From Molecule to Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language

The Neural Theory of Language project at ICSI celebrated a major milestone in June 2006 with the publication of Professor Jerome Feldman's book, "From Molecule to Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language" (MIT Press).

Linguistics and philosophy, for both historical and technical reasons, have been slow to integrate even the most basic neuroscience. Much of fundamental neuroscience is done with animals and, since only people use language, there is no easy way to extend animal findings to human thought and language. Over two decades, the interdisciplinary NTL group has shown how exploiting the neural embodied basis of language can yield scientific and practical advances. This book is the first systematic attempt to show how human language and thought arise as an extension of the physiology and experiences that people share with other animals. By integrating findings from all the cognitive sciences, Feldman is able to lay a foundation for an explicitly neural theory of language that is an integral part of contemporary science.

Professor Feldman draws from disciplines as varied as linguistics, neuro-physiology, and computer science to describe his theory. He hopes that the book will aid in the formation of a unified Cognitive Science. Early endorsements of the book suggest it may have a profound impact on the field. Professor V.S. Ramachandran of UCSD calls the book a "fascinating tour through the mysteries of the brain", Professor George Lakoff of UCB and ICSI says it is "an indispensable book for anyone interested in how human beings think, act, and communicate", and Professor Steven Small of University of Chicago calls Feldman's perspective unique, and praises the book as exciting because it "shows why understanding the most complex computations of the human brain depends on taking account of the ontogeny and phylogeny of our species; and, by doing so, how it might be possible to build a truly embodied cognitive science".

The book is attracting attention outside the cognitive science community as well. Feldman was interviewed by Michael Krasny on the KQED Forum radio show on July 17th. Krasny conducted an in-depth interview with Feldman about the theories presented in the book, followed by nearly a half an hour of questions from the show's listeners. A transcription of the interview is available on the KQED Forum audio archives.

On August 22nd, Brad DeLong, (a UC Berkeley economics professor who is now well known as a blogger) posted a review of the book on his blog. He says that Feldman "is right when he claims ... that it is time to try to study human language seriously by starting with the observation that language is produced and controlled by human brains active in the world". He relates his own experience of occasionally interchanging his new car and his old car in his speech and even in his thoughts to some of the theories presented in the book.

For more information, as well as updates and references for further reading, see the book web site: