Several years ago, I received a call telling me that my mother had just been hit by a car. The details are hazy. I think the voice was a stranger’s using Mom’s cellphone—maybe the convenience store owner who witnessed the accident and waited with her in the sub-zero cold for the ambulance. Or was it my sister?
The point is: On hearing those words, my sympathetic nervous system kicked in, adrenaline started flowing, I felt my heart sink into my stomach.
How can words do this? How can they perform this magic of altering one’s physiology—of causing mental states, so to speak—in an instant, with no more force or matter than that involved with a few puffs of air and the fine machinery of one’s auditory faculties? This is the question I’d like to explore here. I don’t have an answer. I think, instead, the question’s benefit is in urging us to explore the depths and scope of its intractability.
To be clear, words themselves play only a small role in initiating such bodily changes. More important is the meaning of a word, or string of words, which involves not only what those words refer to, but how they’re delivered and whether the hearer believes them.
There is of course a basic, perhaps even trivial, sense in which words have definitional, or “lexical,” meanings; this is what formally elevates the status of a sound—or printed symbol or hand gesture—to that of being a word. But that’s of course not the whole story of a what one works towards, what one means, when using words; indeed, words aren’t necessary for meaning. A sob, laugh, grunt, or scream may be loaded with with meaning. A slight vocal inflection can easily indicate not only that we are to assign to a word the opposite of its usual meaning (while relying on the usual meaning as a conceptual anchor), but also may indicate that we should assign a meaning that has nothing to do with the word’s usual meaning (which now offers no anchor).
This in mind, return to the phone call (Mom was injured but eventually healed, by the way).
Had I not recognized the calling number, the words “your mother has just been hit by a car” might have had little effect on me. I might have thought—and strongly hoped—it a misdial. In other words, I’d need to believe that the words were indexed for me (“your mother” will index something different for you than it will for me, perhaps even if you are my sibling). Similarly, if I didn’t think it a misdial but the words had been uttered in a Donald Duck voice, I might not have initially taken them seriously. Some fuzzy shadow of that sinking feeling, close to what I feel when allowing myself to dwell too long on catastrophic thoughts, might occur in these cases due to simulating in my imagination what it would mean to take the words seriously. But the full effect would be nonexistent or delayed until I came to assign the effects-inducing meaning to the words.
In some cases there may be not even be a shadow of an effect. For example, had the words been calmly uttered in Chinese. Which is to say that I need to understand the words. And if I’d heard those words spoken (in a language I understand) by one character to another on a TV show, I certainly wouldn’t feel my heart sink, though some vague imitation of that might happen, but not of the above-noted shadowy variety, unless I begin to dwell on personal catastrophe; rather, that vague imitation is in the direction of the pleasure we get from staged drama, and would count as being entertained or, in deeper instances, being aesthetically moved.1.
And, while word choice sometimes matters—big words, rare words, slang words, beautiful and ugly words, rhymed and alliterated words, les mots justes et mal choisis—this generally matters to the extent that meaning is influenced; and my hunch is that it often doesn’t matter all that much.2 Indeed, when recalling what someone told us, we usually use different words that we understand (correctly or not, but usually correctly enough) to impart the same meaning as what we were told; this will be unavoidably true when translating into another language. Many terms can refer to the same object in the world, as with water, dihydrogen oxide, agua, and snowman blood—but do they call up the same set of ideas and attributes? Do they have the same meaning? No, and not because of the differences in the sounds in themselves, but because of their distinct cultural connotations (though it’s not hard to imagine that simpler sounds are more likely to have broader cultural associations, while more complicated sounds will have more specific ones).3
And so,meaning is where the magic happens. Word, put over-simply, is the name we give to—the shorthand we use for talking about—a certain subset of more or less precise sonic, visual, and tactile symbols that have the potential to contribute to the front-end of a process that transforms those symbols into experience of some sort, which then may result in belief, knowledge, action, etc. This process is roughly what I aim to denote with the word meaning.
Put in other terms, meaning (or meaning extraction etc.) is the cognitive process of assigning (correctly or not) a collection of attributes to some stimulus so that an appropriate response or set of responses, conscious or not, may be be formulated. This process constitutes an intermediary, or mediating, state between stimulus and experience. It also constitutes, I think, one of the toughest challenges ahead of those who strive for a purely materialist or physicalist account of experience and consciousness—more precisely, an account that does not involve or imply mental causation.
