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Unveiling Cognition, Intelligence and Sense

By Laura Bertone



Language and languages will be at the heart of this talk just as they have been at the heart of my life.  As an English and French student back in my early days in my hometown Buenos Aires, as a Paris-based professional conference interpreter for over 20 years, as a researcher, a GS scholar and a consultant, the study of language and languages from different angles and perspectives has been the unifying thread of interest throughout my life.   

The title of this seminar and the general framework inspiring this presentation:  Across the Generations: Legacies of Hope and Meaning (starting September 11th) made me reflect on what – if anything – I could leave as a legacy if given the possibility to do so. 

 I thought then that if there is one feature that distinguishes man from all other creatures on earth it is his quest for sense. It is man’s eternal search for meaning, trying to discover it and to attribute it. Language,abstracting, associating, thinking, imagining, reasoning, planning, understanding…all contibute to make that possible.

 Also myths, since they express, in a condensed manner, a symbolical teaching. Let us take, for example, the myth of Babel, which has accompanied us through a number of centuries, underlying even at the start of the Old Testament the importance of language and attitude. According to Genesis, the Babylonians wanted to make a name for themselves by building a mighty city and a tower with “its top in the heavens”. God disrupted the work by so confusing the language of the workers that they could no longer understand one another. According to the myth, this is the origin of the diversity of languages which brought about confusion and misunderstandings. Translation became mandatory after Babel and after man’s nonsensical attempt to reach the heavens from the outside. Translators eventually improved their skills and little by little managed to dispel linguistic barriers. Yet, we still feel sometimes confused today. Confusion, though, seems no longer to stem from the variety of languages involved; it is language itself which seems to constitute the trap, not languages.  The problem is no longer to find bridges between one language and the next; the problem is to find a common ground for understanding no matter what the language.  The problem is the upheaval, the reversal of the orders of abstraction within any language. Orders of abstraction overturned, hierarchies flattened, bridges collapsed, maps and territories disconnected, false-to fact statements presented as true-to-fact, systematic symbol destruction, loss of common referents, motives misinterpreted. Translators and interpreters bridged the first barrier. What do we need now to overcome our present dismantling comprehension power?  How to overcome our difficulties to understand, comprehend, consider things from other perspectives, enlarge our views, abstract, synthesize, set priorities and hierarchies?  Who can help us?  How can we help ourselves?  How could we contribute to help others?



 Having stated our challenges and shared my personal unifying thread, I will now enunciate and then develop five aspects that will hopefully enable me to conclude with a final word of hope for those who will eventually come along. Let us consider these five different aspects: 1) translation and interpetation – my own research; 2) general semantics comes into the picture; 3) my place of origin: a world of non GS; 4) parallels with other disciplines; 5) re-elaboration and synthesis, the spiral of knowledge and neuroplasticity. I will conclude with some thoughts on individual and social human engineering.



Let us clarifiy some notions from the start:  the difference between translation and interpretation is that the first one is written, the latter, oral. There are basically two types of interpretation: consecutive and simultaneous. From ancient times till about 1945, interpretation was always consecutive, i.e. the speaker spoke for 5, 10 or 30 minutes and then paused for the interpreter to transmit what he had said. At the end of the 2nd World War, at the Nurenberg trials, some technological advances made possible the use of microphones, ear-phones and booths: simultaneous interpretation was born. The new system was immediately adopted by the then recentlycreated United Nations family. Most readers surely have been exposed to simultaneous interpretation at one time or other.

 While working as a conference interpreter in Paris, I started wondering about many aspects of simultaneous interpretation itself and finally decided to embark on formal research work on it. I need to delve into that now in order to make my point and lead readers into the comparison between some of its results – almost insignificant at a certain individual linguistic level – and some gs orientations useful at other more significant individual and social levels.

 To keep our sense of proportions right, we should bear in mind the fact that the instances chosen represent only a few seconds out of a one hour speech or a three hour debate.

 Let me first explain my working method: 

 I recorded hours of presentations and debates. Thanks to a two-track recorder that allowed me to record simultaneously the speaker’s speech and the interpreter’s version, I was able to listen, transcribe and compare fragments of two diffferent speeches, one being the simultaneous interpretation of the other. I listened to both versions for hours and decided to stop at certain places and analyse those instances.

