The Language of Perception

May 31, 2012

Regents’ Professor Thomas Bever has dedicated his career to figuring out something that is uniquely human, innate and intuitive to our species; he studies language. He has built an incredibly distinguished career in the Department of Linguistics in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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“What’s been going on in my research,” he says, “is characteristically taking some feature of language and examine it to see if it’s unique to language or whether it’s the result or the effect of some other property of human cognition.”

What does that mean? Well, take a moment and slow down. Read each word in this sentence. Now, consider what is happening in your brain at this very moment. What processes are allowing you to string together these letters and words to create meaning?

Such questions –  found at the nexus of perception, language and reasoning – represent the focus of Bever’s work.

Founder of a Whole New Field of Study

For over 45 years, Bever’s research has shaped the fields of theoretical linguistics, cognitive neuroscience and developmental psychology. He is one of the founding fathers of the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science.

“What’s been going on in my research,” says Regents' Professor Thomas Bever, “is characteristically taking some feature of language and examine it to see if it’s unique to language or whether it’s the result or the effect of some other property of human cognition.”

While he wasn’t originally drawn to linguistics during his undergraduate years and Harvard, he was fascinated by the elements of communication, whether it was watching ants exchange chemical signals or examining how lighting affected audience perceptions during a theatre production.“He is a name that is known in linguistics and psychology all around the world,” says Heidi Harley, professor of linguistics at the UA. “He is such an influential figure. A lot of his papers from his early days as a professor are still regular reading in undergraduate courses even today.”

Once he discovered his direction, Bever studied with cognitive science pioneer George Miller and linguist Raymond Jacobson. He also witnessed the revolt against behaviorism lead in part by Noam Chomsky, world-renowned linguist, intellectual and political activist.

”I thought Chomsky was the smartest thing I’d ever heard or seen,” Bever remembers. “I mean, he was a kid. He was 10 years older than me.”

After Harvard, Bever was pursuing his PhD in psychology at MIT when he was invited to form the first graduate class in linguistics with Chomsky. It was then that Bever created the first course in modern psycholinguistics.

Collaborating with Students to Shape a Science

”I think that I’m a little bit intimidating for students,” says Bever in self-reflection. He says that that’s why he gets the smart ones, such as graduate student in linguistics, Julia Fisher.

“He’s had experience in thinking about both these really neurological issues and the cognitive issues,” says Fisher. She says Bever’s vast background of work and experience make him an amazing teacher.

According to Bever himself, now 45 years into his career, he sees the work he does today as being very student-driven.

In 2004, Townsend and Bever's work on sentence comprehension reached across the ocean to China. 

In one project, Bever and his students studied brain scans to learn how individuals process words in a series. The question was, do we perceive words individually – also known as lexically –  or do we process them strung together syntactically?

“Whether I do research at any given time on music or on some aspects of visual perception or some aspects of child development, all of which are areas that I have worked in,” he says, “is really a function of what student happens to turn up, who’s interested in what.”

As it turns out, what makes the difference is whether you are right or left-handed. And if left-handedness runs in the family, your word processing style may be similarly affected even if you are right-handed.

”In the right hemisphere of people with familial left-handedness,” says Bever, “there was a priority for the lexical task.”

Prior to the investigations of Bever and his students, the notion of tracking the familial handedness is almost unheard of, but their evidence shows that there really is some major difference in the neurological organization for language.

Along with being named a Regents’ Professor, Bever was recently honored with a Humboldt Prize for his fundamental discoveries and innovative research. Even with his impressive list of inquiry, he somehow also finds time to create and patent software to help readers learn.

How and when does he find such time?

“The implication of your question is that I have ADHD. You’re right,” he laughs, noting that the UA is the perfect place for someone like him to build a life and a career.

“The University is a very supportive place if you want to do research and you want to work with colleagues in different disciplines, it’s very easy here to do that.”