By mental causation, I simply mean when a mental state in itself—as some kind of immaterial, extensionless floaty thing—causes a physical change in the brain, which then may lead to some other mental state and then further physical changes to the brain, and so on.4 Most mind-brain researchers reject that immaterial mental states per se could act causally on physical states, as I think they rightly should; rightly, that is, of mental states—or the mind—so conceived.5 Yet mental causation feels intuitively right and nearly everyone, maybe in fact everyone, talks and behaves as though it’s true, and does so in a deeper way than, for example, when we say “the sun is rises in the east” while knowing full well that the sun is not literally rising. Behaving like zealous dualists is a hard-to-shake habit. Cartesian-style dualism pervading so much of our worldview and just really really feeling right doesn’t help.6
This series of brain state changes can be triggered by a class of stimuli that count as words. We can try to relate that process to physiological changes that are initiated nonverbally or directly (e.g., through direct perception of an event), of the sort that would trigger an involuntary response in nonhuman animals. For example, finding oneself in the path of a bolting tiger will increase the heart rate of a lot of animals. The human case takes this further—e.g., a loaded gun aimed in one’s direction works (provided one knows what a gun is). Of even more sophistication is the human’s capacity to respond via inference from subtle evidence: walking into one’s home to notice a pair of strange underwear on the floor or small signs of a break-in.
At some point, our sophistication for extracting meaning abstracts, so that hearing words “He has a gun” will initiate physiological change. Words, appropriately consumed, can arouse in many ways, eliciting happiness, pride, anger, sexual arousal, and, in rarer moments, euphoria.
In his 2012 book, Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning, Benjamin Bergen describes a great deal of research supporting the hypothesis that embodied simulation plays a critical role in the human brain’s capacity to extract meaning from language. Embodied cognition, in a nutshell, is when you hear an utterance—let’s say, “He turned the doorknob”—and you mentally simulate, if even unconsciously, the act of turning a doorknob, which corresponds to neural activity similar to that which we’d expect to see in a person actually turning a doorknob. It gets more complicated than this, and the studies described are surprisingly clever at testing relevant hypotheses. But that’s the gist.7
It’s a thought-provoking read that gets especially interesting for me at Chapter 7, when the discussion turns to the effects embodied simulation might have on interpersonal communication (e.g., when two people have different simulation styles). Even with its wealth of information, however, I feel no closer to understanding how a certain string of words, in the relevant context, will make my skin crawl or increase my heart rate. In other words, we still need some explanation of how these sounds trigger the biological response—the embodied simulation—in the first place. An explanation of how, as Bergen puts it: “Shortly after the sound waves of spoken words hit our ears, or the light of written characters hits our eyes, we engage our vision and motor system to recreate the non-present visions and actions that are described” (page 223, 2012 first edition, hardcover).
Indeed, I’m still in search of an explanation for how such a thing happens when I directly see someone turn a doorknob, no words involved, even if I explicitly imagine turning the doorknob myself.8 There’s a temptation to think direct experience of events poses an easier problem, the understanding of which we can build on, for example, by viewing language’s effectiveness as arising through some sort of conditioning mechanism so that a certain sound becomes associated with a certain activity in the world, and thus elicits the same brain response as does the unconditioned/direct stimulus. And we can add higher orders to this, so that we can do the same with things that refer to the language: the written symbols (e.g., “turn” “doorknob”), Morse code, Pig Latin, spoonerisms, strange accents, and meaning-altering inflections. These orders of conditioning and meaning arise as increasingly sophisticated tweaks from pre-linguistic stages in our history; a discursive catalog that was once constituted by the likes of screams, sobs, grunts, laughs, raised sticks, and so on has progressed to afford orders at delis, comedy routines, the Declaration of Independence, song lyrics, and Fermat’s Last Theorem.
These last items are more sophisticated—more precise—instances of meaning than their predecessors, though, again, screams and such may still be potent initiaters of the meaning process; there are some interesting distinctions to notice here. I’ll return to this below, when I consider when we cross over from requiring meaning for a stimuli and not, and how the latter lacks effective language representation (e.g., the words, “I shall sneak up behind you and yell ‘gotcha'” won’t affect the listener the way “I will shoot you” will).
