Monthly Archives: November 2011

How Do Babies Think?

Baby thinking about this blogDo you believe babies are incapable of all thought for the first year or so of birth?

They are born without language, so it seems to me one of two things must be true. (1) They are unable to think when born, and they gradually become capable of thought as they slowly learn language. OR, (2) They are able to think before learning language, and as strange as it could sound, thought can exist without language.

I believe thought can exist without language. I came to this idea slowly and unwillingly, because I’m so fixated on language, and at first it struck me as impossible. In the last blog entry I used a phrase that implied my belief in thought as being independent of language. It was a deliberate implication, and I knew I was making it, when I wrote, “Our mental processes will find their way into language…”

That implication has provoked a very lively discussion with one reader in an out-of-blog exchange. I have been told rather adamantly that thought cannot exist except with the tools of language. I have insisted, just as adamantly, that every one of us has thoughts that occur with no language involved.

The discussion has been interesting and provoking enough that I will make it the focus of this posting. In doing this, I will try to make you believe what I am saying, but don’t believe me just because I’m right. Think about it. (And Dan, comment on the blog, so that other people can have the advantage of an alternative view, not just what I say. It would be a fine thing to have any other views, from any reader.)

At first, at least for me, trying to consider what thought would be like without language was like asking a fish to look at the water. We cannot discuss any topic without language, we cannot communicate with one another without language, and if we sit and ponder a question, it seems that we cannot even talk to ourselves without words. In support of this view, I was given a quote from Nietzsche, “there is no view from nowhere”.

The implication of that phrase seems to be that without language, nothing exists in our mental conceptions, there is only blankness because words and phrases have not named things and described anything to think about.

I wonder whether there might be disagreement here, at least partially, based on another fact about language—it is almost impossible to agree on exact definitions of words. If the word “thought” means articulated ideas, expressed so that they can be understood (even by the thinker), then yes, language is definitely needed, and without it there is no thought.

If, however, “thought” means any recognizable feeling or image that can pass through the mind, which can afterward be expressed with language, then I think certainly those feelings and images do exist prior to language. My definition of “thought” is broad enough to include such mental activity. I would argue that such feelings and images exist without language, rushing through our heads every day and all day long. I believe, in fact, that such thought without language is a crucial part of our mental function.

I will quote an especially good question that arose in the off-blog discussion, a question that I think touches a profoundly important point about how we use language: “How can we make sense out of our worlds outside of some sort of linguistic framework?” My personal answer is that I don’t think we can make sense of the world without language. When I say that we can think without language, I’m not saying that I believe we can sensibly understand the world without words.

But I’ll go further and argue against myself on that point about making sense. For most of human history, most people could not read and write. And of course once in a while some people were born deaf. Someone born deaf during an illiterate period would neither learn to speak nor ever see a piece of writing. This would mean spending a life entirely without language. Of course there would be signs, gestures, expressions, but no language as we are talking about it. Would a person in this situation, with no language at all, have no thoughts? For me the answer, while perplexing, is obvious. Of course they would have thoughts. And possibly the world would even make sense to that person—at least as much as it makes sense to me (which isn’t much), and I’ve got plenty of language to ponder it with.

Let’s consider more minute evidence of mental function. How do composers write music? Do they use words to work out which notes should follow which? Obviously not, though if we define what they do as not thinking, that will take care of the problem, until you try to talk to a musician. Further, sudden moments of insight or inspiration such as we all have do not occur by means of language. A physicist may suddenly see an image of how space might work, and afterward try to describe the insight using words, and more importantly work out the math for it.

Do the things I’m describing count as thinking? Or is this argument just a question of word definition? It’s not that I don’t love words, because God knows I do, but they are clunky, clumsy things, and while language helps to clarify and generate thoughts, language is not necessary for thought to exist.

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Unexpected Flowers

Hillside covered with flowersIt’s like you’re reading my mind or something.

