Subconscious Awareness in Language Development

"It is amazing how the brain controls the sequential physiological activities of respiration, phonation and articulation transforming in the process the kantian chaotic world of sensations, into an ordered world of objects and representations."


          In the last chapter we attempted to demonstrate how novel linguistic  processing has an absolute requirement for the exclusively human mechanism of self-consciousness (the elusive higher order consciousness) to be in place. At that point we strengthened further the controlling effect human heredity has on the development of language skills.  Symbolic language production,  like the capacity for self-consciousness, is uniquely human and both have un-identified (non-physical?) elements in their production.  This work may be considered part of an ongoing search for instances pointing along those lines of interpretation.

          One important question one may ask about any language is, what is it about a sign or a sound that makes them meaningful instruments of communication when arranged in particular ways?  What determines the particular arrangement best suited to express a proposition?  More often than not we find analytic philosophers marketing the idea that logic sentences acquire an independent existence based on the semantic meaning of their constitutive particles, divorced from the un-labeled world of objects / events it sought to represent out there.  Quine, among others, have questioned the value of this approach, saying “meaning is a myth”.

         Are language particles of sentences coded inferences or referentials with respect to this or other possible worlds? Or is it just a social convention useful to satisfy needs or desires, a la Wittgenstein, or should it be viewed under truth-conditional optics? Whatever the final answer may be, any language theory of meaning will have to include a consideration of semantics (meaning), syntax (grammatically allowed ordering of words in a sentence), pragmatics (expressions denoting particular contexts) or indexicals (change in truth value as a reference point fluctuates). 

        Without adopting the Chomskyan “generative grammar” hypotheses, i.e., the rules for generating correct grammatical sentences in a given language, we find the postulated “deep structure” responsible for encoding the basic elements and relationships a most attractive assumption and will develop our own arguments somewhat along those lines, emphasizing throughout the discussion the importance of the amygdaloid body (Fig.1) in genesis of language destined for both the individual survival and the perpetuation of the species. 

Figure 1
Dentate gyri, amygdaloid bodies

1. Olfactory buIb 2. Orbital sulci and gyri 3. Olfactory tract 4. Straight gyrus 5. Optic nerve 6. Optic chiasma 7. Olfactory trigone 8. Medial olfactory gyrus with stria 9. Intermediate olfactory stria 10. Lateral olfactory gyrus with stria 11. Anterior (rostral) perforated substance 12. Tuber cinereum with infundibulum 13. Amygdaloid body 14. Optic tract 15. Mamillary body 16. Tail of dentate gyrus 17. Basis pedunculi 18. Substantia nigra 19. Fimbria of hippocampus 20. Dentate gyrus 21. Superior cerebellar peduncles (decussation) 22. Medial lemniscus 23. Central tegmental tract 24. Medial longitudinal fasciculus 25. Spinal and trigeminal lemnisci 26. Trochlear nerve nucleus 27. Lateral lemniscus 28. Nucleus of inferior (caudal) colliculus 29. Decussation of trochlear nerves 31. Pulvinar of thalamus 32. Choroid plexus in temporal horn of lateral ventricle 33. Gyrus fasciolaris 34. Splenium of corpus callosum

Advanced notes on the anatomical dissection

        A study of these structures has been made possible by removing the cerebellum, most of the brain stem, and the parahippocampal gyrus of each side, together with the subiculum (through which the hippocampus is continued into the cortex of the parahippocampal gyrus). At its anterior end, the dentate gyrus, named for the supposed resemblance of its notched medial margin to a row of teeth, turns abruptly in a posterior and medial direction to become the tail of the dentate gyrus. The fimbria of the hippocampus is a longitudinal band of white fibers which constitutes the efferent pathway from the hippocampus, including the dentate gyrus. Beneath the splenium of the corpus callosum, the dentate gyrus becomes flattened and smooth and continues on to the dorsal surface of the corpus callosum as the thin gyrus fasciolaris. The latter is continuous with the indusium griseum, which covers the dorsal surface of the corpus callosum.

       Lateral to the dentate gyrus, the temporal horn of the lateral ventricle has been opened to expose its choroid plexus, which is involved in the production of cerebrospinal fluid. The amygdaloid body is an ovoid gray nuclear mass, oriented transversely and with a slight posterior concavity. Lateral to the optic tract are the anterior (rostral) perforated substance, olfactory trigone, and olfactory striae. On the right side of the illustration the intermediate olfactory stria stands out clearly.

