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Isomers, Prions, Homonyms, Necker Cubes, Us and the Universe - Part 3

Earlier we saw how the body including the liver, the sense of smell and other parts of the brain handle isomers and prions (Ref Part 1 and Part 2). Now we will consider language in general and homonyms in particular and how identical inputs to our hearing are processed differently by the language centers of the brain. Homonyms sound alike and have different meanings.

An example of the simplest type with different spellings but same pronunciation are the words bear and bare and hare and hair. They are not to be confused with words spelt the same way, pronounced differently and with different meanings as in tear (shred) and tear (liquid from crying). A second category of homonyms is again bear (animal) and bear (support). The final category of homonyms, which I have called Antonymous homonyms have the same spelling and pronunciation but the same word has two diametrically opposite meanings as in "cleave" which can mean separate (apart) or bind (together). Somewhat similar is the word "sanction" which can mean a reward for obedience or a penalty for disobedience, as in America imposed sanctions on Iraq and may do so on Iran but will sanction (overlook) Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

These homonyms give us an insight into how language is processed and understood by the brain. Some of the explanation and examples are from Steven Pinker's book "The Language Instinct" and a few are my own.. The brain does not merely perform language processing by logic. It is not a Turing machine that deduces from the data that all men are mortal and Socrates is a man therefore Socrates is mortal. It has the capability to infer from Ralph is an elephant, Elephants live in Africa and Elephants have tusks that Ralph lives in Africa and Ralph has tusks but with the clear added understanding that the Africa that Ralph lives in is the same Africa that other elephants live in but Ralph's tusks are uniquely its own and different from the tusks of any other elephant. There is a tremendous difference in meaning between the following two sentences which are identical except for changing a to the.

  1. A policeman's 14 year old son was enraged and opened fire from his house killing a policeman.'and

  2. A policeman's 14 year old son was enraged and opened fire from his house killing the policeman.

These sentences have subtle difference and different meanings but I will now give you single sentences or phrases with dual meanings.

  1. Iraqi head seeks arms

  2. Stud tires out

  3. Nut screws and bolts or Nut, screws and bolts

  4. Queen Mary having bottom scraped

  5. Child's stool great for use in garden

  6. Bush makes lame excuses on wiretaps, but more lies ahead

Whole sentences with two meanings are like prions and homonyms are like isomers.

Necker cubes are optical illusions and the brain processing of the image alternates spontaneously from one image to the other. It yields insight into the workings of our visual system.

Finally we and all living creatures on earth are made up of L-amino-acids and since our brains are cross-wired to our limbs, the bulk of us are right handed and thus left brain dominant. A similar bias is seen in the direction of whorls of shells. In the universe itself the four fundamental forces are the strong force that keeps the atomic nucleus together by overcoming the electromagnetic repulsion of protons, the electromagnetic force between charged particles, gravity and the weak force involved in the beta decay of a neutron into a proton, neutrino and an electron. The weak force breaks parity and seems to violate charge, parity and time (see the work of Yang, Mills, Lee, Cronin, Fitch & Wu). The decay of Kaons and B- mesons behaves as though the dice were loaded and turn up in a preferred combination instead of expected standard statistical variation. A similar quantum paradox of the universe is Bell's theorem and Aspect's and other experiments that prove it (The Fabric of the Cosmos by B. Green). It is also uncertain whether the prevalence of matter over anti-matter is an accident, a local phenomenon or due to some other bias, like the chirality of the universe.     


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

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