Language and the Mind
Spencer Kelly is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience as well as a codirector of the Center for Language and Brain at Colgate University. He earned his PhD and MA in Developmental Psychology from the University of Chicago, and he received his BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis. He also completed a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship in developmental neuroscience at the University of Louisville.
At Colgate University, Professor Kelly teaches on topics related to language, brain, and development. He has been a visiting scholar at the University of Washington and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. The Princeton Review has recognized him as one of America’s top 300 professors.
Professor Kelly is the president of the International Society for Gesture Studies. His expertise focuses on how the body shapes language and thought in children and adults. Professor Kelly has published more than 50 papers in scientific journals, and his research has been funded by the National Science Foundation. He coedited the book Why Gesture? How the Hands Function in Speaking, Thinking and Communicating. His work has been featured in various media outlets, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Scientific American.
01: Language in Mind
What is the human mind and how could it have developed language? Learn why dualism, materialism, structuralism, and reductionism—all captivating and forward-thinking mind models of their time—have each come up short. Instead, explore the fascinating concept of emergentism and learn why this model offers the best framework for understanding the development of language.
02: Language as a System
Explore the five components of language—pragmatics, syntax, semantics, morphology, and phonetics—and how they each contribute to the meaning of language. Learn the ways in which language is, and is not, similar to other systems in the body, and the specific reasons why learning a second language can be so challenging.
03: Eleven Linguistic Universals
While other animals have ways to communicate information, the universal properties of language distinguish us from all other species. Learn about the fascinating aspects of language we take for granted every day: our ability to use symbols, understand rules, generate novel utterances, speak about the past and future, and even purposefully lie. All of these universals, and more, have allowed language to become our greatest tool.
04: Communication in the Animal Kingdom
Could language be considered an organism whose only natural habitat is the human mind? Explore the fascinating results of our efforts to analyze and influence animal communication. What have we learned about our own relationship with language as we have studied honeybees, songbirds, vervet monkeys, chimpanzees, and dolphins?
05: Genes, Brains, and Evolution
While there is no single gene for language or any other complex human system, specific aspects of the human genome and our biology create the perfect biological environment for the development of language. Explore the important relationship between the brain’s Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas and the significance of the gene FOXP2. From an evolutionary point of view, could language be “a new machine built out of old parts”?
06: How the Brain Created Language
Did the human brain gradually evolve a specialized “mental organ” designed for language? Or was language a product of cultural evolution? Take a deep dive into the fascinating arguments on both sides and examine our relationship to the human microbiome as an analogy. We aren’t born with the bacteria in our microbiome, but our biology is extraordinarily receptive to them. And once combined, the relationship transforms us and our abilities—very similar to language.
07: Gesture and the Origins of Human Language
What did the very earliest forms of human language sound like? Chances are earliest language had less sound than you may think. Learn why many researchers believe hand gesture was actually our first attempt at language. From embodied brains to the widespread prevalence of gesture, from its human uniqueness to its many benefits for us, the evidence suggests that language was born in the body and grew up from there.
08: Development: A Mind under Construction
While scientists used to think of human development in terms of nature vs. nurture, it’s now commonly accepted that the human mind is the result of both, guided by the foundational process underlying all human learning—neuroplasticity. Discover the biological processes underlying how babies learn facial recognition and language, and the commonalities and differences between the two.
09: Specializing in Speech Sounds
Explore the brain structures of babies that give them their extraordinary auditory abilities, and why it’s so difficult for adults to learn new languages. Discover how exposure to our native language actually changes our brain, removing our ability to access objective auditory information in the environment, and why we each perceive a uniquely distorted world.
10: Navigating a World of Words
Explore the several mechanisms babies use in the formidable task of identifying discrete words from the streams of sound in language. Look closely at their innate ability to employ the cognitive constraints of whole object assumption, mutual exclusivity bias, and taxonomic assumption. And learn why the sing-song rhythm and pitch of parental “baby talk” is exactly what babies need to hear.
11: Learning to Play the Game of Language
Explore many of the evolutionary features that help babies prepare for successful communication, including the social cues that help them identify specific word meanings in an almost limitless sea of options. Consider the power of pupillary contagion as it activates the brain networks involved in perspective taking and the crucial social skill known as theory of mind.
