Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Language, Math and the Buddhist Brain

Anyone who is interested in the inner workings of the mind should read the AP's report on a study of how Chinese and English speakers' brains attack simple math problems.

Researchers used brain imaging to see which parts of the brain were active while people did simple addition problems, such as 3 plus 4 equals 7. All participants were working with Arabic numerals which are used in both cultures.

Both groups engaged a portion of the brain called the inferior parietal cortex, which is involved in quantity representation and reading.

But native English speakers also showed activity in a language processing area of the brain, while native Chinese speakers used a brain region involved in the processing of visual information, according to the report in Tuesday's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The difference "may mean that Chinese speakers perform problems in a different manner than do English speakers," said lead author Yiyuan Tang of Dalian University of Technology in Dalian, China.

"In part that might represent the difference in language. It could be that the difference in language encourages different styles of computation and this may be enhanced by different methods of learning to deal with numbers," Tang said in an interview via e-mail.

Later, the article refers to an earlier, unrelated study of observational differences between Americans and Chinese.

Nisbett last year reported on differences in the way Asians and North Americans view pictures. He tracked eye movements and determined that, when shown a photograph, North American students of European background paid more attention to the object in the foreground of a scene, while students from China spent more time studying the background and taking in the whole scene.

Students of foreign languages don't need to be too advanced to recognize the ways that languages shape the world views of their native speakers. The way things in the world get categorized, or are seen to relate to one another, are often dramatically different from language to language. And some things just can't be said in some languages.

I personally found the study of foreign languages to be similar to the study of Buddhist philosophy insofar as it forced me to see the assumptions that are inherent in my native English-speaking, American worldview. In even so simple a matter as the verb tenses, for example, German and English don't exactly match up. Nor do Latin nor Attic Greek. The ability of a German speaker to utter a sentence that is grammatically correct, and yet lacking what an English speaker would recognize as a subject, profoundly shocked me when I first encountered it.

One advantage that students of foreign languages will have in studying Buddhism, apart from learning any highfalutin' Sanskrit or Pali or Tibetan terms, is the ability to grasp (tho grasping is generally a no-no in Buddhism) the warnings of Nagarjuna not to mistake the words of a scripture for the ultimate truth.

Scriptures are likened to a finger pointing at the moon. W hen we recognise the moon and its brightness and beauty, the finger is of no more use. As the finger itself has no brightness whatever, so the scriptures have no holiness. The scripture is to be thought of as religious currency representing spiritual wealth. What it stands for is of paramount importance, not whether it is made of gold or sea shells



This is this week's post. Click on the chicklet for an FAQ on the subject. In a nutshell, trackbacks on any subject are allowed to this post till midnight my time, so long as you link to this post. I'll manually transfer the links below as I'm able.

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Angel at Woman Honor Thyself would like us to read about Gilad Shalit. No relation to Gene, apparently.

And here's one that was posted on 20 June from Conservative Cat: Confused Americans For Truth: Kerry Needs A Date With The Iraqi Government. Sorry, Ferdinand. The trackback ping didn't come through, but it just showed up on Technorati four hours ago! I'll put the link on this post, so it will show up on T'rati.

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