A prominent cognitivist explained why people swear and use sexual innuendos at the University of Wisconsin Sunday, entertaining the audience with jokes and pop culture references to help explain complex concepts.
Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard University, specifically discussed topics from his book “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature” as the first speaker in the annual Distinguished Lecture Series. He covered human cognition, emotion and social relationships.
To develop his main points, Pinker used many amusing examples and graphics to keep the audience’s attention and help describe more complex ideas.
Pinker related his topics to current events so the audience could understand how his studies pertain to real-world situations.
“I like that he didn’t expect the audience to be familiar with the concepts and that he spelled everything out,” UW senior Cortney Paulson said.
During one of his examples, Pinker put up a list of curse words in different colors. He demonstrated how hard it is for the human mind to be able to register what the color is, since it was easier to register what the swear word was instantly.
UW senior Arezu Sarvestani, who is interested in how language shapes thought, said he was surprised that cursing — something not usually widely accepted during a more formal lecture — would be one of the main focuses.
Pinker was very animated during the lecture, encouraging audience participation and questions to help supplement his ideas and research.
He said he hoped students would leave the lecture curious about how their minds work, curious how language works and looking for reasons behind quirks and peculiarities of human behavior.
“I’m particularly excited having been invited by students. I am often invited to speak by administrators and faculty. It’s very pleasing that students have heard of me and are interested in what I have to say,” Pinker said.
Sarvestani said he learned practical and general rules on how and why people use certain language.
“I agree with Pinker’s views on words evoking emotion. I think this topic is very relevant in our generation, where everyone is concerned with sounding politically correct,” UW sophomore Meghan Foley said,
Pinker was recently named one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in The World” for his work relating the science of human actions and thoughts in a way that people can relate more directly to — mainly through the use of pop culture.
UW sophomore Eleanor Wroblewski said she has known about Pinker for several years and has read all his books. She said she was excited to hear him speak and to get his signature afterwards.
“I’m a communicative disorders major, so I’m really interested in linguistics. I hope to hear about his new research and any new ideas,” UW senior Anna Van Tuinen said after having attended the lecture.
The next DLS speaker is behavioral economist and best-selling author Dan Ariely on Nov. 10.