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Rick Grush

The Neural Basis of Thought and Language

My doctoral degree is a joint doctorate in both Philosophy and Cognitive Science from the University of California, San Diego. In general, my research involves understanding the neural basis of human thought, cognition, and language. This task is difficult for a number of reasons. First, the list of capacities which fall under the rubric of 'cognition and language' is quite large, including memory, mental imagery, planning, perception, prediction of the actions of others, problem solving, language production and comprehension, picking up pencils, and understanding nuances of poetry, as well as many others. Second, the brain is an incredibly complex device. It is fair to say that nobody has any solid understanding of how the brain implements any nontrivial cognitive function, let along the complicated ones like language comprehension.

This general problem, of understanding the mind in terms of the brain, is perhaps the most challenging problem of all. Other areas of research may be as difficult, such as understanding the origin of the universe, but the mind-brain problem has an element which these other problems do not. In the case of understanding the mind in terms of the brain, it is ourselves, our own consciousness, and even our own curiosity itself, that we do not understand.

More specifically, while at the Center for Semiotic Research this year, I will attempt to finish a book manuscript which addresses certain features of the neural basis of cognition. The book constructs a theory of the basics of neural representation, perception, and objectivity. The basic idea is that the brain constructs internal neural circuits which behave as analogue models of aspects of its environment. These neurally implemented models can then be run 'off-line' to engage in counter-factual reasoning and mental imagery (which is just counterfactual perception). I then show how perception is also processes with the use of these models, which in effect act as filters. The final aspect, objectivity, has to do with the fact that we do not just respond to sensory stimuli, but in fact we represent the world as an independently existing arena, containing objects which continue to exists even when we are not around, and which are there to be experienced from many points of view. The resulting theory is recognizably Kantian. This last aspect, the neural basis of objectivity, will be the topic of a seminar I will be teaching at the Center for Semiotic Research in the Fall semester of 1997.

I am also quite interested in the neural basis of language, and a second manuscript, which I hope to begin within a year, will focus on this topic. A seminar I will organize in the Spring Semester at the Center for Semiotic Research will address the neurocognitive basis of linguistic competence, and attempt to show how domain general cognitive constraints, such as constraints on attention management, are responsible for so-called syntactic phenomena in language.


Updated 1 December 2000 by smc. Please mail comments to the webmaster at Centre for Cultural Research.