A few weeks ago, Sergey Brin was eating a meal while wearing Google Glass when a friend sent him a text message. Instead of words, Brin replied by snapping a quick photograph. “It was fascinating to see that I could just reply to a text message with a photo,” he told the New York Times.
Platforms like Instagram, Vine and SnapChat have already demonstrated the power (and popularity) of communicating through visuals, and the potential of this type of cultural disruption is enormous. Language barriers would break down through image-based communication, opening up the possibility of a world where people interact through photographs regardless of what language they speak (not to mention embarrassing iPhone autocorrects would become a thing of the past).
The impending release of Google Glass and the growing user base of visual social media platforms have caused a strange question to surface: What would we lose in a scenario where language evolves (or devolves) into a communication system based on images?
Gary Lupyan, a University of Wisconsin psychology professor who recently published a study on language’s influence on perception, sheds some light on the topic.
Lupyan is interested in whether vision and perception alter what we know about the world, or if our brains perceive the world purely objectively. It’s a controversial question that many psychologists have debated over the years.
In hopes of adding some new insight, his team’s most recent study focused on answering a simpler question: Can hearing the name of an object boost it into visual awareness?
Using a technique called “flash suppression,” during which people are presented with visual noise in one eye and a picture in the other, Lupyan sought to find out whether an invisible object could be seen if a participant heard the object’s name. The purpose of using flash suppression is that visual noise confuses the brain, rendering the image “invisible.”
They found that when participants heard the name of the suppressed object - which could be anything from a banana to a zebra - it was boosted into their awareness. But when the wrong word was said, participants had difficulty detecting the image, which suggests that perception is deeply influenced by language.
“It helps us understand the degree to which normal human perception is actually augmented by language,” Lupyan says. “Language really changes the brain.”
For instance, speaking a language that uses different color words changes color perception. English uses one word for blue, and Russian uses two. “In English, we can say light, dark, navy, but what that overlooks is that Russian does not have ‘blue.’ You can’t say my favorite color is blue,” says Lupyan. This difference in language, he explains, changes the way people who speak Russian or English perceive the color.
A picture is a picture
To compare this with visual communication, Lupyan explains that language not only allows us to speak, but also to think in terms of abstractions. “The way that language is different is categories,” he says. “You can say something like my favorite color is blue without specifying shade. A picture is a picture, and many things we care about are at levels of abstractions.”
Given that language permeates the perceptual system, shifting to visual-based communication would take away the nuances that influence how we see the world. But with examples like Google Glass and this rendering of the Breaking Bad season premier done entirely in Emoji, it’s hard not to be entertained by the thought that one day, centuries from now, we’ll be communicating entirely in pictures.
Top image: Observing via Shutterstock.