Computational Linguistics

Pondering the current research interests of Mark Johnson, who co-authored one of my current obsessions, Metaphors We Live By (U. of Chicago Press, 1980 with George Lakoff. From his page on Brown University’s Cognitive & Linguistic Science department:

Mark Johnson’s research interests

Interdisciplinary research and training:

The things that I’m most excited about currently is research that lies at the intersection of Linguistics, Computer Science, Statistics and Neuroscience. Computational Linguistics and machine learning are good examples of topics that lie at this nexus….

Why computational linguistics?

My area of research is computational linguistics. Linguistic theory focuses primarily on the structures involved in natural language, but in my opinion the structures alone are just a small part of the story. Language is active and dynamic; the processes of language learning, comprehension and production are what really bring language to life. That is, I believe that modern generative linguistic theories of syntax, semantics and phonology are on the right track as far as they go, but that they are missing a large part of the story because they focus on static representations, rather than the processes which create and manipulate these representations. Put rather crassly: representations just sit there, processes actually do something.

There are many different ways to study these processes, but to me one of the fascinating challenges is to develop theories that are consistent with and build on the structures that standard linguistic theory provides. I also think that we want theories of these linguistic processes which are clear and explicit, in much the same way as certain generative approaches to linguistics formulate clear, explicit and precise grammar fragments in order to present and test their hypotheses. Manipulating information-bearing symbols is what computation is all about, so we want to understand the processes of language in computational terms.

Computational linguistics is a truly interdisciplinary subject. It is a scientific discipline with important industrial and engineering applications (just like some areas of physics or chemistry). Intellectually it draws primarily on linguistics and computer science, and these days it draws heavily on statistics. But it also has growing contacts with psycholinguistics (the experimental study of human linguistic behaviour), language acquisition (the experimental study of how humans learn language) and I think it should also have more contact with neurolinguistics (how language is realized in the brain)….

Johnson goes on to talk about the end of the boolean search and the move towards the semantic web, which M has been talking about lately in his pursuit of interaction design…

I once associated language with futility in my work, but I’m now starting to think that art functions like a shared currency—like language. I think this underlies my belief that the work of art mediates a relationship between the artist and viewer; that something (meaning, interaction, interdependence) is being conveyed through something else (images, objects, experiences). The ways that images and phenomenological art experiences unfold in the brain have probably got similarities to the ways in which language is intertwined with cognition. I don’t mean this in a strictly semiotic way. Is it possible that, just as metaphors are not just ways that we speak but are fundamental to how we think, that art-viewing-experiences are not just means of participating in a discourse on art, but unique ways to exercise perceptual cognition?


hug it out!

Making exhibitions requires a lot of teamwork, so I’ve been practicing sharing epic high-fives. Just the other day, K, R and I shared a spinning jump triple. That momentary gesture turned a feeling of mild accomplishment into floaty elation.

In “Evidence That Little Touches Do Mean So Much,” (, February 22, 2010) Benedict Carey examines the psychology and neuroscience of meaningful touches.

Momentary touches, [researchers] say — whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm — can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more quickly and accurately than words….

“We used to think that touch only served to intensify communicated emotions,” Dr. [Matthew] Hertenstein [a psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana] said. Now it turns out to be “a much more differentiated signaling system than we had imagined.

As an artist working with installation and phenomenology, I’m really interested in embodied experiences. As Lakoff & Johnson explain in “Metaphors We Live By,” metaphors are not merely linguistic devices, but cognitive tools; we think using metaphors grounded in our physical experience.

High-fives express shared excitement or accomplishment (“Nice one!”). It conveys that this experience is good, and yay for sharing it with me. It is harmless hedonism, of taking pleasure in the present. It’s dorky, hip, sweet, and maybe a little ironic, but maybe also infused with feel-good, unabashed enthusiasm (like Ugo Rodinone’s “Hell Yes!”). I hope I never feel too old to share a high-five.

As usual, I’d like to participate in an art world characterized by community and reciprocity. Supportive touches express mutuality; maybe more curators, artists, critics and collectors should be hugging it out.

…In the brain, prefrontal areas, which help regulate emotion, can relax, freeing them for another of their primary purposes: problem solving. In effect, the body interprets a supportive touch as “I’ll share the load.”

“We think that humans build relationships precisely for this reason, to distribute problem solving across brains,” said James A. Coan, a a psychologist at the University of Virginia. “We are wired to literally share the processing load, and this is the signal we’re getting when we receive support through touch.”

Carey also quotes Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.” Incidentally, Keltner’s mentor was San Francisco psychologist Paul Ekman, who was profiled by Malcolm Gladwell in an eye-opening article about emotions and facial expressions (“The Naked Face,” New Yorker, 2002). If you’ve heard of the wide, genuine, impossible-to-fake Duchenne smile, then you’ve been touched by Ekman’s influence.