An abstract framework

Abstraction is the basis of thinking. The ability to work with signs, to process (sensory) information, is innate and proceeds through a language that is specific to the brain and nervous system (Langer, 1948). Leech (1981) cautiously refers to a conceptual basic framework in which abstract ideas are formed. He speaks of a grid, a collection of cells or designative categories. In his impressive study The Act of Creation, a study of the conscious and unconscious in science and art, Koestler links phenomena such as laughter, scientific, technical and artistic creativity with what he calls matrices of thought. He uses the word matrix to designate every ability, habit or skill, every pattern of ordered behavior that is managed by a ‘code’ of fixed rules.

The study of information processing by computers and brains also makes it increasingly clear that behind the multitude of observations and expressions a regularity can be found that can be traced back to a processing method. An example of this type of research is modern linguistics. Noam Chomsky, with his generative grammar, rejects the view that languages are purely conventional. He shows that to a certain extent we are programmed to develop a language. Since the publication of Chomsky’s first work, Syntactic Structures (1957), a stream of data has emerged that has convinced the vast majority of linguists of a universal system that hides behind the diversity of languages. ‘Living systems’ such as language have not been designed and programmed by the observer but are part of the evolving nature. The observer is a product of evolution, he was produced by the observed and thus in a sense forms a unity with it.

Steven Pinker’s cognitive-psychological starting-point (1994) tries to reconcile the new vision of hereditary knowledge with the behaviourist tradition that dominates US universities. Languages are products of the brain (software) and the brain is a biological computer. Pinker gives arguments from child psychologists, biologists, neurophysiologists, computer specialists, linguists etc… proving that the existence of a thinking-language is not only possible but also necessary. In this view each one of us carries an inbuilt dictionary as part of our mental equipment. It is organized like a thesaurus, so that when one key-concept is found, other similar in meaning are made readily available. Knowledge is not just a list of facts but is organized into a complex network. Expressive language must be structured so that the listener/observer can place each part into the inbuilt framework. This thinking-matrix forms our innate and universal language ability that each of us uses in her own way.

The decoding of the biological signal system is possible by studying the way in which people connect all kinds of impressions. However, there are so many combinations possible and there are so many variants that it seems impossible to check all assumptions. If, for example, we notice that a certain colour corresponds to a certain shape, how do we know whether this is related to the internal organization of the nervous system and the brain, or with accidental external similarities and cultural practices? Even if most people agree that a heart shape matches a red colour, we are not sure if this is a convention or not.

 The Bouba-Kiki effect. Wolfgang Köhler.

Nevertheless, that the naming of objects is not an arbitrary process is demonstrated by the Bouba-Kiki effect. Wolfgang Köhler, a German psychologist who experimented with perception and movement, observed the Bouba-Kiki effect for the first time in 1929. It has since been repeated all over the world. The effect is that when people have to stick the words Bouba and Kiki on two forms (a fat, round shape and a sharp, pointed shape), 95% to 98% will pin Bouba on the fat, round shape, and Kiki on the sharp shape (Köhler, 1947; Ramachandran, 2001). This suggests that the human brain is capable of extracting abstract properties of both shape and sound.