Wednesday, 28 May 2014


Language has to be learned, but what of images?

In recent decades, research using functional brain imaging techniques has shown conclusively what many people already suspected; namely, that when we re-encounter something, our brain activity corresponds closely to that of earlier encounters of the same kind. There really couldn't be a better word to describe this than "recognition". We also know from related studies that representations also trigger corresponding recognition networks to the things represented, and even linguistic representations—nouns for instance—which bear nothing in common with the things they nominate, activate many portions of the brain associated with the things named, as well as others involved with language processing and conceptual understanding. Image recognition on the other hand, although it may trigger language associations, is not reliant upon language. Pictures, photorealistic pictures especially, are recognised because in certain respects and in certain circumstances they share much in common with the things they depict.

Last week, in a BBC programme devoted to the work of artist Michael Craig-Martin, the artist' final words are:
If you go back to the books that children are taught words in, you will have a picture of a ball and then there's the word "ball". And the reason for the book is to teach the child to know the word ball. But it's based on the idea that they already know what the picture is, because there isn't a ball there. There's a picture of a ball. So the child already has learned how to read pictures of things as though they were the things. Now, we do that so early, we are probably doing that at about two or three months. That's the foundation of language, not the words - it's the pictures of things that are the basis of our understanding.
We could quibble over the finer logic of Craig-Martin's thinking here but the general point is correct: we recognise representations as representations long before we learn to speak or read. What is less clear though, and what research has yet to confirm, is at which developmental period infants and animals become capable of responding differentially to representations as opposed to the things they represent. In other words: we don't yet know at what point infants learn that representations are representations, i.e. when their brain activity switches from the simple recognition of things in depictions to a recognition of depictions as depictions—as tools. It seems likely that this emergence is gradual, as gradual as the emergence of consciousness itself. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the ability to discriminate between a representation and whatever is represented lies at the very heart of consciousness.


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