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What the online manipulation of linguistic activity can tell us about language and thought
Questions about the relationship between language and thought have long fascinated psychologists, philosophers, and the general public. One specific question is the extent to which verbal labels causally impact cognitive processes—how does calling an object by a particular name influence the way people categorize it; how does knowing words for mental states influence our reasoning about the minds of others; how does learning and using words like left influence our navigation behavior? One way to learn how the words we use to label objects, mental states, or locations affect our thoughts is to increase or decrease the ease with which we can use these words and observe outcomes of these manipulations on “non-linguistic” tasks. For example, if the word left enables us to remember which way to turn, preventing its activation might be expected to disrupt navigation. Manipulating the labeling process (and the engagement of language more broadly) is therefore very useful in exploring how language influences cognition. In this paper, we review two methodologies for implementing linguistic manipulations: verbal interference and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), and discuss what we can learn about the role of language in cognitive processes from this line of research.