What were the criteria for selecting the examples?  At first, I acted intuitively, selecting the cases which I found “interesting.” After analysing some of them I realized that I had always stopped at those moments when the interpreter seemed to say less or more than the speaker, or when she seemed to be saying something different. I then decided to apply this criterion systematically. The study of the gap – or difference – between the two versions became my working method. In other words, I had been looking for similarities and differences without really being aware of it. This, which may ring a bell to general semanticists, represents a first coincidence between the approach I spontaneously took in my research and what I would eventually learn as part of the orientations in GS.

 Now, I ask the readers to bear with me in these examples.



These excerpts were taken from a presentation during a conference held at the Unisys Center in Saint Paul de Vence back in 1978. The Sperrylink system and the electronic office were being presented for the first time.


 The speaker has just described some features of the electronic office such as electronic mail, and other communication devices, which seemed at the time to come from another galaxy. He then mentions “time sharing,” a concept well known in the data processing field in those days. Something in the structure of his sentence seems illogical: “I don’t want to skip time sharing… everybody knows what that is…” The interpreter realizes that two semantically feasible sentences have criss-crossed each other half way through:   “I don’t want to skip time sharing; nobody knows what that is” and “I’ll skip time sharing. Everybody knows what that is.”   And then she “corrects” the speaker.  We know her interpretation was right since the speaker did not eventually mention “time sharing.”  

 There is much more to say about this example (for example, that after having corrected the speaker, the interpreter loses specificity and replaces “time sharing” by  “programs”) but let us only focus here on the intangible hypothesizing and reasoning made by the interpreter about the speaker’s intention.

 It becomes apparent to me now that what I was trying to seize, understand and describe while doing research were the intangible processes that enable a simultaneous interpreter to meaningfully anticipate in real time somebody else’s flow of thought and make sense of his words, acts and motivation. Making sense is literally the subject matter of this symposium. What is our meaningful legacy for future generations, what is the meaning of life for people ready to kill? Can making sense at a minimal gramatical, syntactical and semantic level have anything to do with making sense at other more significant and higher levels in life? I contend they can: at macro and micro levels, the mechanisms involved in making sense are similar.  To put it bluntly, the process is basically one and “the same.”



We are dealing here with the “Meeting for the International Standardization of Statistics” at UNESCO in Paris in 1978. Delegates from different countries are discussing amendments, and a member of the Canadian delegation, comparing the draft of the original article with a new version, detects the omission of three elements and wants to know why.

 The comparison of the two versions allowed me in this case to reveal the functioning of two axes in discourse.[1] As readers can easily perceive after a quick look at these columns, there are white blanks in the interpreter’s version. The delegate spoke very fast and it was not easy to follow him. As I was acting as the interpreter in this case, I know I had trouble understanding the delegate’s fast rendering. Only some concealed inferences I made allowed me to understand and render correctly the speaker’s speech.  This revealed in turn the use of two axes which are permanently at work while interpreting. One has to do with memory, the other with perception. Recalling Saussure’s defintions, I also called them the axis of successivities and the axis of simultaneities. These two axes are handled by interpeters – or by any human being – in what we might call “individual or personal human engineering,” helping them to integrate data from their own memory – from inside – and through their senses – from outside. These two axes help us then to construct our “reality” of the “here-and-now.”

 But if we go up the scale and take a broader view, we could assimilate these two axes at work at minute levels to those two fundamental larger movements Korzybski named “space and time binding.” We can assimilate the memory axis to time-binding, except that in time-binding, the emphasis is not on one human being only but on many, even at times on humanity as a whole. Regarding the perception axis, from a distance, from an imaginary viewpoint above us, it embraces space, movement, geography. Going from these two personal axes to Korzybski’s “space and time binding” implies shifting focus: from the interpreter to any human group, from the individual to humanity as a whole.

 I did my research without having any idea about GS. It was only later that I came across it in a seminar in Paris which proved a fascinating cross-road to me since it enabled me to understand better what I had done during my researchwork, which was conducted in an essentially multidisciplinarian way and had been found “unusual” by the normal academic standards of the time.

 Space does not permit to bring other examples to this article.  Some of the “issues” I “discovered” though, and was forced to highlight during my research, have much to do with some of the formulations well-known to general-semanticists. 

 For example, I identified similarities and differences, processes, variance and invariance, strategies; ways for making sense of words, acts and motivation; hypothesizing, checking hypotheses, confirming, cancelling, reelaborating them again, i.e. “the scientific attitude”; the handling of two axes (comparable to space and time binding) etc. This whole set of variables – concepts and their inter-relations – finally end up forcing us to adopt a wholly new global approach.   