At any rate, the conditioning angle offers an interesting story, some of which seems to have merit9 (in particular, the development of higher-order tweaks). But this story is founded on the difficultly of how even direct percepts give rise to series of brain states that correspond to (or correlate with, if you prefer) coherently associated mental events in a conscious subject. That in mind, I’d like to elaborate on the mystery surrounding how meaning mediates between stimulus and experience. It’s a hard mystery to talk about without invoking mental causation. Here’s what I mean. Someone says something.10 This implies there’s something more going on than the person expelling some air molecules vibrating at a certain rate of oscillation. To say that the person says something goes further: it implies the attempt to convey an idea via that expelled air. But the speaker doesn’t attempt to attach meaning to the expelled air itself, but to the words the air carries to the minds of others.
This moving air causes involuntary biological responses (e.g., vibrating eardrums) in nearby observers. If an observer speaks the same language and is paying sufficient attention, etc., then these responses culminate with neurons firing and such so that the utterance is experienced as a set of features made up of the utterer’s voice, which may be high or low or smooth or gruff or melodious or monotone; one may infer (correctly or not) its source’s gender, race, regional origin, ethnicity, and assess whether the speaker is serious, sarcastic, happy, angry, calm. Somewhere in all this, the utterance is experienced as words (often, in fact, even when they are words one doesn’t understand).
These experiences in turn may afford from the hearer further conscious or unconscious involuntary responses, and allow the hearer to deliberate over potential voluntary responses. I’ll emphasize here the role of experience in leading to involuntary and voluntary responses. Therein lies the mental causation, which seems to defy any sort of one-to-one chain of causally linked, observable physical events.
In other words, it’s not as if the physical dimension of meaning—i.e., of the meaning extraction or attribution process—amounts to some elaborate Rube Goldberg machine such that the vibrating air molecules stimulate one’s auditory faculties which in turn kicks off a series of brain state changes that just so happen to result in—or correspond to or correlate with—an intelligibly ordered and associated sequence of experiences. It seems, rather, that one has the experience of understanding a set of a words, and this experience influences the next experience, though this must be happening as a result of, or in correlation with, some physical change in brain state. The thoughts and experiences one has when hearing words are not just some vaporous epiphenomenal byproduct of synaptic transmissions, but are in the machinery itself somehow—their content as experiential, subjective, phenomenological, qualia-centric, and seemingly immaterial objects somehow participate in the causal chain. One follows a train of associated thoughts, not a train of brain cell assemblies (though such assemblies must also be in the machinery of that train).
The influence of experience is sometimes characterized as top-down control, and does not jibe with how serious thinkers are supposed to characterize the mind-brain relation (or perhaps, better: MindBrain or BrainMind, terms Jaak Panksepp used interchangeably.11 As Michael Gazzaniga puts it in Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain, in a section called “How to Rile a Neuroscientist”:
Modern neuroscience is happy to accept that human behavior is the product of a probabilistically determined system, which is guided by experience. But how is that experience doing the guiding? If the brain is a decision-making device and is gathering information to inform those decisions, then can a mental state that is the result of some experience or the result of some social interaction affect or constrain future mental states? If we all were French we would, in exasperation, just out our upper lip and let out an expiration, shrug, and say, “but of course,” unless you were a neuroscientist or perhaps a philosopher. This means top-down causation. Suggesting top-down causation to a group of neuroscientists are fightin’ words. It is to your peril to invite a group of them to your house and bring it up at dinner.
Gazzaniga nicely encapsulates the problem and the bafflement it kindles. How does experience—i.e. a mental state or mental properties—cause stuff to happen in the physical brain? I’ve been focusing here on the relationship between external stimuli and the process by which those (especially when perceived as words) are translated into meaning. But really, you need only believe you’ve heard the relevant words in order to get the effects I’m describing. This suggests a deep role for experience, given that the experience from which an observer extracts information and meaning need not accurately correspond to any actual stimuli in the world. But, whether the words were correctly heard or not, whether they were really uttered or merely hallucinated, it is still the words, first learned from the external world, that initiates the process of meaning extraction.
