Neuroscience Evidence Suggests Knowledge Can Be Nonverbal

You can know how to ride a bike, without you being able to explain how to ride a bike. Michael Polanyi’s famous bike example shows that some actionable (“tacit”) knowledge can be nonverbal. Our dachshund Walter knows (nonverbally) that when I get the watering can from the top of the refrigerator, he is likely to be able to run out of the door to the deck with me soon. A dog can have nonverbal knowledge. In some areas of knowledge, most especially in medicine, we often mandate that action is only allowed based on verbal knowledge, and even more narrowly, on a particular kind of verbal knowledge, randomized double-blind clinical trials (RCTs). Outcomes outcomes would be better and quicker if we allowed action on all kinds of knowledge.

(p. D5) Dr. Fedorenko . . . [is] a cognitive neuroscientist at M.I.T., using brain scanning to investigate how the brain produces language. And after 15 years, her research has led her to a startling conclusion: We don’t need language to think.

. . .

The scientists . . . ran studies to pinpoint brain circuits that were involved in language tasks, such as retrieving words from memory and following rules of grammar. In a typical experiment, volunteers read gibberish, followed by real sentences. The scientists discovered certain brain regions that became active only when volunteers processed actual language.

Each volunteer had a language network — a constellation of regions that become active during language tasks. “It’s very stable,” Dr. Fedorenko said. “If I scan you today, and 10 or 15 years later, it’s going to be in the same place.”

The researchers then scanned the same people as they performed different kinds of thinking, such as solving a puzzle. “Other regions in the brain are working really hard when you’re doing all these forms of thinking,” she said. But the language networks stayed quiet. “It became clear that none of those things seem to engage language circuits,” she said.

In a paper published Wednesday [June 19, 2024] in Nature, Dr. Fedorenko and her colleagues argued that studies of people with brain injuries point to the same conclusion.

Strokes and other forms of brain damage can wipe out the language network, leaving people struggling to process words and grammar, a condition known as aphasia. But scientists have discovered that people can still do algebra and play chess even with aphasia.

For the full story see:

Carl Zimmer. “Is It Still a Thought If It’s Not in Words?” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 25, 2024): D5.

(Note: ellipses, bracketed word, and bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 19, 2024, and has the title “Do We Need Language to Think?” Where the wording of the versions differs, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

The Nature paper co-authored by Fedorenko, and mentioned above, is:

Fedorenko, Evelina, Steven T. Piantadosi, and Edward A. F. Gibson. “Language Is Primarily a Tool for Communication Rather Than Thought.” Nature 630, no. 8017 (June 20, 2024): 575-86.

Polanyi’s tacit knowledge is different from Hayek’s local knowledge, although they are both important and are often discussed together. Michael Polanyi’s description of “tacit knowledge” can be found in:

Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1966.

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