Report on Language Discussion, 23rd January

Interdisciplinary Discussion Group: Language

On Monday 23rd January, the University of London Interdisciplinary Discussion group met for the third time. The topic in question was ‘language’. We had presentations from linguist turned neuroscientist ‘Ōiwi Parker Jones, and from Lecturer in English and RCUK fellow in Science and Technology, Laura Salisbury. Both talked about language within the context of their work, and this was followed by a discussion with the audience.

‘Ōiwi began by commenting that although he has a background in both linguistics and neuroscience, this is the first time he has ever been forced to bring them together. He discussed Chomsky’s theories of language, reflecting on how exactly language works, before moving on to discuss his current research which concerns predicting language recovery after brain disease by examining the networks that get created in the brain. He also speculated briefly on where, if at all, we can locate language in the brain. He ended by tantalisingly quoting from recent work (Schnupp, Nelken and King, 2011) which posited that language is ‘telepathy’ as it concerns projecting your thoughts into the head of another and vice versa.

Laura Salisbury then discussed her work on Beckett and aphasia which he has been working on with Professor Christopher Code, an aphasiologist based at the University of Exeter. She traced affinities between Beckett’s presentation of language as something which can be both consciously constructed and pre-consciously and involuntarily uttered and the work of psychologists and neurologists during the contemporaneous and preceding period. She argued that Beckett’s work often vomits forth words which will never fully correspond with the intentionality of his texts, and so it is with us. She related this in particular to the work of the late-nineteenth century neurologist, John Hughlings Jackson who thought that language production involved both conscious and pre-conscious processes. In 1864 he wrote a paper concerning the speech automatisms in aphasics, and Salisbury related this to Beckett’s literary works.

These two wonderful and diverse presentations were then followed by a long and lively discussion between the speakers and audience members. The discussion covered topics such as how to read fMRI scans, the links between neurology and cybernetics, research into animal communication, artificial intelligence and the differences between historical and non-historical interdisciplinary research.

The details of the next meeting will be announced here shortly.

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Language: 23rd January 2012

The details of our next meeting have now been annoucned.

The University of London Interdisciplinary Discussion Group


Monday 23rd January 2012, 5-7pm in K3.11 Raked Lecture Theatre, King’s College London, King’s Building, Strand Campus, Strand, London

On 23rd January we will meet for the third time to discuss the topic of language. Our three speakers will address this topic from their respective disciplinary and professional backgrounds.  Each speaker will present for 20 minutes and then there will be an hour for questions and general discussion on this topic both in relation to the papers presented and with regards to the work of others present. This will also be a chance to reflect on interdisciplinarity in general and how the combination of these three papers enriches our understanding of the topic ‘language’


Laura Salisbury, Lecturer in English, Birkbeck College and RCUK Fellow in Science, Technology and Culture

Oiwi Parker Jones, Research Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, UCL and at Wolfson College, Oxford

Helena Ballard, Teacher of the Deaf and associate of Life and Deaf [24.1.12, N.B. Unfortunately, Helena Ballard was unable to speak at this event in the end, but I have kept her details up for interest]

More Information on the speakers

Helena Ballard

Helena Ballard is an Advisory Teacher of the Deaf in Greenwich. Much of her current focus is on work with families who have newly diagnosed babies and small children, although she also goes into mainstream schools to support hearing impaired children and the staff who work with them.   A French graduate and lover of music, she came late to the field of deafness and to British Sign Language, both of which she finds fascinating.  Life and Deaf has been an important and stimulating addition for the past five years.

Life and Deaf started in a secondary mainstream unit for deaf students in Greenwich and came from a poetry project school-wide.  Working with specialist Speech and Language Therapists, Jane Thomas and Katie Martin, the deaf students  explored their identities through the medium of poetry, producing such powerful and rich work that a beautifully illustrated book of their poems was produced, accompanied by a DVD of the young poets speaking or signing their poetry. The aims of the project included the exploration of the beauty of language but also its power in allowing access to difficult or unexplored emotions which might affect mental health.  At a launch subsequently it became apparent that the students, their friends and families were so motivated and positively affected by the whole process that there were lasting and important benefits.  As a result the Life and Deaf Association was formed and the project was rolled out nationwide, with a web-site, a workbook to encourage wider participation and many other activities.  Life and Deaf 2 will culminate in a launch on the South Bank in March 2012.

