16 September 2007

I've never given voice to my feelings about goats. Today a friend's blog had a post with a picture of a goat, and I was surprised by the disgust that surged within my heart.

Goats and camels disturb me. Their eyes are too far apart. It's like they can see you from any angle. Especially goats. Of course, camels are like large, deformed desert goats, but they don't pay as much attention to you as goats do. Goats like to sit there and stare at you until you get uncomfortable. Camels are like, "Yeah, whatever."

I know that I'm technically wrong here, but my gut feeling is that any animal that has chosen, over the course of evolution, to attack things by bashing its skull into them is merely dangling on that precarious string of survival through utility to humans.


emilysteinhafel said...

hahahahahahaaaa... your blog is by FAR the funnest to read. You need to do it more often so that I can be entertained at work!

Ammon said...

Interesting... perhaps shoe eating is an adverse product of head bashing through the centuries. This is somewhat troubling as my son often bashes things with his head. I better keep a close eye on our shoes from now on.

Russell said...

We're planning on having goats as pets, you know. They'll eat most things, their poo is fertilizer pellets, and if you get the right kind, they pass out when then get excited so you're guaranteed a mellow pet!

I need a word. This word may be either a noun or a adjective but I need it to describe or name a person who perceives only the noblest of motives in his own actions and only the worst motives in another's. For example, he may spit in someone's face deliberately and when they step back he thinks, "Well how rude!" What is the word for that person?

Russell said...

One other thing; most people generally think in words (although I believe some noted mathematicians think in math). What do babies think? and deaf people? In your neuroscience studies, have you come across something like that?

daniel said...

Here are some options, Russell, for your "grass is always browner" type:
* Sneero: a hero who has a perpetual sneer on his face.

* pigwig: someone who voraciously wants to be a bigwig.

* An "idol" with the emphasis on "I".

* "Gallant" with the emphasis on "gall".

I don't know. I'm not "on" today.

As for your other question, that is more of a question for phenomenology than it is for neuroscience (at least for now). Before I assume to answer your question, I'll try to question what you've assumed. What percentage of your day, generally speaking, is accompanied with thoughts in the form of words?

Russell said...

I was looking for a real word! not a made up one. I really think there's a word out there that describes that person and I just can't think of it.

Regarding your clarification: at first I thought that 100% of my day was accompanied with thoughts in word form. But then I realized that when I daydream I don't think in words, it's more of a visual movie-type thought. But I rarely daydream anymore, so I'd say that at least 90% of my day is accompanied with thoughs in word-form. That does not mean that I do not have pictoral accompaniment but my thoughts are primarily words. It is difficult for me to think without words.

daniel said...

I'm not so keen on "real" words. I just give into social pressures and use them out of utility. I'll have to think about this one.

Some people are more inward than others, so I don't doubt that much of your day is accompanied by some kind of thought, be it pictorial or linguistic. In my own experience, I've observed that most of my day is not even accompanied by thought in any form whatsoever.
For example, when you have a conversation with someone, and you're really absorbed into it, is it the case that you always think or picture what you are about to say, then say it? I don't think that is a good description of what actually happens. In conversations, the words are the thoughts -- speaking is the accomplishment of the thought itself, as Merleau-Ponty (one of my favorite philosophers) would say.
So it's a matter of how absorbed you get into your activities. When you play sports, how much are you thinking and how much are you simply reacting to what is happening all around you? If you can manage to step back and be detached from every activity, you can be inwardly thoughtful 100% of the time.
But this doesn't address your original question. What do babies think? They think with their eyes, their hands, and their mouths, primarily. In other words, babies have no symbolic representation of the world in the form of a shared language. It's possible that they have some sort of pictorial imagination, althought I tend to think that this must rely somewhat upon language, too. But certainly they do most of their thinking with their active explorations of their new body and their new world.
As for those who are congenitally deaf, I'm no expert of course, but I imagine their thoughts are much like ours, with the one exception that they cannot choose to imagine themselves hearing something. I'd guess that, instead of feeling like they're speaking to themselves with their "inner" mouth, they feel like they're speaking to themselves with their "inner" gestures, but only when they are intensely inward.

Russell said...

I'd like to restate a thing or two and then probably ask a follow up or tangent question. For the baby, the hand motion or the cry is the actual manefestation of the thought. So the baby basically thinks Hand forward (no words, just physical manifestation of action) and it happens? What about abstract thoughts? Can't they have any? Don't they compare current states with previous states? Current situations with previous situations? It seems that Porter thinks a lot despite his limited 20 or so word vocabulary.

Regarding our thought/action inward/outward issues: So, in most conversations, I'm mentally a sentence or two ahead of what is actually happening. It drives Betsy crazy because I frequently mouth the words she is about to say. But it's not just her - it's most people. When I am typing, I am frequently tripped up by my inability to keep my fingers behind what I'm thinking - focused on the present, if you will. And when I'm playing sports, (I'm not very good at most) I'm usually running through what I think I will do with the ball or else prepping a mouthy piece of smack-talk while I'm playing.

Even though this wasn't the original question, it is certainly the more interesting portion of the discussion - the actions as the manifestation of the thought. Do not your thoughts outpace your actions? I just don't feel like I would be thinking very much if mostly thought in physical manifestations. But you are right, I do do some things without consciously telling my self to do so. For example, I just scratched an itch on my face and realized that I had done so without thinking, "I'm going to scratch my face now." But I mostly think the letters as I type (which is where the confusion comes in--I'm thinking letters while I'm also thinking several sentences ahead). Do others not do the same?