 When did I first hear of general semantics? I came across it in Paris, at an old small bookstore rue de Seine whose intriguing owner suggested an unexpected seminar for me to take. My research work was finished and a first book on it had been published by Hachette in Argentina. I was beginning to shift focus and was somewhat losing interest in academic linguistic research. Communication was becoming the new name of the game for me. Out of sheer curiosity, at my third postponed attempt, I finally took a two-day seminar by Michel Saucet on general semantics. My reaction was twofold: on the one hand, I felt amazed at some unexpected coincidences in the approach with my own research, at the overlapping or confirmation of perspectives; on the other, I felt shocked at some of the orientations and their consequences in everyday life which forced me to question some of my own certitudes and involved certain attitudinal changes on my part. In a tremendous contradiction, one thing and its opposite seemed to coexist simultaneously: I seemed to be already applying some GS orientations while using some nonGS mechanisms at the same time. I would eventually realise that GS was giving me a much larger margin of self-confidence for my new activities as a communication consultant. I wore two hats for some time, disconcerting some people.

 The most interesting experience, though, happened by chance  working as a conference interpreter for a well-known French crisis-management expert, Patrick Lagadec with whom I ended up working in other fields and writing a book together on our joint activities in the midst of the tremendous Argentine economic crisis of 2001-02[2]. What proved incredibly fascinating in our work together was that his expertise and his research, applied to the prevention and management of extremely risky and uncertain situations at the height of political, social or corporate power – and his challenging of traditional management methods – proved to have a lot in common with the way in which some of us tackle interpreting, where uncertainty is, by definition, a key element in the game. His decision-making strategies for top political, military and corporate leaders were astoundingly similar to some of my own while solving linguistic uncertainties in the small and solitary cubicle of an interpreting booth. Incredible as it may seem, some of the same people I had worked for as a conference interpreter, engaged Patrick and myself – no longer as an interpreter this time but as a co-consultant working side by side with one of the top European crisis-management experts. 



I come from a geographically distant and a somewhat isolated society. I invite you to come with me for a short imaginary visit to my place of origin, Argentina, in the belief that the mere fact of exchanging information about other cultures can help us to enlarge our viewpoints, and constitutes, in itself a good exercise in “otherness” – that is, an exercise in shifting positions and understanding better what looks or sounds different. I also believe that looking from close-up at a society which – at a given point in time – has taken wrong turns may help others to avoid such turns in the future.

 When I settled back in Argentina in the mid 1990’s, I felt shocked at what appeared to me as too frequent symptoms of the “allness disease” displayed by most people in power: politicians, officials, managers, many journalists, etc. As one of the worst crises the country ever faced came to the surface in 2001, it was interesting to observe that the authorities’ disease spilled over the people at large who ended up literally saying “We want them all to leave” (“Que se vayan todos”), mirroring and spreading even more the bad generalising habit. The curious thing is that, confronted by the mirror of their own disease, some of the representatives started to point out the absurdity of the ALL expression, and the chaos it would create if the wish came true. What was more, some started to convert the “allness” habit into a “non allness” attitude, paying much more attention to what they said and how they said it. It was a perceivable improvement I was happy to witness. It was not enough though to reverse some other general trends, such as the frequency of the “either-or” syndrome which is unfortunately very high among us.  

The “either-or syndrome” has had a tremendous spill over effect because of its almost everyday use by most current and some former presidents. This syndrome of course is not exclusively Argentine. There have been a number of recent cases coming from northern latitudes also including former and current presidents. The Cuban government today is preaching something like: “Save your money or starve to death” as a slogan, curiously inviting people to restrain themselves from consuming. President Bush Jr. and President Chavez have both used similar either-or formulas. It is important to observe that within the either-or frame of mind, not only do conflicts stay unresolved, but fractures also tend to duplicate and multiply themselves. 



The “bi-polar mentality” tends to duplicate itself.  Here we see the example of the subsequent divisions and subdivisions of the Peronist Party. A quite similar diagram could be applied to the Radical Civic Union, the other major party in Argentina.  


So, confronted with this realm of non GS, and living in a society where values seemed to have been overturned, I felt the need to try something, however insignificant, in the belief that perhaps little things can eventually produce big changes.


[Note--As visual and aural material is often fun to watch and interact with, I showed a few examples during my presentation at Fordham. It is more difficult to include them here. To write about them adequately would require the space of a whole new article devoted just to that subject.

 So let us just take some illustrations as examples:


 Much in the same way as we train our bodies, we can train our minds.

