GRE vocab and theories of consciousness

It’s safe to say that I’m a lover of words.

Pretty much every self-appointed intellectual says that nowadays, though, so perhaps there’s not a lot of salt to that statement.

It’s like when someone’s hobby is “books,” just in general. It’s like “Yes, friend, most educated people like books!” I feel like it’s an obvious and unnecessary way to classify one’s preferences without revealing anything about oneself as a person.

And reminds me of this. (Source)

So, I’m probably regurgitating an opinion that many people have expressed before, but as far as a medium, I feel like writing offers me a wider palette from which to select than any other fine art. Words vary not only in precise definitions, but in their connotations and phonetics.

(Side note: as a lover of phonoaesthetics, I began a list in high school of the words that are most pleasing to me regardless of definition. Over the years, it’s grown to be pretty long. There are also some word sounds that I find repulsive. Ask me about it sometime and we can sit around exchanging words that either slip out roundly and elegantly from our mouths or plop out grossly instead!)

I like to think I have a decent vocabulary, but studying for the verbal section of the GRE really forces me to put my money where my mouth is (almost literally, actually–the test costs $195). There are lots of words that I have a “feel” for their definitions, but find myself struggling to provide an exact dictionary definition of, which is crucial for the sentence equivalency questions.

I started making flashcards for any of the words that fall into that category, as well as for any words that have secondary meanings I don’t normally think of. While I was writing some of the secondary definitions, I was like “Shit, why don’t linguists just invent another word instead of muddying everything up with multiple definitions?”

Pictured: Words I don’t use very often.

That’s a silly thing to think of course, mostly provoked because I ran out of space on a few cards. But that set me off onto another train of thought that’s much more sensical and savory to me: consciousness!

As far as we can tell at present, language is truly the basis of our conscious awareness.

My fellow neuroscience students already know this, but I’m not sure whether other people have ever heard or read about it. So let’s take a moment to reflect on how cool this concept is!

So. First of all, we’ve all got an inner monologue. It’s the “voice” that we speak with inside our heads to interpret situations, consider solutions to problems, reflect on memories, and entertain ourselves. It allows us to summon information from past experiences and recognize sensations.

While a purely philosophical consideration of the inner monologue by itself might lead us to conclude that language is the basis of consciousness, it’s also backed up by scientific experiments that support the idea.

Michael Gazzaniga’s work with split-brain patients in the 1960s provides some of the most powerful evidence for this theory.

Split-brain patients are people who have had their corpus collosi partially or fully severed to reduce epileptic convulsions (the corpus callosum is a big bundle of fibers that connects the two brain hemispheres, btw). As a result, the two hemispheres cannot communicate with each other–the right hemisphere cannot tell the left hemisphere what it has experienced, and vice-versa.

In spite of this, split-brain patients can still live relatively normal lives, because in the real world there are typically several sensory clues in any environment. This allows them to “cross-cue,” combining stimuli to perceive a cohesive experience.

But things get a little different if you control sensory exposure in a laboratory setting.

For those of you who have never studied it, here’s some info from psych 101:

The brain hemispheres are related to the contralateral sides of the body. So, the right hemisphere controls and receives information from the LEFT side of the body, while the left hemisphere controls and receives information from the RIGHT side of the body.

The main exception is olfaction, or sense of smell, which is perceived by the same hemisphere as the nostril that smells it. Also, our language ability is localized in the left hemisphere of the brain. Got all that?

Gazzaniga would expose some sort of stimuli to only one side of the split brain patient–have him/her smell things with the right nostril, show images to only one visual field, etc. When information was presented to the left hemisphere (i.e., the right side of the body, right visual field, or left nostril), the patient could verbally identify and respond to the stimulus.

For example, a patient who is shown a picture of an object to only her right visual field will be able to tell you what she has seen, or a patient who has an object placed into her right hand will be able to tell you what she’s holding.

BUT, if a split-brain patient’s right hemisphere (left side of the body) is presented with a stimulus, she will not be able to tell you what she sees or feels. This is because the left hemisphere, which produces languages, is completely unaware of the stimulus.

Interestingly, if you ask a patient to identify the object or picture that was presented by pointing at it or drawing it, she WILL be able to do so correctly, without being able to tell you why she picked it!

Here’s a helpful diagram to explain it better (Source)

While there are lots more aspects of brain function that were learned from studies of split-brain patients, language’s role in consciousness is probably the discovery I find most intriguing. It seems that our ability to verbalize an object or concept, whether aloud or mentally, is what allows us to be consciously aware of it.

AND it seems that, in a lot of ways, humans’ ability to meditate upon abstract concepts and solve complex problems better than any other animal is a result of our development of such sophisticated language.

That was a roundabout way of saying this:

I’m so glad that there are over a million different words (in the English language alone!) that allow us to represent and express complex and very specific concepts.

And I’m really not complaining at all about studying this vocab; I like becoming familiar with more words, because then I can more richly perceive and describe my own life.

Think of it this way: you can’t really learn to see new colors. But you CAN learn to see the world differently by expanding your vocabulary!

That’s my PSA and little educational moment for today. Now go play Freerice or something, y’all.



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