Do We Need Scientific Idioms For Everyday Experience?

Oct 17, 2016
Originally published on December 30, 2016 3:00 pm

With the advent of Fall, my 2-year-old has been eager to comment on the fading light as we drive home on weeknights.

"It getting dark?" she asks.

And I answer: "Yes, the sun is going down." Only it isn't. Not really. The earth is rotating on its axis, our perch on its surface moving away from the sun.

Talk of the sun going down may be harmless: an intuitive way to describe an experience in a pretty complex world. Yet research suggests that it will be years before my toddler approaches an accurate understanding of the day/night cycle. And research also suggests that the way we talk about our experiences matters.

Consider one example: People who grow up in a culture where time is habitually discussed by appeal to horizontal metaphors (e.g., the future is ahead and the past behind) tend to reason about time differently from those who talk about time in other ways. More generally, there's evidence that the spatial language children hear in early childhood can influence their later spatial reasoning.

These observations raise some provocative questions. Am I misleading my children with talk of the sun "going down" or the stars "coming out?" Could more scientifically accurate ways of talking about our everyday experience help lay the foundation for a better understanding of the natural world in early childhood and beyond?

These are, of course, questions for science itself. The methods of psychology provide ways to investigate the effects of how we talk on how we think, and in some domains the verdicts are coming in. When it comes to evolution, for example, elementary school-aged children who hear narratives about biological change that employ anthropomorphic language are less likely to end up with a scientifically accurate understanding than their peers who hear non-anthropomorphic alternatives. In other domains, too, subtle differences in how parents talk to their children can have downstream effects.

Until psychological research can offer some clear answers, I leave this as a speculative exercise for readers. What should I tell my 2-year-old daughter about why it's getting dark? And, more generally, is it time to update our idioms about the natural world? Or would doing so sacrifice some of the texture and history of language?


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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