Speaking of epiphanies, I feel as if I’ve had one about my career. As usual with realizations like this, while feeling like a brand new insight, my new thoughts also seem totally obvious, as if I’ve been thinking along these same lines for months if not years already. But somehow it all just seems a little more clear now than it did before, giving the subjective impression of a really big shift in understanding (Eureka! I solved my life!), when really it’s just a tiny shift that happened to cross some sort of internal threshold. Anyway, the deal is, I want to study psycholinguistics.
How perfect/obvious this field is for me, let me count the ways. I am a hopeless grammar nerd. I was the “correct usage” champ on the literary team every year in middle school. I’ve always genuinely enjoyed doing things like diagramming sentences, proofreading, etc. When I started studying Latin in 2007, it was like stumbling into some strange realm where other people actually knew what a gerund (and, even better, a gerundive!) is too, and I immediately got really into it.
Then there’s the psychology side. I’ve been doing psychological research for donkey’s years, and been fairly successful at it, but often worried that it wasn’t really the right thing for me, partly because I was concerned it was taking time away from my other interests, namely in writing, and that I wasn’t sure the general population at vision science conferences really “got me” at all. They are, with some notable exceptions, a totally different kind of nerds, the kind that doesn’t necessarily ever read fiction or particularly care about writing well. I did a lot of work on reading (some of which is now being used to market phonics, which excites me), but it was all the context of vision/perception/object recognition. Somehow it never occurred to me that the scientists who study language primarily might be a lot more concerned with… language.
Then over the summer I discovered Lera Boroditsky‘s work on language and cognition, which bowled me over, and then I actually got to speak with her, which bowled me over even more. But I still thought it was mostly just that Lera in particular was very cool (she really is!), not that there was something particularly fitting about her topic/field. But then I got back to NYU, where there are many fine people working on language and language development and psycholinguistics, people I’ve already known and liked/admired for years: Athena Vouloumanos, Alec Marantz, David Poeppel, Brian McElree, etc. And I went to Chomsky’s talk, and I emailed him about it, and I started auditing a linguistics class for the first time ever, and something clicked. I had this feeling that, at long last, a huge conglomeration of seemingly-disparate interests I have had converged, and I had found an entire tribe of great people with similar concerns, all at once.
Relatedly, I was telling Mitsu about all this, and about my email to Chomsky, which was on the issue of thinking without words and whether language is primarily for thought or for externalization/communication. I didn’t think Chomsky really understood the point I was trying to make in my email, and Mitsu reminded me of a similar story he’d told me before about having a long conversation with “a cognitive scientist” about this issue at a Kira Institute event many years ago, and finally convincing her to modify her position re: whether we primarily think in words. This time I got him to remember who the cognitive scientist in question was, and it turns out it was, of all people, Elizabeth Spelke, whose work on language development I’ve admired for many years, and who was recently interviewed as part of the WNYC Radiolab program on “A World Without Words” that I tweeted a couple weeks ago.
It’s a small, vast world we live in, and so incredibly, richly connected.
For more on psycholinguistics/neurolinguistics/MEG/language and mind, etc, see Greg Hickok and David Poeppel’s blog, Talking Brains.