Think about this: what exactly is the “mind”? Thoughts, we’ll say. We still might ask what thoughts are. The technical answer is that they happen when signals run along nerves in the brain, connecting one neuron to another or several others, and probably they connect to still others. We can even describe a good bit about this process, how a nerve signal involves ion concentrations moving in or out of the cell, how at the end of the nerve the signal has to cross a short space by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters—and you know what? Does this even sort of sound like a description of thoughts to you?

Hell no. Scientists could tell us atom by atom what is happening in the transmission of a collection of nerve signals, and that knowledge wouldn’t add anything to a real understanding of the mind. As an explanation for why I smile when I think about lying in an inner tube on a lake, telling me “the goddess Aphrodite sends you this thought” makes at least as much sense as talking about the movement of sodium ions through ion channels.

I use the idea of the mind just as one example of how complicated and incomprehensible much of the world is. Practically from birth, and all of our lives, we encounter things we don’t understand. What are the things those people are wearing on their heads? What is this device that makes noise and then people’s voices come out of it? Why are people moving like that?

One of the ways our mind—whatever that is—tries to make sense of the world, at least enough to let us function, is by searching the mental database to see what we know that is similar. Do we already know something that has at least some resemblance to this new thing? Comparing the two might help a little.

That act of comparison is the process behind metaphors, a basic process for how we understand the world. Our mental processes will find their way into language, and with the use of the word “metaphor” we discuss the comparison as a language phenomenon. If you get into a discussion of rhetorical terms (and let’s don’t), a variety of subtle linguistic distinctions are made, such as the difference between a metaphor (which says Michelle is a bag of wind—they are exactly the same thing) and a simile (Michelle is like a bag of wind—recognizing that it’s just a comparison). I tend to think of this with a broader umbrella, though, and call it all a metaphor.

So the mind, which is so mysterious, may be like a book, and if it is, we can read it. Or it might be a container, and you can be in or out of the container. I have known people who, in regards to the mind, were out of the container.

Once we became aware of the metaphor as a figure of speech, arising naturally out of our thoughts, we then realized we could deliberately make up metaphors, as a way to make our speech and writing more interesting or compelling. Some of our earliest literature does this, showing that the creative use of metaphor is an early human activity. The epics of Homer (which we have to recall were orally created, then written down later) are so full of metaphors that this abundance is even recognized as one of the characteristics of the poems.  One of the more famous describes Dawn, a goddess of morning, as “rosy-fingered”.

The use of metaphors in literature varies greatly with the writer. No writer entirely avoids them, because it is almost literally impossible to do so, but we really notice when the writer is consciously trying to create new metaphors. If the writer does a good job, the comparison that is suggested allows us to see a comparison that can sometimes charm and delight us with its cleverness and new way of seeing the world. A writer who really impressed me with metaphors was Pat Conroy in the novel The Prince of Tides (and think about that title).

If we hear a metaphor often enough we forget about the comparison and just begin to take that word or phrase as having a new meaning, so the metaphor gets lost or buried. As an example of a metaphor that isn’t exactly gone, but isn’t very noticeable, take the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Romeo says “Hark, what light through yonder window breaks.” Does light break? That word seems to be a reference to the sudden disruption (maybe, in fact, the way our eyes experience it) in going from darkness to light. We have this metaphor buried in the word “daybreak”.

Words that began as metaphors in other languages before coming into English may be completely invisible, unless you can trace the etymology. A nice example, I think, takes me back to hot anxious nights when a visiting preacher was in town and our Baptist church held a revival. The purpose at the end of each night of preaching (every night for a week, imagine the delight) was to convert whoever could possibly have been in that environment unconverted already. The verb “convert” comes from Latin, using the prefix con (meaning “with”) and the root vert (meaning “turn”). The preacher wanted to metaphorically “turn” people.

I love metaphors. I think they’re fascinating as an indication of how the mind works, and properly used in literature they can be like flowers blooming unexpectedly as you walk.