       The midbrain has been transected at the level of the inferior (caudal) colliculi. The ventral aspect of the midbrain is nearer the front of the brain; the dorsal aspect of the midbrain is closer to the occipital lobes. Dorsomedial to the substantia nigra are the superior cerebellar peduncles and their decussation, and the medial longitudinal fasciculi lie dorsal to the previously mentioned decussation. The trochlear nerve nuclei are located ventral to the mesencephalic (cerebral) aqueduct. The root fibers arising from the trochlear nuclei form a decussation dorsal to the mesencephalic aqueduct, and they are the only cranial nerves that cross completely and that leave the dorsal aspect of the brain stem. Dorsolateral to the superior cerebellar peduncles are the somewhat dispersed fibers of the central tegmental tracts. The lateral portion of the tegmentum contains four lemnisci and has been referred to as the "sensory angle." Here the medial lemniscus is most ventral, the lateral lemniscus dorsal, and the intermediate area is occupied by the spinal and trigeminal lemnisci.

       The pulvinar of the thalamus is seen dorsolateral to the midbrain, and the medial geniculate body can be recognized on the ventral surface of the pulvinar. A short segment of the crus of the fornix is visible just medial to the pulvinar.

       Language is any system of signs or sounds useful to reciprocally communicate (not transmit!) a thought.  It is amazing how the brain controls the sequential physiological activities of respiration, phonation and articulation transforming in the process the kantian chaotic world of sensations, into the ordered world of objects and representations.

          Language represents the principal instrument for the conquest of the environment in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  For oriental societies language allows the individual to obtain information about the environment, to express their inner selves and control their inner worlds (thoughts).  After all, cultures are nothing but non-verbal languages with an overproduction of signs and symbolisms.  From an organism point of view, signs or sounds code for attributes of the external world, independent of their space-time context, whereas symbols refer to the inner world of the observer, it is context dependant, history determined and physiologically influenced.  This way man conceptualizes about self and cosmos. Is globalization counterintuitive?


          Subconscious control of behavior, i.e., without the operation of an explicit self consciousness of its execution or the ongoing dependence on a past learning experience is a case of ‘subconscious awareness’.  Unlike an unconscious state of mind, a subconscious state can achieve a level of consciousness. These subconscious recollections are non-declarative or implicit memories.  It operates pretty much like other complex reflex mechanisms to maintain physiological homeostasis by triggering protective motor responses from dangerous or threatening situations.  It is best illustrated by the pin-prick fear conditioning of Dr. Claparade‘s patient who was suffering from explicit, declarative memory loss;  she refused to shake hands with the physician (hiding a pin in his hand) to avoid the pin-prick from his extended hand but could not explain why. 

        For this association (an extended hand and a noxious stimulation) to rise above the threshold of sub-consciousness and possibly become an object of my self-consciousness, it would have to become a working memory first, as we described in a previous chapter. A working memory with survival value content for the species becomes short term memory which, if reinforced by successive encounters, then gets processed into long term memory in the temporal lobe hippocampus and then transferred into frontal neo-cortex for storage.  Anterograde amnesia is a measure of the temporal lobe hippocampus inability to  process new experiences into long term forms to be stored in the frontal cortex;  this person will still be able to access old experiences.  Retrograde amnesia, on the other hand, is a measure of either an inability to access frontal cortex storage of information or the inexistence of the information because of disease.

          We believe that both the individual survival and the reproductive viability of the species use the affective pain-pleasure-fear triad experience as an adaptive criteria by causing the discharge of an autonomic / somatic effector plan executed under the control of the limbic system and pre-motor cortex.  An implicit, non declarative (unconscious) amygdala-controlled response initiates the motor reflex protection strategy effective to guard against an expected potential danger. A working memory incorporates more elements of object recognition and analysis and may reach self-conscious levels if the adaptive response requires a novel solution, if not, it remains at a first order level of consciousness, like that postulated by sophisticated robotic computers.  Short term memory helps the development of avoidance responses during the term of exposure to potentially dangerous environment.  If noxious encounters become frequent the avoidance response becomes consolidated into long-term memory.  We can see clearly how survival responses pre-empt logical cognitive functions and are an inseparable part of them, especially in explicit ‘language’-controlled events.

          We can actually suspect the possible existence of an extra-temporal lobe memory site for the coordination of a 'protolanguage'-mediated cognitive acts at subconscious levels.  Vocalization control from Broca’s area can be considered a skill learning motor task operating at the most primitive subconscious, cortical and sub cortical levels, as demonstrated under hypnosis.  It has been shown in patients with amnesia that they still retain some ability to learn motor skills.  Patients like H.M. with anterograde amnesia (see Brenda Millner studies) were able to learn new hand motor control skills watching mirror images of their performing hands.  Neal Cohen was able to demonstrate amnesiacs learning to actually read mirror images of words that improved with practice.  In all cases there was no recollection of the previous learning effort.

          However, it was found out that learning would not occur unless it was preceded by ‘priming’ which involves a coupling of the new object / event with a prior behavioral experience without requiring an access to previous learning stored in memory.  This is best illustrated in amnesiacs asked to recall a long list of words when primed with fragments thereof. (See Elizabeth Warrington studies).  The undersigned has never read of any such experiment done in patients with lesions to the amygdala.

