Obedience, authority, and praying are old news

There aren’t too many aspects of life that haven’t changed in the English-speaking world between the years of 1800 and 2000. Not surprisingly, language in books published in 2000 systematically differs from the language published 200 years earlier. I doubt that many people wrote about emails or the telephone at the turn of the 19th century, just as it seems likely that few people publishing in 1800 wrote about horses and buggies or working as a cooper.

That was then... Image: news.stanford.edu
That was then…
Image: news.stanford.edu
...and this is now. Image: Wikimedia
…and this is now.
Image: Wikimedia


However, the changes that this article mentions were a little more surprising. To detect changes in word frequencies, the author (Greenfield) used Google’s Ngram Viewer, which counts word frequencies in a million books in less than one second. In total, her study looked at about 1,160,000 books published over the 200 year span in the US. When she looked at about 350,000 books published in the UK over the same time span, she found all the same trends in frequencies, which means:

“These replications indicate that the underlying concepts, not just word frequencies, have been changing in importance over historical time.”

Here are some of the words that have increased in usage over time:

  • choose
  • get
  • child
  • unique
  • individual
  • self

And here are some that have decreased:

  • obliged
  • give
  • obedience
  • authority
  • belong
  • pray

Greenfield summarizes her conclusions:

“This research shows that there has been a two-century–long historical shift toward individualistic psychological functioning adapted to an urban environment and away from psychological functioning adapted to a rural environment.”

To me, the fact that there are cultural shifts and word use shifts are both unsurprising, but the fact that they seem to correlate is pretty interesting. It also suggests that computational methods might be pretty reliable ways to detect meaningful changes in language and behavioral patterns over time.

Sushi vs. Hamburger Science

I was introduced to this article, Sushi Science and Hamburger Science, last semester in one of my favorite classes, and it’s still making me think. It’s written by a Japanese biologist visiting America, who says:

I had always regarded science as a universal and believed there are no differences in science at all between countries. But I was wrong. People with different cultures think in different ways, and therefore their science also may well be different.

He first compares the cuisines of the East and West. According to the Easterner, in the West, we overcook food, but at the same time have some dishes in which the genius of the chef is truly apparent. In the East, on the other hand, many of the meals are not cooked at all, and although there are many skills needed to be a good preparer even of sushi and sashimi, the materials speak more than the cook does.

Screen shot 2013-07-13 at 9.37.41 PM

His religion panel also sums up differences that he says are evident in many cultural practices. In general, westerners are more focused on one God, intentionality, the individual, and rational facts. While dichotomies are pervasive in Western culture, they are absent from Eastern. Motokawa sums the difference up by equating Western thought with the concept of “one” and Eastern thought with the concept of “many.”

religion panel

This “one-many” distinction is very clear in the two cultures’ beliefs about science. In the West, we assume that nature is uniform and rational, and the goal is to discover universal rules. Instead of seeking universality, Easterners focus on finding differences and specificity (which Motokawa attributes at least in part to their belief in many gods). He writes that according to Eastern philosophy, “To interpret is to create your personal world, which always closes the way to the truth.”

science panel

If this is right, it explains why 70% of psychology citations come from the West. In psychology, the goal is to discover how the human brain/mind works. This implies that every human brain (and primates and rats too, since they’re frequently the subjects used in studies to learn about humans) behaves the same way under the same traditions. Are our mentalities are so different among different cultures that we don’t even see value in studying the same things? I wonder if there’s any way to reconcile the Eastern and Western cultural beliefs in order to study the mind? Maybe this is an important step in coming closer to a true understanding, as opposed to an understanding based on constricted cultural beliefs.

If cheeseburger sushi is a culinary possibility, maybe there’s hope for reconciliation of these two very different cultures for scientific investigation... Photo: http://aht.seriouseats.com/archives/2010/07/cheeseburger-themed-sushi-available-at-yatta--truck-in-los-angeles.html
If cheeseburger sushi is a culinary possibility, maybe there’s hope for reconciliation of these two very different cultures for scientific investigation… Photo: http://aht.seriouseats.com/archives/2010/07/cheeseburger-themed-sushi-available-at-yatta–truck-in-los-angeles.html

What if…?

I think a lot about linguistic relativity– the idea that the language I speak might profoundly influence the way I perceive the world, conceptualize it, and/or habitually act in it is so seductive. Yesterday I was listening to a “Talk the Talk” podcast called “Time in Amondawa,” and I started thinking about what life would be like if I spoke another language. In it, the linguistic Chris Sinha argues that the Amondawa tribe has no term for the abstract concept of “time,” and they don’t use spatial metaphors to talk about it, as we do in most languages (things like “waiting a long time,” or “looking forward to the future”). In addition, as in many languages, their number system consists of “one,” “two,” and “many.” That’s it.

Image: http://www.yourlanguageplace.com/how-language-can-shape-the-perception-of-time/
Image: http://www.yourlanguageplace.com/how-language-can-shape-the-perception-of-time/

Cultural differences aside, what would life be like if we had no way of talking about time or quantifying anything?! When I think about my thoughts over the course of the day, I think most of them revolve around one of those two things (or often both, when I think things like “I only have 17 minutes to get to this appointment”). Since I mainly define myself by my habitual thoughts, and I do believe that lacking ways of expressing certain concepts can dramatically alter the way you think about them, who would I be? What kind of things would we talk about? Our culture and society have evolved with time and numbers as a foundation. Would it still have been possible to become as advanced as we have without them?