And so this brings us back to the question of how the experience, real or imagined, of a few words can lead to such tremendous and lasting effects in a human observer. To explore this question further, perhaps it would be useful to consider the question of how the direct experience of an event is related to the experience we have of descriptions of that event: seeing a tiger running at you versus hearing a voice scream “tiger!”; seeing a gun versus being told “he has a gun.” Such descriptions may fall under a broader category of evidence for an event’s having happened, or of the imminence of its happening (e.g., as when the bushes rattle in a way that tends to portend a tiger attack, at least for those who know how to read such things).
Direct and indirect experience (or evidence) differ in interesting ways. Responding to the direct experience of an event often requires little by way of meaning or thought. It’s understood that fight-or-fight may kick in before one has actually processed the content of a situation—just as one might automatically pull one’s hand from a hot plate before mentally registering that the plate is hot. Language, or inferential evidence, must be processed, can convey far more complicated dangers (even many years before an event’s occurrence), and need not result in unconsidered or hardwired behavioral responses such as that exhibited by, for example, vervet monkeys upon hearing an alarm call, even though such evidence may engender involuntary emotional responses (e.g., at the sight of a gun or upon hearing the words “He has a gun”).
To be clear, I discern no significant difference between seeing a gun and hearing the words “He has a gun,” aside from the aforementioned cognitive sophistication required to formulate meaning at higher levels of abstraction. The standard conditions apply in both cases: one must understand and believe what one is perceiving, and so on (it’s even possible to recognize a gun as being pointed sarcastically). There is some basic point, however, where meaning is unnecessary in order to elicit responses—the sort of imagery or activity that would arouse a human infant or a rat (entities for whom signals about guns would be meaningless and thus response-less). An angry or smiling face might do the trick for a human infant, no semantics required; a sudden, angry yell certainly would.
Notably, while these responses—of the sort that often make for cheap jump scares in horror films—might get your pulse going, they do not have effective language representation. Coming up behind you and suddenly yelling “gotcha!” might give you a start, but saying the words “I shall suddenly yell ‘gotcha’ loudly in you ear at some point soon” will have no such effect, though you can certainly imagine what it would feel like to get such a shock—you understand what the words mean. “I will shoot you,” however, may cause severe biological change, which requires an elaborate meaning process in order to take effect.
This elaboration amounts to a kind of evaluation of evidence for the things that may follow from the signaled threat; one’s physiological response is likely positively correlated with the degree of one’s belief in that evidence. In other words, being told “He has a gun” is a certain kind of evidence; seeing the gun is another; being shot at or shot is another, hearing the loud explosions of bullets firing is yet another—one’s response to the latter is immediate, direct, non-inferential. I don’t know where the line is between elaboration of the sort afforded by meaningful signs (i.e., inferential evidence) on the one hand, and direct or preverbal (or pre-meaning) experience (i.e., non-inferential perceptual evidence) on the other.12
Notice that in all of these cases, the difficulties about mental causation persist. What is less problematic about pre-meaning experience, perhaps, is that it is less impaired by the phenomenological gap that separates all minds. The more elaborate the first-person experience one wishes to convey, the greater discrepancy there may be between the intended results in experience (or brain-state changes, if you wish) in one’s listener, and what that listener actually experiences. To be told that someone has been hit by a car may cause one’s heart to sink; but to get the full impact of seeing the event directly will take a tremendous amount of verbal detail and skill, and will require, on the part of the listener, a tremendous amount of imagination and investment in the person being hit.13 Yet, in all cases, mental causation seems to be part of the story: you see, you feel (even if the feeling starts before you see; this doesn’t make the problem go away).
In short, the questions here emphasize the difficulty in making sense of the relationship between environment, brain, and experience, as well as the relationship between brains themselves, which boils down to making sense of the nature of consciousness. Technically, perhaps, I should include the brains of others as falling under environment: they are objects in an environment whose contents one wishes to understand (i.e., wishes to transfer into one’s own brain, in a sense); but brains seem to be different, more special, than other sorts of objects—than books or guns or bananas or traffic or computers: the mental contents of a brain are invisible to all but the subject occupying (as it were) that brain; furthermore, if I view your brain as a feature of an environment that is external to me, then I am one step from viewing my own brain as external to my self.
