Yesterday I sketched an argument for believing that all access-conscious thinking is sensory based. But suppose this conclusion is wrong. Suppose there is some sort of workspace in which amodal nonsensory thoughts — judgments, goals, decisions, intentions, and the rest — can become active and be conscious. What would one …. One argument for the view that all access-consciousness depends upon sensory representations is an inference to the best explanation or rather, a series of them that brings together recent work on consciousness with recent work on working memory.
Box-plot representing the data distribution for the number of correct initial and final stimuli in WM tasks for left-branching LB and right-branching RB participants from a generalized linear mixed model GLMM. Box-plot representing the data distribution for the number of correct initial and final stimuli in STM tasks with numeric, spatial and word stimuli from a generalized linear mixed model GLMM. As predicted, LB and RB speakers were significantly different in their ability to recall initial and final stimuli, showing a clear link between branching direction and working memory WM.
In WM tasks, LB participants were better than RB participants at recalling initial stimuli and RB were better at recalling final stimuli , and this pattern held for each language separately with the exception of Sidaama. Sidaama was the only language failing to follow this pattern, but there are at least two reasons as to why this might be the case. Firstly, all languages were consistently RB or LB according to four word order criteria see Methods , with the exception of Sidaama, for which the clause-subordinate order follows no consistent branching direction Secondly, the Sidaama participants that we tested were the most secluded group compared to all other populations tested, and in contrast to the other tested groups they had had little to no previous contact with technologies including laptops and audio-recorders.
These results are not surprising, as Japanese- and Korean-speakers were mostly students, with a much higher familiarity with being tested on computers than most other participants. Such a higher familiarity likely resulted in overall better performance see e. One plausible explanation is that only WM has an active role in language and sentence processing e. Moreover, while WM tasks largely reflect a domain-general factor, STM tasks tend to be much more domain specific Therefore, the effect of language on non-linguistic cognition might be more limited in STM tasks.
Finally, it is also possible that the effect of branching direction on performance in WM but not STM tasks depends on output interference i. In contrast, the link between branching and performance in WM tasks held regardless of the stimuli used i.
This may be surprising, because branching direction may be expected to more likely predict performance in verbal rather than spatial WM tasks, as only the former selectively tap capacities which are essential for sentence processing. However, although spatial and verbal memory are usually considered two different WM components, it is to date unclear how easily transfers take place between these different components. Transfer from WM training in the lab, for instance, is generally limited see , but there is evidence that interventions improving verbal WM may also have benefits that transfer to spatial WM e.
Moreover, it is interesting to note that several participants across different linguistic groups both RB and LB spontaneously reported, at the end of the tasks, to have coded spatial information on the grid as numerical information: instead of visualizing and later recalling the spatial position of the red square in WM spatial tasks, they reported to have attributed sequential numbers to the squares on the grid, so that the number corresponding to the red square was kept in memory and later recalled.
This approach may have transformed a classic spatial task into a more verbal one, which may be more likely subject to branching effects. Taken together, our results suggest that the link between language and thought might not be just confined to conceptual representations and semantic biases, but rather extend to syntactic structures and the very sequential processing of information. Specific characteristics of a language appear to predict not only the way we perceive and conceptualize the world see 9 , but also the way we process, store and retrieve information.
This is especially relevant, as the ability to maintain sequential information in working memory is crucial for a wide range of higher cognitive functions, including reading, problem-solving, decision-making and planning 2 , 80 , 81 , 85 , , , Therefore, the need to parse sentences in a specific direction, day by day, might affect our way to remember words and other stimuli also in a non-linguistic context. This is in line with previous findings, showing that extensive experience, like biologically relevant behaviors engaging higher cognitive functions e.
In future work, the inclusion of languages with mixed branching and free word order, while controlling for the frequency of non-canonical word order in each language, would likely provide valuable further insights into the exact link between branching and memory. Free word order languages, in particular, seem to provide an especially interesting test for the linguistic relativity hypotheses: sentences containing the same words in a different order, for instance, appear to be considered repetitions by speakers of free word order languages The fact that branching and word order may be linked to such a fundamental cognitive process like memory opens up new exciting avenues for psycholinguistic research towards expanding the pool of languages and populations investigated.
With more than languages in the world, we have a uniquely rich pool to study the relation between language and cognition. Preserving and investigating the wealth of this diversity is not only ethical, but also scientifically crucial to ultimately address the age-old question concerning the relation between language and thought.
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