 Metaphorically I propose to “brain train” ourselves, moving up and down our mental grids, speeding up and slowing down certain processes, tightening and loosing others, etc. ]



As my efforts were rewarded by the participants’ interest but did not trigger masses of contracts, I agreed to go back to teaching interpretation at a Masters’program at the School of Law – University of Buenos Aires. There, something unexpectedly positive turned up: the multilingual groups added an enriching cross-cultural experience mostly appreciated by participants themselves. Instead of working only with pairs of languages, English-Spanish, French-Spanish, etc., I introduced a multilingual context. In that multicultural context, the combination of cognitive, mnemotecnic, and attention exercises of different types, with presentation and acting techniques and some mental and linguistic engineering inspired by GS, dynamized future interpreters’ attitudes, actions and reactions, and proved tremendously useful. 



 Along the way, as I put in practice as much GS as I could, as an interpreter, as a consultant, as a researcher, I found many similarities with other theories. Let us just have a quick look at some of them.







 I like to think that synthesis is the counterpart of confusion. Whereas confusion tangles, mixes, dispels, reverts and flattens hierarchies and priorities, synthesis helps integration and paves the way for order, hierarchies, priorities and levels. We should not forget, though, to let go of the remnants, dispose the garbage and clean up our minds.

I normally open my classes for future interpreters talking about “the spiral of knowledge.” I thus refer to that internal movement good interpreters set up for themselves at the beginning of a conference, opening a new semantic field which will contain concepts and words and their equivalent in other languages, a certain terminology, etc. That new area is, by definition, changing, moving, dynamic. It is the interpreter’s field of action, of work and research. At the end of the conference, we try to debrief, record names, erase some misunderstanding and revise key concepts. A stage is over, but the process goes on: this is what I like to call “the open-ended spiral of knowledge.”

This spiral of knowledge seems to come hand in hand with one of the newest and most revolutionizing concepts to arise in the fields of psychiatry and neurosciences: neuroplasticity, the astounding capacity of the brain to shape and reshape itself.

 As some simple experiences have demonstrated both in university classrooms and in everyday interpreters’practice, the open-ended spiral of knowledge enables every human being to process data, integrate knowledge, assimilate procedures, change attitudes, etc. In other words, it enables us to learn, and to go on learning, even at times to unlearn certain things. It is a dynamic, changing, evolving process.

 From another, more “serious” field of research, some psychiatrists (like J. Schwartz) and some neuroscientists (F. Nottebohm, E. Gould, D. Hebb, Gage, P.Eriksson, F. Varela, etc.), in their quest to find solutions for their patients’ troubles, challenged the old belief that the brain was unchangeable and dared to propose the concept of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to add neuronal connections and repurpose areas of the brains. The longlife experience of the lamas’ meditation techniques in the East reinforces this fascinating discovery. In a fascinating book intitled “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain”, scientific journalist Sharon Begley tells us about the conclusions of a series of meetings that took place on this subject betweenWestern scientists and the Dalai Lama over the years. This new science has just started to reveal our extraordinary potential to transform ourselves.

 The consequences of all this on education are immense.  They imply a turn of 180º. Ideally, we would start anew, from scratch. The sooner the better. If we changed our way of conceiving learning, paraphrasing Aldous Huxley and Alfred Korzybski, we could seek social transformation through the simultaneous attack on all fronts: economic, political, educational, psychological, etc. It could be fast.  As fast as the need for it has become urgent by now.



 Let us then share – and contribute to – other people’s dreams… To make them come true now that WE KNOW WE CAN.

 If I were to leave something of value for future generations, I would have no doubt that I would like it to be a survival kit for turbulent times.  What would it consist of?  

A mental self-engineering plan: cognitive drills and mental organizers (based on GS orientations.) There is one sine qua non condition though for the kit to be useful: we need the willingness to learn and improve.  If willingness exists, the sky is the limit.  

Let us call upon imagineers and realiteers (those engineers of human reality, i.e. all of us) into action.  We need both individual and social human engineering. The tools are at hand. We know we can.  Let us begin right away. 



 Laura Bertone PhD

Winner of the Inaugural Hayakawa Award


[1] See Bertone, Laura «The Hidden Side of Babel. Unveiling Cognition, Intelligence and Sense » Evolución, 2006, Buenos Aires.

[2] Patrick Lagadec and Laura Bertone, « Voyage au cœur d’une implosion.  Ce que l’Argentine nous apprend » Paris : Eyrolles, 2003.  Translated into Spanish as « Ruptura y reconstrucción.  Lo que la experiencia argentina nos enseña.¨ Buenos Aires, Evolución, 2003.








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