I read of some monastic order that posited that all men are moved by external things because they can not understand what comes before and are therefore moved by it. They sought to understand the cause of actions and therefore control it, refusing to be acted upon, as it were. By failing to understand the cause of something, and merely reacting to it, you were allowing yourself to be controlled by it. What do you think about that?

daniel said...

I'm glad you find this interesting. Sort of a validation for me. Much of what existential phenomenology does is aimed at helping people see this one distinction -- that much, if not the majority, of our experience takes place in a mode that is devoid of a narration or reflection of any sort. This isn't to say that it isn't intentional experience. In fact, the technical term for it is "motor intentionality."

Consider that any time you are having a conversation like this, i.e., where you are reflecting upon experience, you are detached from your experience in the sense that you are examining it, trying to determine its attributes, trying to make sense of it. And the way that we usually end up making sense of our experience (or at least cash it out in terms that we can communicate to others) is by articulating it linguistically. This happens in real time, as we describe what is currently going through our minds, and retroactively, as we look for some sort of sense in our actions -- actions that at first glance may not seem so motivated by explicit thought.

So yes, while you type, your anticipation of what you are going to type runs ahead of the typing. And in conversation, your ability to keep the conversation fluid is dependent upon your ability to anticipate what the other person is capable of saying. And good athletes are the ones who always anticipate what their opponent is going to do next. But what is the nature of this anticipation? As soon as we look at it for the purposes of making sense of it, how can we do so without cashing it out linguistically?

The example of the keyboard is a good one. Isn't it a better description (of the experience of typing) to say that, at those moments when you are not thinking about typing, but simply typing, the keyboard sort of recedes and becomes part of your body, in a way. It isn't necessary for you to think "a" in order to type it. When a word comes with the letter "a" in it, your finger is simply drawn to it.

None of this is meant to discount your experience of thinking the letters as you type. This is exactly what is expected when we consciously monitor the activity. The vigilance on our part transforms the experience into something linguistic.

Do we agree this far?

Russell said...

Yes indeed. In fact, I was thinking about this all night. It started as I drove and realized that I did so without narration or reflection. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how many things I do without narration. The funny thing is, I am generally narrating while I'm doing things, but narrating something else. So I accept the idea of motor intentionality wholeheartedly.

Having accepted the fact, the question arises: which is better--motor intenionality or consciously monitoring all our actions. So, I suppose first I must define better. Better in my opinion would mean most likely to expand your mind and allow you to develop your ability to think more perfectly or completely.

On the one hand, facility with motor intentionality would allow you to multi-task more easily, that is to say, you could accomplish one task effectively while considering or planning other tasks.

On the other hand, the conscious monitoring of the activity demonstrates control of thoughta nd focus of intellect. If you can keep your mind from wandering as you accomplish mundane tasks, you may better be able to focus it more fully on significant problems or questions. I've heard random quotes about how man can't think about 1 thing for 5 minutes straight and that's why he has so many problems.

daniel said...

Driving is another great example. When we see the brake lights of the car in front of us, we don't need any internal dialogue to mobilize our foot and put it on the brake. The putting of the foot on the brake is the manifestation of our understanding -- it is still part of the act of perceiving the brake lights in front of you.

At one point, I wanted to write my Honors Thesis on the very question you pose: is it better to be absorbed into the situation or to be detached from it?

I ultimately gave up the project because it was beyond my skill. I still don't have a clear answer for it, but I've learned some things since then.

In large part, it isn't so much a matter of being in one mode or the other. As you mention in your car example, most often we are partially absorbed and partially detached, often with respect to different situations.
It is helpful to think about why we switch from one mode to the other. The detached mode is ideal for breakdowns in our anticipations (e.g., when we get to the bottom of a staircase and think there is one more step, but there isn't; or when we reach for a glass and accidentally knock it over), for arresting our perception of something so as to study its features instead of perceiving and using the thing as a whole (i.e., the size and color of the fruit instead of picking it up and eating it) -- actually, this last example is typical of pretty much every variation on the theme of detached, narrative, reflective experience -- instead of attending to the actions that are elicited by the objects (or people) in our environment, we attend to the features of those objects.

This said, I think we can develop habits of being reflective or absorbed. So again, the question is, "Which is better?" This is only my opinion, but I feel that it is important to be reflective about my spiritual life. I want to be instinctively good, but I've learned that my spiritual instincts aren't always as tuned as they seem when they're being expressed. I try, through reflection at designated times, to build in a sort of emergency detachment for things I know I have a problem with. If I have a tendency to get angry about some silly little thing, I'll use my reflective time to remind myself to become reflective when I find myself in the problematic situation. After a few successful runs through the situation, I find that I begin to instinctively respond in a way that I can feel good about.

Ultimately, reflection is a tool for refinement. Refinement seems like one of those things that we could always use a bit more of, but there must be a point at which we stop refining and start living. This is a tough balance to strike.

Regarding the quote about only being able to think one thing for five minutes straight, I can't profess to be a counterexample, but I'm sure there are buddhists (and other practitioners of similar meditation styles) who can.

daniel said...

I think your description of the person who only sees good motives in himself and bad motives in others is a perfect definition of someone who is *self-righteous*.

Russell said...

I think you made the comment about how you considered writing your thesis on the question I posed to make me feel good about myself.