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Psych 521 The Structure of Human Thought: Concepts, Language, and Culture, Spring 2016

We will be meeting on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1:00pm-2:15pm in Psych 121. The two weekly lectures are accompanied by a mandatory discussion section. In Spring 2016 there are three regular sections + an honors section (Psych 581) that meets Wednesdays 9:55-10:45 in Psych 519.

The class is taught by Prof. Gary Lupyan (lab page), (lupyan _at_ wisc dot edu)).
You can download the full syllabus here for more info on the readings, grading, etc.

This semester we'll be using Top Hat for administering in-class question, surveys, and mini-experiments. Please sign up here. You can use a smartphone app for iPhone or Android, text answers using a dumb-phone, or use your computer to respond (this latter option is not recommended).

Class Description and goals of the class

This class will take you on a tour of how humans conceptualize the world, focusing on the role of language in thought. We will begin by discussing the evolution of language and proceed to discuss how abilities that humans share with non-human animals (e.g. perception, categorization, memory) are influenced by the learning and use of language. We will discuss the relationship between language, culture, and cognition in domains as varied as mathematics, visual perception, spatial navigation, and theory of mind. In the process, we will tackle questions such as: In what ways does language change what humans can think about? What is the role of language in making us human? Can speaking a particular language allow the speakers to better adapt to their environment? Can we create new languages to improve human thought? We will also address such issues as metaphors in political discourse and propaganda, and the role of information technologies in the spread of ideas. This class will draw heavily on empirical research in cognitive and developmental psychology as well as neuroscience.

Students will develop a rich understanding of the relationship between language and other cognitive processes. At the end of the term, students will be able to intelligently discuss topics like these:

o What’s so special about language?

o Why are humans the only animal species with language?

o Where did language come from?

o What can we learn about nonlinguistic cognition from the study of language acquisition?

o Do differences in language lead to differences in thought? What kind of thought?

o How does language help or hurt our “thinking?” (and what do we mean by “thinking” anyway?)

o What is the relationship between language and….. vision/spatial cognition/ arithmetic/abstract thought/categorization?

o What are the neural mechanisms by which language can affect various cognitive processes?

o Do language impairments impair “thought”?

o How does the science of language/thought relations inform us about metaphors, propaganda/politics discussion, and just plain conversation?

o How do new communication technologies change language?

o Can we create new languages to improve human thinking?

You can access the readings from the links on the left. I will tell you the password to download the PDFs on the first day of class. Please see the syllabus for information on class expectations, grading etc.

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