The New York Times has a long profile of developmental psychologist Elizabeth Spielke, whose work with babies has opened a window on early cognition (“Insights from the youngest minds”). The article is wide-ranging and worth sharing. I thought I’d make an note of Spielke’s version of the “cathedral” model in which distinct cognitive functions are combined by executive consciousness into synthetic abilities. She denotes language as the functional glue holding the brain’s abilities together:
Dr. Spelke is also seeking to understand how the core domains of the human mind interact to yield our uniquely restless and creative intelligence able to master calculus, probe the cosmos and play a Bach toccata as no bonobo or New Caledonian crow can. Even though our core systems are fundamental yet limited, as she put it, we manage to get beyond them.
Dr. Spelke has proposed that human language is the secret ingredient, the cognitive catalyst that allows our numeric, architectonic and social modules to join forces, swap ideas and take us to far horizons. Whats special about language is its productive combinatorial power, she said. We can use it to combine anything with anything.
She’s in a position to test that by looking at prelinguistic children. I think there’s much truth in the idea, but some functional integration must take place in any conscious organism, even without language. Language allows a complexity of expression, but complexity does not necessarily mean integration.