The researchers traced the links between 30,000 English words in an online thesaurus. For example, the word ‘actor’ can be connected to ‘universe’ through two intermediaries. The thesaurus lists ‘character’ as a synonym for ‘actor’; ‘character’ is also equated with ‘nature’; and ‘nature’ with ‘universe’.
Moving from ‘actor’ to ‘universe’ in the network of words therefore takes three steps. To the surprise of Motter and colleagues, they found that the same was true of just about any randomly chosen pair of words in the thesaurus. The English language, in other words, enjoys just three degrees of separation.
The researchers think that the network structure of a language probably has its origins in the nature of cognition and memory. It is not surprising that language is highly clustered, as we remember things associatively – by grouping similar concepts together.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m in the middle of reading A Universe of Consciousness by Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi. In this they expound their dynamic core hypothesis of consciousness – that consciousness is an emergent property arising from the dynamic, short term (100s of milliseconds) existence of a functionally-interlinked set of neurons.
In applying this theory to specific subjective experiences (so called qualia) they put forward the idea of a multi-dimensional qualia space that maps the states this dynamic core can be in. They further suggest that subjective experiences that “feel close together”, e.g. different colours, represent adjacent states in this dynamic map.
I’m feeling a tantalising link between these two sets of ideas – one that words are closely linked, on the other that different subjective states represent “close” dynamic states of the neurons in the brain…