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Paulina Chuchala

George Lakoffs lecture on Embododied Cognition and Lanuage


George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at the University of California Berkeley and his
works such as Metaphors We Live By or Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its
Challenge to Western Thought, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind
Brings Mathematics into Being, provided the world of linguistics with remarkable insights
into how language works through the idea of language embodiment. Thanks to him, an
institute for cognitive linguistics was formed, where many prominent figures from various
fields of studies, were presented with the opportunity to share their research results and new
ideas.
Cognitive linguistics came into being as a result of new discoveries in other branches
of sciences, such psychology, linguistics and neuroscience. In his lecture, George Lakoff
points to three such advancements and people behind those achievements: Paul Kay, Eleanor
Rosch, and Len Tamley. Anthropologist Paul Kay, whose research focused on colours in
different cultures, highlighted the relation between colours and the neurophysiology. But for
our eyes and neuro-connections in the brain, we would not be able to see colours, despite that
we perceive them and the words for them as something objective. Terms for colours, thus,
exist and are shaped by biology and culture. An idea of embodiment of the language was also
expressed by Eleanor Rosch. She pointed out to the hierarchy of word categories. Lakoff
exemplifies the idea of basic level categories on the pairing of furniture-chair-rocking chair.
According to Rosch, basic level categories, such as chair are the most informative, since
we can visualise the object, pinpoint to common features of a category as well as point to
features that are not common with others. We cannot get a mental image of piece of furniture,
but we can visualize a chair or a lamp, thus, these categories are embodied but to a different
extend. In Lakoffs point of view, the third major contributor to the field of language
cognition was Len Tanley who posited that despite of having different spatial systems,
languages had the same concepts underlying them. These image schemas are universal, such
as motion, containment and they are responsible for structuring the way in which we talk,
move, and see the world. Interestingly, visually impaired people share the same image
schemas, since they are produced in the rest of the brain that is not affected by the
impairment. All these developments created a sound grounds for the theory stating that the
meaning of language is embodied, meaning that it is through the body that our conceptual
system is shaped and constrained.

Lakoff also stresses the achievement of Srini Narayanan, whose complex research that
involved tracing hand movements of a computer body. He wanted to find out by using
computational model how different languages express hand movements by using different
action words. A very interesting discovery was that he noticed that the same neuro-system
responsible for the body movement has the same structure for language, which again proved
that the language is embodied.
Another important building block for the understanding of cognitive linguistics is the
idea of topographic mapping. The idea itself is connected with the biology and chemistry of
the brain. These topographic maps of our whole body, our senses, and visual fields are
created in different layers and they go to different parts of the brain. To compute such image
schemas as for example containment or motion there has to be a cross-connection between
different topographic maps. Topographic maps that pick up motions, if you do the right
connections between the maps, can compute containments and image schemas. The example
of cross-connection is illustrated by Lakoff through the example of pouring the water into the
glass out of. We understand the sentence even though the idea expressed contains two
topographic maps. Interestingly, even though our brain is motionless we understand into and
out of through neuro-biding.
To understand neuro-biding, one has to understand the basics of neuroscience. By the
age of five, half of the connections between neurons are not used anymore and die because
most of the things that we learn occurs in this crucial period. The function of those ones that
stay is structuring the brain. Interestingly, the process of learning and thought is mostly
unconscious. The way in which we learn happens through neuro-biding as in example given
by Lakoff, a connection between the image schemas of in as a containment and to as a goal is
created. The biding of in and to happens at the same time, so for the brain in and to are the
same. However, they can be used separately and this happens because of a neuro-gate. It is a
circuitry that will either put enough transmitters through, which will allow for
neurotransmitters for in and to happen simultaneously or not, which will result in using a
single image schema of either in or to. Cognitive linguistics, thus, focuses on concepts that
are connected this way.
Lakoff also explains the difference between neurocognitive linguistics and cognitive
linguistics. The first one focuses on trying to reveal how particular ideas are created through
our unconscious thoughts. Cognitive linguistics, on the other hand, focuses on concepts and
their structure, trying to reveal the way in which neuro-circuitry creates them and their

embodiment. To be able to provide such analysis one also needs to understand a few
fundamental concepts of the way language is created in the brain.
The first major concept of cognitive linguistics are frames, combinations of schemas
with a structure that are conventional and have presumed elements. In practice, as Lakoff
illustrates it, every word in a language evokes a certain image frame in our mind. For
example, when we say waiter, we see a restaurant. However, these are not the only frames
that are evoked. Food service, business frame and host-guest frames are present too but only
when they occur together through neuro-biding. If we take one element out, we will get a
different frame. These frames are also characterised by hierarchy. The most prototypical
frame of the restaurant is the exchange of goods, which on a higher level its type of a
business with food being a service offered. Moreover, the prototypical frame is composed of
frames of mutual giving, which in turn is made out of from cause, possession schemas. Thus,
when we refer, to the restaurant we create a metaphor, which is a map from frame to frame
and schema to schema.
George Lakoff, thus explain how metaphors are created. He gives an example of phrases
such as a warm/cold person. According to the psychological research he refers to, when
people were asked to tell a story of an encounter with a nice person, upon leaving the room
after completing the task, they gauged the temperature of the room as warmer than it was, in
contrast to people who were asked to tell a story of an encounter with a cold person. This
works through the fact that different parts of brain get activated when we are brought up in
affectionate way; the brain computes the temperature and in turn it appears in a language.
Due to the fact that the brain is always computing temperature, the connection between
warmth and heat is made in such a way that this particular direction is strengthen and a
conceptual metaphor is created. As a result of this embodied relation, Lakoff points that in
most languages, this particular metaphor is used in the same way, apart from equatorial
languages, where due to the environmental reasons warmth is connected with annoyance.
Another important concept is a cascade. Lakoff presents the notion by delineating the
work of Stanislas Dehaene, and in particular his book Reading in the Brain, where he
explains the human ability to read letters and numbers and assign a specific sound or value to
them. As a result of central surrounding receptive field, topographic maps, and columns of
neurons in different layers that intersect allow humans to recognize a shape. Through the
brain circuitry going into different directions, humans can recognize whether a symbol is a
letter or a number and they can imagine it, too. However, the situation gets more complex,

when meaning is created. When we say do it over but dont overdo it, we refer to action is
motion metaphor, and we also use linear scale.
His lecture is very detailed and Lakoff goes into a great length to explain the connection
between neurobiology and linguistics. He illustrates a very complex way of creating a
metaphor by giving simple examples. Despite the intricacy of the lecture, Lakoff is a scientist
who represents a very progressive trend of interdisciplinary science that might give us an
explanation on how language is created by using sound grounds of neuroscience instead of
philosophy that very often in the search for the same question is too abstract and lacks the
empirical data.