          In a previous chapter we attempted an explanation for the ultra-rapid motor avoidance reflex response to a potentially noxious environmental object / event before there was time to establish logically the need for such response.  This was possible because the neuronal pathways to subcortical structures involved in the protective response (amygdala, cingulum, cerebellum, basal ganglia) were faster than those slower pathways leading to ‘reasoned’ outcomes requiring either only an awareness (first order consciousness) level or self awareness (higher order consciousness) when the response is novel, not experienced previously.  We speculated then that the gallery of primal sounds and sights coded into the genetic memory in the amygdala, when paired with the new environmental object / event intuit caused a comparison analysis followed by programmed motor discharge resulting in a stereotyped avoidance motor sequence effective in avoiding the noxious environmental object or event. There are other instances in the literature where, in controlled experiments, it has been shown in young chickens confined to covered cages since birth, how they react in alarm when shown a slide depicting a flying predator bird (hawk).  When shown a slide depicting a flying duck (the same slide moved in the opposite direction), no response was recorded.  The only significant difference for the human observer was the length of the bird’s neck in the drawing.  It would seem as if the implicit response deals exclusively in the perceptual domain, in a limited way, in the right hemisphere and relevant sub cortical structures, as discussed.  Once we extend the amygdala's scope of response beyond the transitional cortex to link with the audiovisual secondary sensory representations in the parietal areas, we have entered the conceptual domain.  The hippocampus may represent the connecting link between the emotional and the cognitive domains, between the perceptual (amygdala imput) and the conceptual (via transitional cortex).


            From the argumentation that has preceded, it is not far fetched to expect that the gallery of sounds and images coded into the genetic memory locus in the amygdala is pretty stable and stores basic information for the individual and collective survival, the biological preservation of self and the perpetuation of the species, in that order. The primacy of biological  survival is predicated on constancy (or at least a steady state dynamic equilibrium) at both the organismal and external environmental (societal?) levels.  The strategies for organismal survival depends on the patency of nervous (autonomic) and hormonal servo-control automatic systems.  The strategy for the individual environmental adaptive behavior is also focused on organismal biological survival, this time from external environmental threats, natural or man-made.  A by-product of this effort is the perpetuation of the species.  The human solution for the individual biological survival in an external hostile environment depends on the elaboration of an effective communication system, a language.

           Language, as a tool of biological and social survival, utilizes the amygdala for direct avoidance reflex protection of the organism as illustrated before and as a genetic reservoir of coded audio-visual solutions, the anlage or substrate for the development of language communication as modifications of these elementary audio-visual particles (universal grammar or a proto-semantic base?). We may consider its content as a time-honored collection of fear-conditioning codes.

       At a time in post natal development when the new born is still cortically blind, his auditory system is linked to the limbic pain / pleasure system via the amygdala.  The most primitive audio language is a sound, which accumulates the variations in intensity, duration, frequency, pitch, timbre, etc., when coding for the different environmental objects / events that represent a survival threat to the species. 

The lactating baby talk of the mother represents a resonant signal to activate the corresponding newborn codes in the amygdala (or elsewhere), triggering a pertinent pain / pleasure / fear response.  But it also represents a ’priming’ in reverse, the incomplete genetic sound code gets frequency-coupled or linked functionally with the language particle in the mother’s baby talk, the result being progressively evolving into a particular affect and a semantic particle component. Conscious affective feelings are always associated  with a semantic content in a survival context and precede syntax considerations for which the newborn's neural plasticity potential is not ready as yet.  Thus, resonant audio selection from the gallery of audio-code and ‘priming’ by the lactating mother will get the infant started into the experience of a new communication tool, as diverse in potential future development as the variations in ‘primary’ particle inserted by nurture into the multiple sign / sound variations in the audio-visual gallery represented by a universal genetic proto-language code.  The resonant audio-selection process would be the functional equivalent to the cochlear place theory of audition.  There is evidence for a tonotopic representation of sound at the inferior colliculus of the mesencephalon, part of the auditory—amygdala neural pathway mentioned above.  Tonotopic arrangement at the medial geniculate body of the thalamus  and  Heschl temporal lobe loci follow collicular development in a timed developmental schedule.  Not even the hippocampus is developed to sustain explicit memories yet.  In a previous communication (Noesis, 2001)  we developed a similar rationale for primitive visual perceptions objects (signs) associated with the object / event surroundings (symbolisms?). 

 The implications of these neuro-anatomical schedules of development is to illustrate the important role sub cortical primitive structures play  in cognition at subconscious levels;  yet the only memories that survive to adulthood are associated with survival experiences from trauma, physical or psychological, which, if laden with survival value, may be encoded permanently and passed onto the next generation (genetic memory).  This represents a by-pass of the usual sequence of stages before the consolidation into a permanent long term memory which at the newborn age are not developed sufficiently to participate.  Either the trauma puts a lien on the future development of these structures that may trigger psychopathology in adulthood or we must search for these loci in sub cortical structures like the amygdala.

End of Chapter 10