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Seeing and speaking are two of the most complex processes
happening in the human mind. Through his research, UD’s Alon Hafri seeks
to understand how they work and how those two systems share
For a translator to
turn one language (say, English) into another (say, Greek), she has to
be able to understand both languages and what common meanings they point
to, because English is not very similar to Greek.
It turns out that a similar task must be carried out within our own
minds when translating visual information into linguistic information — a
task Alon Hafri, an assistant professor in the Department of
Linguistics and Cognitive Science at the University of Delaware and
director of the Perception and Language (PAL) Lab,
is trying to better understand. His research is on the connection
between language and visual perception, or, in other words, between what
we say and what we see.
Understanding these two activities — seeing and speaking — may at
first seem trivial, Hafri said. Indeed, we're so good at these things
that we do them without thinking. But seeing and speaking are some of
the most complex processes that the human mind carries out. Hafri’s goal
is to understand how they work and how those two systems share
Hafri gives a seemingly simple example: a cat on a mat. If we saw a
cat on a mat, we'd have no problem describing the scene. Or if someone
said, "Look, a cat on a mat," we'd easily be able to identify it out in
the world. Yet at first glance, an image of a cat on a mat and the
sentence “a cat on a mat” have nothing in common: the image has colors,
edges, shapes and locations, while the sentence has sounds, words,
phrases and such.
“If you think about the problem that the mind has to solve when
you're going from a visual scene to a sentence that you produce about
it, there's nothing in common really between words in a certain order
and a visual image,” Hafri said. “The kind of information that they
start with is very different. Something I'm really interested in is how
visual information gets translated — sort of like an English-to-Greek
translator would do — into a format that language can use, such that we
can talk about what we see. And vice versa, so that we can recognize the
things people are talking about in the world. The kind of questions I
ask are, well, how does that happen? What is the translation process?”
Watch a video on symmetrical meaning
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In a recent project, Hafri asked research participants whether the
notion of symmetry exists not only in vision (such as in a butterfly’s
wings), but also in language. He uses tasks that force people to make
judgments of how a linguistic and a visual stimulus relate, presenting
images of shapes that are symmetric and non-symmetric and asking people
to choose from a set of words the one that best describes them. Hafri
gives the words “marry” and “adopt” as examples. "Marry" has notions of
symmetry as a part of its meaning (if Bill marries John, then John
marries Bill), while "adopt" does not (if Bill adopts John, John doesn't
necessarily adopt Bill).
Despite the fact that most participants said they felt they were
picking images and shapes at random, Hafri found that people were quite
sensitive to the connection between visual symmetry and language for
symmetry, such that they associated symmetrical images with words that
have symmetrical meaning. (You can try out the tasks for yourself.)
“There seems to be some deep way in which symmetry in vision and
symmetry and language are connected,” Hafri said. “I think it's because
there's some internal language or internal code — you can think of it
almost like your mental computer code — that has this property of
symmetry that both language and vision link to. So when you see a visual
image or an event that's symmetrical, it somehow gives rise to this
abstract mental representation of symmetry — this internal language of
Hafri’s research will help cognitive scientists to better understand
the internal code — or internal language — of the human mind.
“Language can be studied on its own, but at some level, it has to
connect to other areas of the mind,” Hafri said. “For [vision and
language] to connect, it has to happen through some internal code,
because a visual image and words and sentences are just so different, in
so many ways. For that reason, if you can find the points at which they
make contact, you can get a sense of what that internal language or
that internal code is like in a way that you couldn't otherwise.”
Article by Amy Wolf, illustration and video by Jeffrey C. Chase
published January 19, 2023