg tested for color codability, or how speakers of one language categorize the color spectrum and how it affects their recognition of those colors. Penn writes, ‘Lenneberg reports on a study showing how terms of colors influence the actual discrimination. English-speaking subjects were better able to re-recognize those hues which are easily named in English. This finding is clearly in support of the limiting influence of linguistic categories on cognition’ (1972:16). Schlesinger explains the path taken in this study from positive correlation to support for linguistic relativity: ‘…if codability of color affected recognizability, and if languages differed in codability, then recognizability is a function of the individual’s language’ (1991:27)

Lucy and Shweder’s color memory test (1979) also supports the linguistic relativity hypothesis. If a language has terms for discriminating between color then actual discrimination/perception of those colors will be affected. Lucy and Shweder found that influences on color recognition memory is mediated exclusively by basic color terms–a language factor.

Kay and Kempton’s language study (1984) found support for linguistic relativity. They found that language is a part of cognition. In their study, English speakers’ perceptions were distorted in the blue-green area while speakers from Tarahumara–who lack a blue-green distinction–showed no distortion. However, under certain conditions they found that universalism of color distinction can be recovered.

Peterson and Siegal’s ‘Sally doll’ test (1995) was not intended to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis specifically, but their findings support linguistic relativity in a population who at the time had not yet been considered for testing–deaf children. Peterson and Siegal’s experiment with deaf children showed a difference in the constructed reality of deaf children with deaf parents and deaf children with hearing parents, especially in the realm of non-concrete items such as feelings and thoughts.

Most recently, Wassman and Dasen’s Balinese language test (1998) found differences in how the Balinese people orient themselves spatially to that of Westerners. They found that the use of an absolute reference system based on geographic points on the island in the Balinese language correlates to the significant cultural importance of these points to the people. They questioned how language affects the thinking of the Balinese people and found moderate linguistic relativity results.”

So, the question arises, how do we best educate our children, train our own semantic reactions, and construct our verbal and written utterances in order to reach the greatest accord with Reality and the greatest evolutionary relative success for our species?

Works Cited:
Hinzen, Wolfram (2003), Truth’s Fabric. Mind and Language, 18.4, 194-21
Tversky, Barbara (2004), Narratives of Space, Time, and Life, Mind and Language, 19.4, 380-392


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