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Speaking Eyes


If you speak only one language, do not feel upset. Simultaneously with your native language or perhaps even earlier, you have learned one more language – a visual one. A person perceives everything around through the eyes. The eyes “speak” their own special language. This language has letters, words and even grammar rules. Psychologists from Moscow State University have come to this conclusion. Their effort has been supported by the Russian Humanitarian Research Foundation.

Human visual system works in a similar way as the speech does. Therefore, Professor Chingiz Izmailov (Faculty of Psychology, Lomonosov Moscow State University) believes that we can speak about the existence of a special visual language of human beings. The researcher compares his study of this language with a linguist’s work.

What is similar about such seemingly different phenomena as vision and speech? The point is that our eyes understand what they see not as reflection of a real picture, but as a combination of multiple elementary visual components. The basic components are color and shape (it is known that there are special neural networks in the brain for each of them).

Components – elementary parts of visual language can be compared with the letters of visual alphabet. These are: hue, richness and color luminosity, lines and their intersections, angles, crosses, etc. There exist three “letters” to define color, ten letters – to define shape; besides, Professor Izmailov believes that we can talk about special “letters” to define motion, position in space, etc. Altogether, in his opinion, the visual language contains about 35 to 50 “letters”.

It is important that human beings discern the visual language “letters” no matter how they look in a specific case. Likewise “A” and “a” is the same letter, a line remains a line regardless of its length. As words are formed out of letters, in a similar way our vision constitutes object images out of these elementary components. An object as a whole – combination of its shape, color, position in space, etc. – may be considered the “word” of the visual language.

An analogy with the language can be drawn further: any arbitrary combination of letters does not form a word, likewise, any arbitrary combination of color and lines does not constitute an object. The meaning of the item received both in the speech and visual languages depends not on the letters but on way they are connected with each other. To get a word, not nonsense out of letters, the word should already exist in the language.

To “constitute” an object in the human visual system, i.e., in order for a person to understand that there is an umbrella, not a mushroom, it is necessary that a peculiar plan existed in his/her brain in advance, which would help to distinguish one from the other and to “collect” the image of umbrella out of the elements available. Besides, the visual system allows to determine what the object is in front of the person, regardless of the fact what side of the object is turned to him/her, whether it is small or large, old or new. It is like in a common language: “table” and “TABLE” – this is the same word for us, although written in different letters. It turns out that the language laws exist and act in the visual system in the same way as they act in the Russian, English or Chinese languages. But instead of grammar rules, the laws of work of cerebral neural networks operate here.

The visual language is not deprived of syntax. The word can act as a subject or a secondary member of a sentence, likewise the object can play different roles: it can awake the person’s interest, and then it will find itself in the centre of his/her attention, or it can simply serve a barely perceptible background to events. The context of the word can change its meaning drastically, although the composition of the word remains the same, in a similar way, a visual image may change drastically under the influence of the background, although the physical nature of the object remains invariable.

“The language model of vision and the language approach to psyche as a whole allow to bind in one conceptual system not only such components of psyche as perception, memory, thinking, speech, but also emotional events. Such approach leads us to understanding of the work of brain as a system of languages, and consequently, we can speak about the language of the brain not only metaphorically, but also specifically, as we speak about languages of different nations,” says Professor Izmailov.

Sergey Komarov | alfa
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