Finding the Key

The key to the human mind is to understand human symbolic communication. That is not an original idea – in fact it is commonplace. But…

The key to the human mind is to understand human symbolic communication. That is not an original idea – in fact it is commonplace. But it turns out that that it is devilishly hard to do.

It is not for want of trying. If you put the words “human” and “language” into Google Scholar you will get over 3 million hits. Some of the theories claim that language is learned, but have been unable to specify the process of learning. As a result, powerful and comprehensive applied programs fail to flow from these perspectives.

Some of the theories claim that language is innate, but ironically have failed to specify an evolutionarily plausible process by which it became so. Chomsky is a prime example. His approach to the evolutionary basis of the supposedly innate Language Acquisition Device was to dismiss the question of its evolution as being “absurd” (1968, p. 61).

Relational Frame Theory offers a new way forward, and the larger scientific community is beginning to notice. RFT claims that language is learned, but it is not based on associations, it is based on relations. That is such a simple idea that it is hard to believe it is new – but it appears to be so.

Metaphorically, language is more like the picture of a large family than it is a structure built from Tinker Toys. Associations occur based on formal similarity or co-occurrence in time and space, and in animal models they are dominantly unidirectional (backward conditioning is weak).

That is not true of relations. Relations are always mutual and combinatorial. If I know that Sue is the Aunt of Jessie, and Frank is Jessie’s brother, I know all relations among the three. Relations like that are not based on form, or time, or space. Sue may be younger than Jessie.  Frank may be married to George. Distant cousins may live in the same city, and people at the opposite coasts may be in a long distance marriage. Appearance, space, and time is not enough to disentangle a family photo.

I am not using family relations as an archetype arbitrarily. If I asked you to tell me about “your relations” that is exactly what you would do, and it is an especially apt example because relational framing started as social behavior. Mutual entailment likely evolved because multi-level selection established humans as social primates, with high levels of cooperation, social referencing, and non-verbal Theory of Mind skills. This enabled a listener to compete the mutual entailment of a characteristic object à sound relation (which is common among animal of all kinds), by providing the object to the speaker on hearing the sound (Hayes & Sanford, 2014).

RFT research is exploding, with rates of publication over the last 7 years that are 1000% higher than those in the first 25 years of its existence. Finally, mainstream science is noticing.

The June 3, 2017 issue of New Scientist (one of the best known and respected international popular science magazines) has an article by Freddy Jackson Brown and Nic Hooper (pp. 36-39) entitled “Spoken Rules” that describes the Skinner-Chomsky debate. It then shows how RFT began from the seeds laid down by Murray Sidman, developing a comprehensive approach to human language and cognition.

After lying out the basics and describing nine types of framing the article concludes:

“If RFT is correct, Skinner was right after all – sort of. Language is learned, although not quite as he originally conceived it. We don’t need innate abilities such as universal grammar to account for language generativity. Instead it is the product of a learned, generalized – and uniquely human – ability to respond to simple relationships between stimuli. We take it for granted, but it is arguably what makes us human.”

The learned ability to create relations. In my opinion, those six words point to the key to the human mind.

We interact with the world with a small set of relational framing skills — things like coordination, distinction, opposition, comparison, spatial, deictic, temporal, hierarchical, and causal. Those skills are the source of our greatest human achievement and of much of our misery. Therapists spend their lives helping others navigate the networks these framing skills create, and RFT can be used, now, to do so with greater care (Villatte, Villatte, and Hayes, 2015). RFT can be used, now, to foster language learning, or to measure implicit bias. 32 years after its creation in 1985, RFT is ready to challenge previous approaches.

It’s a major step forward to have these ideas recognized in a major popular media outlet, but it is even more important to have the key to the human mind in sight.

You can access the entire article here, though it does require a fee:


Chomsky, N. (1968). Language and mind. New York: Harper and Row.

Hayes, S. C. & Sanford, B. (2014). Cooperation came first: Evolution and human cognition. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 101, 112-129. doi: 10.1002/jeab.64

Villatte, M., Villatte, J., & Hayes, S. C. (2015). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. New York: Guilford.

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