Language and Mental Health

The project website is not ready at the time I publish this, so I would like to write a bit about the big project for which Rosemary Varley and I at UCL are currently recruiting aphasic and non-aphasic participants in the London area.

Broadly, there are two questions that drive all research on language: first, how does this complex and powerful apparatus work, and second, how does it interact with, or form the basis of, human thought? These questions are inherently related. Whether we investigate how children learn language or how language changes in dementia, whether we are looking at language in the brain or trying to get computers to make use of it, whether we are interested in how a language changes over time or search for properties of language that never change, all work makes assumptions about the relationship between our ability to use language and our ability to think.

The "Language and Mental Health" project tries to address this topic by looking at two pathologies: aphasia and schizophrenia. Aphasia is a language disorder which occurs as the result of brain damage (most people with aphasia are stroke survivors). Schizophrenia is a term used for people with a combination of mental disorders including hallucinations, delusions and severely disorganized thought and communication.

We can see abnormal language in both aphasia and schizophrenia. Aphasia is defined by impoverished language. It is a "primary language disorder", meaning that it is often taken for granted that language alone can be affected. At the very least, people with aphasia know who they are and what reality is, and we know that despite severe language problems people with aphasia can entertain very complex thoughts. In schizophrenia, language can be incoherently structured or vague, and many see these patterns as the result of thought disorder.

There are challenges to both of these views. Some researchers propose that in aphasia, problems with words and sentences can go hand in hand with difficulties with "concepts", including understanding of complex events. Schizophrenia on the other hand has been described as a disruption of language without which human thought could not exist. Positions are more complex and nuanced than I can describe in such a short text, and most individual researchers see themselves somewhere on a spectrum between these positions.

We are looking at the relationship between language and thought in both aphasia and schizophrenia. Language profiles in aphasia and schizophrenia seem to differ substantially. By investigating these different profiles we may learn which aspects of language are related to disruptions of thought, and which are not. We have developed tools and protocol to run comprehensive analyses of both language production and language understanding. The schizophrenia work takes place in Newcastle under the supervision of Nicol Ferrier, Douglas Turkington and Stuart Watson. The aphasia work takes place at UCL, with Rosemary Varley leading the effort. Conceptual, and in particular linguistic and philosophical work, takes place in Durham and Barcelona under leadership of Wolfram Hinzen, who put the project together.

At least within the scope of language sciences this is a very large project. We hope that results will help us understand the role of language in thinking and constructing our reality, and at the same time help us diagnose, understand and ultimately treat these pathologies that disrupt so many lives.