Steven Pinker on Cognitive Psychology, Computational Theory, and Conversation

computational theory

Posted October 2019 by John Sherk, B.S.W., B.S. Bible; MDiv.; 6 updates since. Reading time: 5 min. Reading level: Grade 8+. Questions on cognitive psychology? Email Toni at:

Have you ever heard the phrase “the mind is like a computer”? The analogy sees the mind as a computer in that a computer uses various processes and circuitry to translate code into a usable, discernible framework. For example, a computer can take binary code and translate it into something more meaningful (like 01010111 into W). The mind works much the same way. In modern cognitive psychology, this is called the computational theory of mind. Only the mind isn’t just like a computer, but it is a computer. And our biology has evolved to reflect this.

One current proponent for computational theory, and one of the most important contemporary thinks in psychology, is Steven Pinker.

The Keys to Computational Theory

What is the computational theory of mind (CTM)? This theory suggests that the brain’s neural activity  functions like a computer. Derived in some ways from Kant’s categories of the mind, CTM argues that the mind does not know objects in themselves, but must take information about the object and then interpret and represent that in a way your mind can understand.

For example, let’s say you’re studying a rock. You do not experience the rock itself, but rather your mind takes information about the rock and then translates that into symbols for you. Your cognitive experience is symbols your mind has created. Therefore, you don’t experience the rock itself, but rather your mind’s symbolic representation of the rock. Just like a computer does not present 1s and 0s to the user, but symbols the user understands.

Steven Pinker added a cognitive psychology and evolutionary linguistic twist to CTM.  Human language puts symbols to sensations. Consequently, there’s nothing inherent to the “S” shape that gives you that “sss” sound. Likewise, there’s nothing inherent in the four letters “b-a-l-l” that communicates or represents a spherical object. Yet, language remains cross-cultural. As if it is biologically innate. Steven Pinker expands on this in his book The Language Instinct.

The Conversation on Computational Theory Evolves

It has long been assumed that language is a social construct. Pinker seems to acknowledge when he attributes human language to evolution, a develop from social hunter-gatherers. However, Pinker makes several observations that seem to indicate that, while humans may have created particular languages, language itself comes to us biologically through evolution as an instinct. Here are some of his observations in brief:

  • First, young children seem to instinctively create their own speech.
  • Second, although deaf babies may not speak, they still “chatter” or “babble” with their hands, spontaneously inventing a sort of sign language.
  • Next, along with this spontaneity, Pinker notes language and grammatical communication develops among people even without formal education.
  • Finally, Pinker also discusses how we seem to think in language, arguing that it functions like a “mental module.”

All these facts seem to indicate that language comes to human beings innately through evolution. For instance, just as spiders weave webs instinctively, so do human beings invent language instinctively.

How does this relate to CTM and cognitive psychology? Just as computers need to be built with certain programs in order to translate certain codes, so also human beings have certain programs to make sense of the world. For example, a computer from the 1980s will not be able to translate the complex codes in a modern video game. It cannot even begin to create the experience of a modern game. Modern computers can do so because they have the necessary hardware and software to create that gaming experience. Likewise, the human mind has a sort of “language software” built into it. We take the pre-existing natural instinct of language and use it to spontaneously create new forms of communication! Accordingly, while we may have challenges learning new languages, the idea of language and grammar rules comes quite naturally to all of us.

These ideas also show the potentially boundless new “computations” in the human mind. To illustrate, think of a sentence you’ve never read before. “Paresh ate a gargantuan bowl of pea soup today.” You probably didn’t think of that sentence, but you also have probably never seen that sentence before. Regardless, that sentence remains meaningful to you. You can understand it. This reveals the possibly incalculable new “computations” that the mind can make thanks to our language instinct.

Implications of the Language Instinct

What are the implications of this language instinct? Can we draw any universal conclusions from these findings? In this section of The Language Instinct, Pinker specifically addresses Noam Chomsky’s theory of a universal grammar. Chomsky argues that every and all languages share universal properties, such as differentiating between nouns and verbs. Chomsky theorizes, an inborn genetically-established language ability exists in all human beings that knows these language rules.

Showing affinity for this view, Pinker explains that this “universal grammar” reflects the “language category” or innate grammar program in the mind. Pinker argues that there is a certain point in human development in which this program is at its strongest. In then gets weaker, so to speak, as we get older. In other words, there seems to be a critical period in childhood wherein language acquisition becomes the easiest and most natural. As we grow and adapt to our environment into adulthood, the brain adapts with us so that learning new languages becomes more challenging.

Steven Pinker’s understanding of computational theory, cognitive psychology, evolution, and human language provides thoughtful insights into who we are as creatures. What does our innate ability to create languages say about what it means to be human? If we developed our language instinct through evolution, what other instincts might be possible in the future? As research in this area continues, it certainly seems like a world full of endless possibilities.

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