She will be discussing he work teaching deaf children and Life and Deaf, and what these two things contribute to our understanding of language.

Oiwi Parker Jones

Oiwi Parker Jones is a linguist and neuroscientist whose research focuses on models of language in healthy and damaged brains, particularly in bilingual populations. He is particularly interested in (1) how multiple languages are represented in a single brain and (2) how bilinguals recover each language after brain damage due to cancer or stroke. His research uses a variety of methods, including anatomical and functional neuroimaging and dynamic network-based modelling. Other areas of research include the neuroscience of reading and sign-language, as well as topics in general linguistics, such as language documentation and activism (especially of endangered and Eastern Polynesian languages).”

He will be talking about his various investigations into language.

Laura Salisbury

Laura Salisbury is author of Samuel Beckett: Laughing Matters, Comic Timing (Edinburgh University Press, 2012) and co-editor of Neurology and Modernity: A Cultural History of Nervous Systems, 1800-1950). She has published a number of essays on aphasia and literary modernism and her major current research project is a book-length study of the relationship between modernism, modernity, and early twentieth-century neuroscientific conceptions of language. Other forthcoming work includes co-editing a volume called Kittler Now (Polity), co-editing a special issue of Medical Humanities on the topic of ‘Beckett and the Brain’, and writing a chapter on narratives of the brain in contemporary British Fiction for The Decades Project: International Perspectives on Contemporary British Fiction (Continuum).

She will talk about these aspects of her work in relation to the topic of language.

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Memory: 9th May 2011

We met for our second meeting on 9th May 2011 where we discussed the topic of memory.

We had highly diverse speakers at this event, who each discussed the topic of memory from their own perspective. Their presentations were followed by a lively discussion from the audiencce about the relationships between them and their various merits.

The speakers were:

Professor John Morton, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL.

Professor Morton is widely recognised for his work on memory, and on the modelling of cognitive processes and developmental disorders.  From 1982 to 1998 he was the Director of the MRC Cognitive Development Unit.  He was also Chair of the British Psychological Society Working Party on Recovered Memories.  He talked to us about his work on the role of memory in dissociative-identity disorder (DID). He referred us to the fascinating website of the DID patient and artist Kim Noble. He discussed how there are highly distinctive artistic stlyes correspondong to separate personalities.

Joanne Bristol, The Bartlett, Faculty of the Built Environment, UCL

Joanne began by presenting a 5-minute performance titled Association for Imaginary Architecture. She describes this work as, “a performance involving architectural design, narration and touch. The performance involves a one-on-one exchange between myself and audience members. I ask individuals to verbally describe an architectural space they have experienced. As the space is described I draw a ‘plan’ of it on the speaker’s back with my hands. My intention is to offer dialogical spaces regarding relationships between architecture, memory, imagination, translation, inscription and the body.”

Following the performance, she presented excerpts from her paper ‘back words spaces’ which locates ways that Association for Imaginary Architecture might offer insights into how built worlds are imagined and internalized. The paper focuses on the performance’s use of vocalization and touch to remember ‘old’ space while also creating ‘new’ space. The paper also touches on literary theorist David Wills’ concept of ‘dorsality’ to address the physical space of the human back, as well as the space and performance of memory.

Daniel Friesner, Explainer Unit, The Science Museum.

Daniel did his PhD at King’s College London, on philosophical issues in developmental psychology.  For the last few years he has co-organised a reading group on the relations between science and literature.  He will talk about some literary aspects of Luria’s famous case-history, The Mind of a Mnemonist, which is about one man’s remarkable memory.

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Drugs: 2nd February 2011

We met for our first session on 2nd February 2011 to discuss the topic of drugs, inspired by the Wellcome exhibition about the same subject.

We discussed two neuroscientific papers on drugs, and Neil Saigal, a researcher from Cambridge looking the opiod receptor, impulsivity and cocaine abuse, introduced his work. We also discussed Aldous Huxley’s text recounting his experiences of mescalin The Doors of Perception, which was introduced by Nicholas Murray, Huxley’s biographer and the King’s College Royal Literary fund writer in residence.

More information on this meeting can be found on the King’s College Centre for the Humanities and Health Blog. It was also reviewed in the interdisciplinary journal, Excursions, based at the University of Sussex. Read the review here.

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