It is one of the wonders of language: We cannot possibly anticipate or memorize every potential word, phrase, or sentence. Yet we have no trouble constructing and understanding myriads of novel utterances every day. How do we do it? Linguists say we naturally and unconsciously employ abstract rules—syntax.
How abstract is language? What is the nature of these abstract representations? And do the same rules travel among realms of cognition? A new study exploring these questions—by psychologists Christoph Scheepers, Catherine J. Martin, Andriy Myachykov, Kay Teevan, and Izabela Viskupova of the University of Glasgow, and Patrick Sturt of the University of Edinburgh—makes what Scheepers calls “a striking new finding”: The process of storing and reusing syntax “works across cognitive domains.”
More specifically: “The structure of a math equation correctly solved is preserved in memory and determines the structuring of a subsequent sentence that a person has to complete.” Neuroscientists have found evidence suggesting a link between math and language, “but this is the first time we’ve shown it in a behavioral setup.”
The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.