Here are some metaphors I used in writing this blog, but metaphors are so ubiquitous in language that surely there are others:

  • reading my mind (the mind is a book)
  • signals run along a nerve (signals have feet)
  • mental database (the mind is a computer)
  • Michelle is a windbag (actually, she is a windbag, that’s not a metaphor)
  • think with a broader umbrella (collections of thoughts are a cover)

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Brushing Her Hair Back, She Grimaced and Prepared to Explain Just What She Had Meant

Woman flying through the airThere’s a phrase I’ve heard sometimes describing the characters in a book or story, and maybe you’ve heard it too, that when the characters don’t seem like real people, they are cardboard. I think we’re working through both a symbol and a metaphor here. The cardboard reference is meant to be a clever or poetic way of saying “flat”, though the substance of cardboard might also carry connotations of “lifeless”. When we call characters flat, we invoke the metaphor of shallow characters, shallow because there just isn’t much there, so that they don’t seem very real. Humans are complicated. Try having a relationship with one.

Does it really matter if fictional characters are flat? Can fiction be worth reading, or entertaining to read, with shallow, unreal characters? I think the answer to both questions is definitely yes. As a writer who takes this craft seriously, I’m not thrilled about that answer, but it seems true.

I wish all books were carefully crafted, but then again, I wish everything in life was carefully crafted. I think there’s no good excuse for mediocrity. Aside from my fantasy of thoughtful engineering, beautiful buildings, and poetically rich books, back here in the real world, a book with flat, unreal characters can be very successful, but a book that has complex characters but is not entertaining will struggle on life support amongst the literati.

I think there’s a bit of paradox about this. What do people most want to read about? On the whole, we seem to prefer books about our symbolic selves (other people). It’s not an absolute rule, but on the whole, people want to read about people. That doesn’t mean the characters have to seem especially real, though. Some genres of literature are so known for being entertaining that in many cases the plot of the story appears to overwhelm the characters. This absence of character depth can be true in some—not all—detective novels, westerns, or romances.

Of course the best ones, the ones that we think of as more serious literature, are able to remain true to the genre and entertain, but also have real, interesting characters. In many cases, however, a desire to know who could have killed the young movie star believing they were actually killing her sister will pull a reader through a book, even if the detective has a few personality quirks but not much more.

In such a case it looks like the development of the characters is not that important, yet if the story was not, at heart, about people, it would not be so popular. I wonder if maybe readers are applying their own imagination to fill out the characters.

Not so long ago, I read on a literary agent’s blog some advice that should in any case be obvious to serious writers. The agent gave an admonition that readers need to care about the characters. I agree with that, and I think it’s true in general, so perhaps some of the differences in books lies in what it means to “care about” a character. Maybe I want someone to realize his brother tried to reconnect but was unable to express his feelings after the trauma of war. Another reader just wants the protagonist to figure out who killed the young movie star.

Well-developed characters are one of the features of truly good writing. Maybe the creation of characters who seem real is celebrated because of the great pleasure we can have from reading that kind of writing. Or maybe part of the celebration is because it’s soooo damn hard to do it.

Literally every writer writers very badly at some point, and literally every writer writes badly from time to time right up until the end, even if they learn to delete it. When we write, “She saw him enter the room and sat up straighter,” we want that bit to say something about the character’s feelings, and to help slowly build up a sense of how this person reacts to the world. But of course that’s not enough. What else should we add? The color of her dress? The fact that when she picked it out that morning she was worried that she often feels nauseous after eating? Or merely that she ironed the dress carefully? Or we could include the fact that she was irritated from having sat waiting an hour for the man to come in. Or we might have her hold her hands in her lap to keep from waving them around, knowing she has a habit of gesturing too much and she realizes it can distract people. Maybe she smells the man’s cologne as he enters, the same cologne a professor once wore who criticized her harshly. Or maybe we should mention the color of her eyes, or the way she squints in the bright light coming through the window.

And maybe no matter how hard we try, in the end, it just won’t quite work. When she leaves the office later and is walking down the street, a wind will come along and pick her up to blow her away, because she is nothing but cardboard.

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