Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Psychiatry and Linguistics

The history of spoken and written language is a very interesting field of study.  The manner in which languages evolve over time is similar, literally, to the way in which species evolve (languages do evolve much more rapidly than species).  It is interesting to look at a kind of linguistic evolutionary tree, to see the parallels and differences alongside a genetic evolutionary tree, say of Indo-European languages in comparison to mitochondrial or Y-chromosome haplotype analysis in Eurasian groups.

Styles of language, and of word choice, etc. are certainly influenced by the culture of the day.  It would be interesting to consider the degree to which word choices affect individual psychology.  Some modern feminist thinking has certainly looked at the issue of language issues having important elements of psychological effects, particularly if the language itself is biased towards being sexist.  This is a big area, one which I'd be interested to learn more about.

Another aspect of linguistics has to do with the multi-sensory nature of language perception.  I find this very interesting, in expanding our understanding of the way the mind works in general:  words on their own may be perceived or understood in different ways intellectually (this is an issue often discussed by literary scholars), but the manner in which words are perceived is also influenced very directly by core neurologic processes.

For example, I recently discovered the existence of a very powerful perceptual phenomenon called the "McGurk Effect."   Here are a few examples from YouTube:
If you watch the video while listening to the speaker pronounce a syllable, it sounds completely different from when you close your eyes and just listen without watching.  The phenomenon demonstrates how powerfully visual input changes how we perceive an auditory stimulus.  I was surprised to find how overpoweringly strong the effect was, how difficult it is to somehow "over-ride" it.

Other linguistics research demonstrates that other sensory modalities, including tactile, also have strong effects on language perception.

As an extension to psychiatry, and to the general workings of the mind, I think it is true that many different perceptual and psychological inputs have very strong effects on the way we perceive other stimuli.  In social exchanges, there may be a wide variety of inputs which we are not consciously aware of, which could be substantially affecting our experiences.  In most cases, these other inputs assist us in understanding better.  The purpose of having one sensory modality influence another is to bolster the input from both, so as to facilitate understanding.  This is the foundation for how lip-reading works, for example.   But if one input is, without our knowledge, giving opposing information compared to another input, then this could lead to a very problematic behavioural cycle.

I think such phenomena are likely to happen in many anxiety disorders, for example, in which the anticipatory anxiety, and resultant physical and emotional tension, are likely to cause one's perceptions of benign social stimuli to become exaggeratedly negative.  This is happening not just on an intellectual level, but arguably on a core perceptual level, akin to the McGurk effect.  Similar perceptual distortions are likely to happen in other psychological states, such as depression.  The cognitive theory of depression centres around so-called "cognitive distortions," but I think it is important to expand this concept to admit that the phenomena could be powerful "cognitive-perceptual" distortions, which could require a lot of disciplined work to overcome.  Without acknowledging the strength of this phenomenon, frustration could quickly set in, just as it would if you were to simply practice hearing McGurk-style syllables without knowledge of the McGurk effect.


Anonymous said...

The term "cognitive distortion", and many of the CBT theories often really annoy me. I recognize that I have an illness that may make my thoughts distorted, but it doesn't necessarily mean my thinking/perceptions are wrong.

I believe there are people who see more than others intend them to see. People who have a depth of feeling and perception that is more "sensitive" to external stimuli. People who see subtle changes in body language, words, or tones of voice. People who pick up on underlying messages that are really being sent whether the sender knows it or not.

If everyone outside myself were really positive towards me in the way CBT exercises seem to suggest, why are we, as humans so intrigued and captivated by other's downfalls? The news, the magazines, the often what people seem to want is to see others fail.

It isn't a stretch to extrapolate that interpretation of what drives other's behaviour towards us in our own lives.

GK said...

I find the term "cognitive distortion" excessively pejorative in many cases. Some more neutral term should be found. On the other hand, perhaps it is fair to acknowledge that there are levels to cognition which are always distorted, in all of us; this may accurately suggest how difficult it can be to change the way we interpret or experience events. It is not a simple matter akin to taking a different side on a debate -- it is extremely hard work which may at times contradict a deeply felt set of values.

I don't believe that CBT exercises require one to paint experiences with an unrealistic positive gloss. At best, however, they may be formal challenges to experiment with a different system of interpreting events, to determine if this different system leads to a more satisfying, and less painful or negative, experience of events. A strength of CBT is that if any exercise doesn't work, based on your own subjective standard, it can be dealt with in the same way as any scientific experiment with negative results (i.e. either shelved entirely, or patiently revised).

In general, I think that at the very least, we have various types of cognitive filters or amplifiers, which process stimuli in different ways, sometimes in a very selective way, and sometimes in a way which causes a behavioral response increasing the likelihood of experiencing further, similar stimuli. This can become a vicious cycle involving self & others.

It is very clear that emotion changes perception of events. Some of this change may take place on a type of intellectual, or philosophic level, but in this post I am hypothesizing that some may also occur on a visceral, "neurologic" level, similar to the McGurk effect. An intellectual dialog, with self or others, can sometimes help with depression, but I suspect it is important to know about the possibility of visceral perceptual change in depression as well. In some angry states, for example, a human or any other creature may have a hard time responding to any stimulus, or any event, without aggression. An intellectual dialog about anger may serve, at the height of the moment, mainly to delay and defuse action, rather than to effect persuasive intellectual and resultant emotional change directly.