Though I do conceptually distinguish between external and internal in this way: the body is external to me, experience internal. Indeed, as things stand now, I treat the brain as the hub of the body that is the physical or external me, and as the connection between the environment (which includes other brains), and the mental or internal me. But how much of this is metaphor? I suppose that, roughly speaking, the internal (particularly as a kind of persistent locus of first-person perspective) and external contribute, along with certain other properties (e.g., beliefs, dispositions, history of activities in the world) to a larger bundle that constitutes what we think of as the self. But discerning where this goes from things in concept, or name, only to things that are real in the world is part of the difficulty we face here.
My conception’s inclusion of an internal “me” can’t, according to overwhelming mainstream intellectual opinion, be literally correct. But this internal me is also the “I” and “my” to which we refer when we say things like, “I own my own body,” and at least some people do seem to mean this as more than metaphor. But I’ve exhausted all the energy I have today for this and the other problems at hand.
Some comments now on why these problems matter.
Superficially, they matter due to the challenge they pose to the cultural idea that “words will never hurt me.” They, or at least their meanings, can harm. They can also heal, impassion, elevate, and ecstasize. And they can manipulate and exploit. Advertisers, marketers, writers, teachers, parents know this—I think we all know this intuitively. This idea has become a central topic of debate in recent years, in particular in the realm of identity politics, or in questions such as “is there anything it’s not Ok to joke about?” There is a lot to consider here in terms of where the harm happens—that is, at the most basic level, the extent to which the harm is in words as they are culturally understood, versus to which the harm is a product of the idiosyncratic system of beliefs, dispositions, etc. of a particular individual or group. It’s an important discussion that, no matter where you stand, is grounded on the undeniable fact that an appropriately arrange string of words can indeed cause you negative stress.
Digging deeper, the questions explored here are important because the act of two people communicating is, in the most important instances, the act of one person attempting to find the right words, inflections, gestures, imagery to initiate the right process of meaning in the brain of the other—so that you feel what I feel, so that my brain state becomes your brain state. The words become a surrogate for direct experience: I experience X; so I attempt to describe that experience so that you may experience X (where X can be almost any sort of thing that can be experienced, including belief in the validity or truth of an argument; some things will elude description, as when attempting to explain the color green to the congenitally blind, or when a nattō lover tries to explain their nattō experience to the nattō-repulsed). We might also think of these moves as an attempt at constructing a bridge meant to cross the infinitely wide phenomenological gaps that exists between all minds. In short, these questions may not just be important for uncovering insights into the mind-body relation, but also the mind-(other-mind) and body-(other-body) and mind-(other-body) etc. relations.
Better understanding how that bridge functions—or, more precisely, how the brain extracts, creates, and imposes meaning—also has applications for deciphering essential features of interpersonal communication, learning, disorders of consciousness, and may have important implications for computer science (e.g., how might our understanding of human meaning processes inform models for machine learning and notions about representation in computers?).
Finally, a comment about my choice of the word magic. I don’t know much about magic as a field, but I have the impression that there exists a growing strain of contemporary practitioners claiming to rely on materialist or physicalist explanations of magic as a manifestation of psychological phenomena—in other words, that classifies magic as a practice-based subfield of phenomenology. Such explanations may even be framed in probabilistic terms. This application, so long as it involves sensory information of some sort making it into the perception of the affected subject, strikes me as more persuasive than that of, say, those who abuse debates surrounding complicated and obscure ideas about quantum mechanics in order to develop a go-to catch-all for grounding theories about mystical, invisible causal forces (including the grandest force of all: God).
It is in this weaker, more cautious, sense that I use the word magic, but I do so bathing in the warm air of mystery (and I suppose trickery) the word radiates. It does indeed strike me as magical when a bit of rustling matter can initiate a causal chain that intertwines a dynamical complex of mental events and behaviors that leads to new physical states in the world that in turn create new stimuli leading to new mental states and so on.
Consciousness studies, as a serious practice, is growing in popularity, but has not been a central goal of science until very recently; the domination of behaviorism for most of the 20th century hasn’t helped, though that was no accident. Indeed, the history of science, since the dawn of the scientific revolution, has in many ways been the process, or even project, of removing consciousness and mental events—as they are invisible and thus not empirically addressable or quantifiable—from serious natural inquiry. This is changing.