12: Mastering the Structure of Language
Explore the many ways in which the mind is wired from birth to see structure in language. Delve into how children utilize Bayesian learning to understand language—making predictions of meaning based on their current evidence and prior knowledge. This process, by which they update their future predictions in a never-ending loop, is the perfect innate mechanism for language acquisition—and more.
13: The Brain as a Window into the Mind
Learn about the three basic principles of the brain as the foundation of all human learning: neural specialization, the connectome, and the brain’s plasticity. Discover how the many developments in neuroimaging over the past 30 years—including ERP, MEG, and fMRI scans—have helped us better understand the relationships between brain mechanisms and behavior, both typical and atypical.
14: How the Brain Comprehends Language
Only recently have scientists had the tools to examine the neural processing of language. The results reveal a brain that has evolved to process language as a survival mechanism. Learn about the brain’s dual-stream pathways and their benefits, the very latest research revealing that words activate practically every square inch of the brain’s surface, and the details that are still being debated today.
15: How the Brain Produces Language
Explore the latest scientific research and theories related to the brain’s ability to produce speech—one of the most complex of all human activities requiring the coordination of an estimated 100 muscles in the lungs, throat, jaw, tongue, and face. And learn why we need to hear our own speech in order to successfully produce it, even as adults.
16: Dancing Brains: The Social Side of Language
See why language truly is an example of emergentism, and why language production cannot fully be understood without considering how human brains connect to each other. Then, probe the fascinating workings of the mirror neuron system, neural synchrony, and the significance of the N400 response, as you discover why face-to-face interactions are so crucial for optimal communication.
17: How Writing Transformed the Mind
Investigate how the plasticity of the brain allows us to “cobble together” a neural network for reading and writing as we mature, using dyslexia and synesthesia to illustrate this networking property. This network develops at different times for different people, but no one is born with it; our “reading brain” is truly a technological transformation.
18: Sign Language: Language in Our Hands
By exploring a version of language that operates in a different modality than speech, you’ll develop a wider and deeper appreciation of what language actually is. You’ll unveil many myths about sign language, as you learn about its fascinating development and linguistic components. Our relatively recent understanding of neural mechanisms reveals that language is language, regardless of modality.
19: Embodied Language: Mind in Body—Body in Mind
Witness how the arbitrary and abstract elements of language interact with the iconic and concrete expressions of the body. Remembering that language originally evolved within a face-to-face context, the revelation of recent studies is not surprising: The body influences all parts of language and we use the whole body to take meaning from what we hear.
20: The Multilingual Mind
What happens in the brain when we learn a language in addition to our native tongue? That depends on when that additional language is learned and its modality relative to the native language—i.e., are both languages speech, or is one sign? Discover the fascinating experiments that have revealed the brain’s “bilingual language control” function and the many ways in which it can go awry.
21: Does Language Shape Thought?
Since English speakers have relatively few words for snow, is it impossible for us to experience snow in all its forms? If an African tribe has fewer color names than English, is their vision different than ours? Does language influence our perception or does our perception influence language—or, could it work both ways? Investigate the fascinating arguments on all sides of this still-ongoing debate about language.
22: Does Culture Shape Language?
Journey through a series of fascinating experiments developed to determine whether or not language can influence thought independent of culture. Perhaps not unexpectedly—and working with individuals from preverbal infants to adults—these experiments reveal that language and culture both influence thought, often working in tandem.
23: The Benefits of Bilingualism
What are the potential by-products of speaking multiple languages? Learn what relatively recent research has shown about the ways in which having multiple languages opens up different emotional, cognitive, and social worlds, and how the mind travels back and forth between them. And consider the controversial claim that becoming a bilinguist can actually improve your cognitive reserve.
24: How Language Makes Us Human
Language is the ultimate tool humans use when we extend our minds beyond the here and now, and beyond what we have previously known. Learn how language has allowed humans to develop math, build a capacity for logic, categorize the world around us, develop the concept of metaphor, and construct narratives. While we take each of these functions for granted every day because they feel so natural, none would have been possible without language.