new research into semantic categories

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Thu Feb 11 22:01:49 UTC 2010

If the researchers are saying that *one* of the ways *all* humans
classify all non-human objects is the three of "Can I eat it? How do
I hold it? Can it give me shelter?", then I will at least suspend
judgement until I see additional confirming or refuting
studies.  Further research may show that some humans do not classify
objects this way. (I note that the article from The Tartan, "C-M's
student newspaper," does not cite a publication in a peer-reviewed
journal, although there may be one; it seems difficult to find out on-line.)

But if the statement is that this is *the* (meaning only) way, then I
still say, Stuff and Nonsense!  The article starts "Using functional
magnetic resonance imaging ... members of the Center [at Carnegie
Mellon] have gained deep insight into *the way* human brains
categorize objects" (emphasis added).

In the second paragraph, the article says "Their research has
concluded that humans represent *all* non-human objects in terms of
three classes or dimensions" (emphasis added).  Set aside the *all*,
which I will suspend judgement on awaiting confirmatory
evidence.  But the grammar leads me to understand this sentence as
asserting that this is the *only* way humans represent objects, and
that they classify objects in *only* three classes  The writer did
not say "has concluded that *one way* humans represent all non-human
objects", so I took it to be the only way.  Perhaps I have
misunderstood the writer of the article, and the article writer may
be misrepresenting the conclusion of the researchers.  But --

The second paragraph continues: "[Neuroscientist Just] explained that
when one sees an object, the brain thinks, 'Can I eat it? How do I
hold it? Can it give me shelter?' Indeed, all concrete objects are
represented in terms of these three dimensions, much in the way that
all places in space are represented by the three dimensions that we
experience every day."  This too reads as though the three are the
*only* dimensions of objects.  The analogy with three-dimensional
space is false-- Of course three-dimensional space has only three
dimensions.  But non-human objects do not therefore have just three
dimensions (three classes of properties).

On another matter:  "Just feels that these dimensions point back to
our evolutionary origins ... [he said] 'there are fundamental
biological concerns with eating, usage, and shelter.'"  But those
sound like the wrong three.*  Rather, the three primitive questions
are:  "Can I eat it?  Can it give me shelter?  Can I mate with it?"

* Note that when I say "the wrong three," someone may conclude that I
mean all three are wrong.  I only mean that it is the wrong set of
three -- just one is wrong.

("Three states of matter" is not a correct analogy either.  Liquid,
solid, and gas are three values of a *single* property of matter, not
three "dimensions" of matter.)


At 2/11/2010 03:40 PM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
>Exactly. It's the same as saying we recognize three everyday states of
>matter: liquid, solid, gas.  Those are the most basic categories, but our
>thinking about matter goes far beyond that general level of identification.
>On Thu, Feb 11, 2010 at 3:03 PM, Mark Mandel <thnidu at> wrote:
> > ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> > -----------------------
> > Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> > Poster:       Mark Mandel <thnidu at GMAIL.COM>
> > Subject:      Re: new research into semantic categories
> >
> >
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> >
> > No. Three categories, that are plausibly evolutionarily ancient, elicit
> > reactions in distinct parts of the brain as seen by this fMRI study. We
> > also
> > "classify" people on sight by sex and age; does that statement imply that
> > we
> > make no other distinctions? I don't think so.
> >
> > The basic idea is that when a particular part of the brain is active, it
> > > receives more blood, and the increased blood flow can be seen by MRI
> > > machines. Researchers cannot directly tell what a person is thinking, but
> > > they can tell where the thinking is happening and infer from there, since
> > > certain parts of the brain are used for certain functions. In the context
> > of
> > > the research, it was found that objects belonging to a particular
> > dimension
> > > all triggered activity in a particular part of the brain.
> > >
> >
> > m a m
> >
> > On Thu, Feb 11, 2010 at 1:53 PM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at> wrote:
> >
> > > At 2/8/2010 10:22 PM, James Harbeck wrote:
> > > >
> > > >
> > > >Some researchers at Carnegie Mellon have, with the aid of an MRI,
> > > >come to the conclusion that human brains classify all non-human
> > > >objects in terms of three dimensions: in plain, "Can I eat it? How do
> > > >I hold it? Can it give me shelter?"
> > >
> > > Is this as nonsensical as it sounds to me?  The human brain can only
> > > manage three properties for all non-human objects?  And two of those
> > > properties are the simplest of "enumerated" data types, namely
> > > "Boolean", which can take on only two values, "yes" or "no"?
> > >
> > > Apples are not red (usually), plums are not purple -- they are only
> > > "eatable = 'yes'"!
> > >
> > > Any relational database system can do better than
> > > that!  (Translating, "property" = column; "object" = "row".)
> > >
> > > Joel
> > >
> >
> > ------------------------------------------------------------
> > The American Dialect Society -
> >
>"If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."
>The American Dialect Society -

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