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I'm trying to fathom what it might be like for a person with aphasia and for one with agnosia. For a person with a visual agnosia I wonder this: if two unrecognizable objects are shown to them, and one is entirely within the background of the other, (say a fork on a cutting board) do these two objects mold into a single unrecognizable object or do they remain distinct unrecognizable objects? Or have I got it all wrong and they don't even "see" any object to speak of (regardless of how many or how they are positioned)?

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how is the question related to the title ? – Enoque Duarte Jan 22 '14 at 18:56
well you have a point. Nevertheless the title is a question in itself which you could chose to answer. The text related to agnosia and aphasia is only additional to provide some context for the question in the title. – val Jan 22 '14 at 19:17
@val If you are interested in multiple questions you can always ask multiple. In this case, are you mainly interested in the title, or the context? Please update your question to make this clear. It seems most answers focused on the title, however, so possibly it is most fruitful to phrase it as such. – Steven Jeuris Apr 21 at 9:33

I think the answer is a qualified yes, humans can think without language. Ultimately though it depends on what you mean by "think."

There is a remarkably large number of deaf people who are not exposed either to a signed or spoken language even in developed countries. These people often invent their own gesture systems, referred to as home sign systems. These people In these cases, the deaf children's systems are more complex than the gestures their parents use (Carrigan & Coppola, 2012). My dad was a home signer until after high school, and he learned how to work on his car, drove a motorcycle, and figured out how the furnace worked. Based on these examples, it is clearly possible to engage in fairly complex reasoning without language. In the article cited below, Spaepen et al. (2011) describe how home signers have some concept of number, albeit imprecise.

This is all to say that thinking is possible without language. Home signers are not catatonic, and can actually engage in complex reasoning. One the other hand, language is a huge cognitive advantage, and in this respect it certainly has an impact on thinking. Language facilitates transmission of information (learning), and it provides a way of organizing thought.

Carrigan, E. M., & Coppola, M. (2012). Mothers Do Not Drive Structure in Adult Homesign Systems: Evidence from Comprehension. In N. Miyake, D. Peebles, & RP Cooper,(Eds.), Proceedings of the 34th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1398-1403).

Spaepen, E., Coppola, M., Spelke, E. S., Carey, S. E., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2011). Number without a language model. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(8), 3163-3168.

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Must also depend on what we define to be language. I didn't mean verbal or written. So would the gesture system fall under a language... which enables some organization of thoughts. If language is needed to organize thoughts, does that mean that without language we have disorganized thoughts?! but thoughts nonetheless? Thanks for your post. – val Jan 23 '14 at 4:21


It depends on the type of learning process of a person. One can be better at remembering images, so he might access the images first when trying to define an object/event/etc. This can be thought of as having a photographic memory.

The main reason why most people think with words is because it is a much more sophisticated and structured learning process, and is taught young. Missing the opportunity to learn a language when youre young would most likely cause them to develop a different way of processing information.

Same way goes for someone with visual agnosia. He might develop another way of recognizing objects. For example to use other senses (much like the blind uses his hands to "see"). So one with agnosia would have to use another approach to understand that the fork and the cutting board are two different objects.

Developing (with time or by injury) agnosia or aphasia at some point in your life would certainly mess your usual way of processing information; and it would be very hard to rebuild a new recognition system as old habits are hard to break.

On another note, some friend of mine claims that he consciously thinks with noises when playing and writing music.

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I would claim the same about my cognitive process while playing and writing music. :) – Nick Stauner Jan 23 '14 at 10:32

It is hard to imagine what evidence might be found of thoughts existing without language. Even feral children encounter language (either verbal or nonverbal) through limited contact with people or animals, and lab animals communicate nonverbally with researchers, even if only through their environments (the researcher observes the animal's behavior, and the animal observes how the researcher changes its environment, e.g., its food, waste, and cage furnishings). For reasons such as these, the prospect of thought without language may be somewhat untestable. Producing a sentient being that is never allowed the opportunity to communicate with others would also be unethical by most means I can imagine.

As for your (largely unrelated) question about object discrimination in the absence of recognition, I can't offer any insight in the context of visual agnosia per se, other than to point out that (according to Wikipedia), "Visual not due to a deficit in...language." However, outside that context, I would recommend watching an episode of Scientific American Frontiers, "The Man with Two Brains" that I mentioned in another answer of mine just yesterday! The effects of lacking communication between one's cerebral hemispheres are different from visual agnosia, but give some insight into how unknown objects (e.g., crude drawings) may be identified and differentiated in the absence of linguistic function, which is generally left-hemisphere-dominant. In this episode, Mike Gazzaniga also demonstrates how his split-brain case study subject attends differently to the components that comprise larger objects vs. the overall unity of those objects as one meta-object (coined here for lack of a better term), depending on which hemisphere's visual field processes such an object comprised of smaller objects. The left hemisphere, in which linguistic functions primarily operate, tends to break down these meta-objects and perceive them separately, whereas the right hemisphere tends to notice mostly the overall silhouette of the meta-object. Thus when a still-life painting of a pile of objects that together resemble a face is presented to the right (relatively non-linguistic) hemisphere, a face is perceived, not a bunch of objects (that happen to be organized in a face-resembling pattern).

This sort of evidence might offer the next-best thing to what you'd hope to find through study of visual agnosia. From Gazzaniga's demonstrations with his split-brain case study subject, it seems likely that, without involving the left hemisphere (and thus largely avoiding the involvement of major linguistic processes), the right hemisphere operating alone would perceive a fork on a cutting board as one object in the shape of a cutting board, or would at least require stronger visual contrasts between the two (e.g., color, shadow, texture) to achieve a just-noticeable difference between the two, relative to the left hemisphere operating without the right. Whether that actually has anything to do with language though, or whether it's a separate qualitative difference in the functions of each hemisphere's visual processes, is another question on which I can hardly even begin to speculate.

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I'm almost considering moving the second part of his question to a separate question. This answer would be suited as an answer there. :/ – Steven Jeuris Apr 21 at 9:43

Yes, Thinking without language is possible. Suppose a well-known boy "Mogli" who was left alone in jungle before he could learn language from his parents. But still he could manage to live many years in jungle till he met other humans. Mogli may be a fictional character but story is based on real incidence and much this kind of cases has been recorded.

My point is, in absence of language the jungle boy was able to learn things, think which is good and bad. Make strategies and learned how to use objects. His learning was beyond natural instincts. Without thought or cognitive processes it would not be possible to live throughout these many years. When these kinds of kids are adopted again by humans they learned how to use their vocal cords, modulate voices, and understand gestures. During this learning they think and finally they learn to use language to express their thoughts.

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This answer seems to be primarily opinion based, which is frowned upon on CogSci.SE. Adding references to studies to support your personal impressions would greatly improve the quality of your answer. – Seanny123 Apr 22 at 13:18

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