In the meanwhile, while awaiting a solid explanation for how very real mental states can exert force over physical states, whether those things turn out to be made of entirely different sorts of substances or whether mental events are better categorized as something else altogether, I think magic is as good a word as any to characterize the mysterious power of meaning, a phenomenon that may be conceptually—or metonymically—boiled down to words, the most common form of evoking meaning with precision, which at its most potent and skillfully employed amounts to a kind of mental surgery.
To change someone’s mind, to help them feel better about their breakup, to boost their morale thus improving their gameplay at halftime… to change the brain from a distance… requires finding the right words to say in the right way for that person in that moment… requires answering the question: What are the magic words?
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- It would be interesting to consider how meaning in this instance serves as a kind of exercise, therapy, or erosion of one’s phenomenology. Perhaps there is some line between such effects serving on the one hand as a kind of immunotheraphy—such as when an allergy patient is subcutaneously injected with small doses of cat or pollen—promoting an ability to endure suffering without ignoring it; and on the other hand as a kind of desensitization that effectively files down one’s empathy, promoting a flat social affect
- One might argue that our response to words, e.g., aesthetic or emotional, may be influenced by word choice per se, so that words may add something beyond meaning, something physically and immediately impactful. I think this is true, but is this about the sound in itself, rather than the function of the sound as a word? For example, when the brevity and sharpness of a word lends itself to a more visceral expression—makes it easier to scream or spit out in disgust. This would amount to combining word, inflection, and the sort of pre-meaning vocalizations I’ve already alluded to (e.g., screams) with a special kind of representation (i.e., meaning-evocation) that amounts to onomatopoeia. A way to explore this would be to see what sorts of experiences can be had of by those listening to a foreign language (ones they do and don’t understand); as well as strategically devised nonsense words: could these rank, for example, as aesthetically rich as actual words in English? I doubt it, especially if presented only in writing (i.e., when not helped out by a richly endowed set of vocal cords or appropriate emphasized inflections).
- The idea of natural names has a long and interesting history. The idea, that is, that there are objectively correct names for things. A pluralistic view might recognize multiple natural names for things, so that there may coexist more than one correct language. But a general kind of natural correctness may still persist, in which case languages will share similarities; this may also be reflected in similarities of human brain structure, or at least in the laws that regulate the development and plasticity of the human brain, the organ from which language emerges (or, perhaps on this view, the organ’s structure is a response to and thus reflection of the same natural laws that regulate correct names etc.).
In this and similar contexts, words properly aligned with nature can have the sort of magical properties I’m describing here without a person—or indeed a snake (to borrow an example from Michel Foucault*)—extracting meaning from the words as such. I doubt that there is any rigorous evidence for such a thing. However, I once told an (avowed materialist) the example of how hearing in calm Chinese that my mother had been hit by a car would not affect me. To my surprise, she said incredulously, “really?” So I thought it worth mentioning.
*The Foucault example is on page 33 of the 1994 Vintage reissue of The Order of Things (note that the original title in French is Les mots et les choses, or Words and Things); in reference to signs for things “revealing what is hidden only in so far as they resemble” those things, which in turns gives the signs a special relationship—perhaps even one of power, of “magic”—to the world, such that meaning need not necessarily be extracted by the hearer, but rather exists as a kind of force-in-itself in nature that may be tapped into by those in the know:
…this is why animals themselves will react to the marks that designate them. Parcelsus asks:
Tell me, then, why snakes in Helvetia, Algoria, Swedland understand the Greek words Osy, Osy, Osy … In what academies did they learn them, so that scarcely have they heard the word than they immediately turn tail in order not to hear it again? Scarcely do they hear the word when, notwithstanding their nature and their spirit, they remain immobile and poison no one with their venomous wounds.
And let no one say that this is merely the effect of the sound made by the words when pronounced: ‘If you write these words alone on vellum, parchment or paper at a favourable time, then place them in front of the serpent, it will stay no less motionless than if you had pronounced them aloud.’ The project of elucidating the ‘Natural Magics,’ which occupies an important place at the end of the sixteenth century and survives into the middle of the seventeenth, is not a vestigial phenomenon in the European consciousness; it was revived—as Campanella expressly tells us—and for contemporary reasons: because the fundamental configuration of knowledge consisted of the reciprocal cross-reference of signs and similitudes. The form of magic was inherent in this way of knowing.
- I won’t consider here problems with the concept of causation. I will simply point out that I view causation as a model for talking about relations between events within a particular context (much as with probability or rigidly defined social groups). We can validly—i.e., with logical coherence—cite disparate causes for the same outcome, depending on what sort of story we’re interested in filling in.
- This isn’t to say that the mind doesn’t exist. Of course it does, and of course it exerts influence on human bodies and behavior. What the mind is, exactly, I’m not sure. In a basic sense it seems to be the word for cognition (conscious or not) in action—the some total of all the cognitive things the brain does. But there’s a vaguer, though more apt, sense in which the mind seems to amount to the use of the body over time; or the influence of the body (over time) on itself and its environment—in other words, the mind seems to be the diachronic dimension of body. All of this, plus the sum workings of cognition or consciousness: imagination, perception, and the functions that employ those things (emotion, memory, etc.). These things also constitute—or at least contribute to—the self. The mind is real, the self is real, morality is real, pain is real, the color turquoise is real, music is real… because they have meaningful and vivid existence in the experience of interacting conscious beings; even if their outlines are more or less fuzzy due to their subjective isolation, and made all the more difficult to isolate from their existence within language (humanity is a common example of something that seems to exist in name only; music, however, though it might be impossible to define, exists in experience, and we know what the word refers to in the vast majority of cases; in many cases, it difficult to tell how much of a thing exists only in language, and when language is being used to pick that thing out as a thing in the world—as when I use the word mug to pick out the thing I’m now drinking from). We can talk about, but cannot really share, these things per se, cannot pass them around like rocks, math formulas, or amino acids. Still, the clearer we can be when talking about at least some of these things, the more we can understand our shared reality and each other.
- It would be an illuminating project to track and catalog just how pervasive Cartesian dualism is in our culture. From viewing mental illness as a kind of affliction of the soul rather than as a physical problem with the body; to characterizing attributes such as intelligence, moral intuition, and artistic talent as endowments of the soul that, in any given individual, are only limited by environment and ambition (itself an endowment of the soul, by the way), rather than by stuff going on in the body (environment is important, of course, but so is the thing the environment is acting on). The sincere claim that “I own my body” also falls under dualist thinking.
- One of the most interesting applications of the idea is outlined in an epilogue called “The Crosstalk Hypothesis.” Bergen gives persuasive reasons for believing that people are bad at simultaneously driving and talking hands-free on a cellphone because parts of the brain required for driving may become occupied with embodying simulations; these brain areas can’t do both things at once, at least not well. He cites a study in which drivers have been shown to be especially distracted when using spatial language (literally or figuratively). This strikes me as plausible, and it seems to be compatible with the most persuasive ideas about why people are worse at talking on a hands-free device than talking with someone sitting in the passenger seat. That is, when talking to a passenger, the passenger effectively helps the driver navigate the road, both actively, e.g., pointing out that a bicyclist is about to turn in front of the car, and passively, e.g., by quieting upon observing a situation that demands the driver’s attention; this also means not finding it rude should the driver abruptly stop talking or ask for silence. Likewise, the driver on a hands-free device may feel rude to stop talking or listening during such moments.
- And, by the way, “the mirror neurons are doing it,” doesn’t tell me much more than “the brain is doing it,” even if all the hype about mirror neurons is to be believed. Which, I don’t think it is. See Gregory Hickok’s 2014 book The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition for a critique. Hickok’s critique is less dismissive than the title suggests; more like, “Ok, let’s calm down and take a step back a minute so we can hold these ideas about mirror neurons up to the broader cognitive neuroscience literature.” There’s also an in-depth 2014 interview with Hickok on the Brain Science Podcast: What Do Mirror Neurons Really Do? (BSP 112).
- Indeed, there have been behaviorist accounts of language acquisition. B.F. Skinner, for example, argued that children learn language through behavioral reinforcement.
- As always, you can adjust this story for written or hand-signed words as well.
- From Panksepp’s article, “A Synopsis of Affective Neuroscience — Naturalizing the Mammalian Mind,” first footnote:
I employ the terms BrainMind and MindBrain interchangeably, depending on desired emphasis, capitalized and without a space to highlight the monistic view of the brain as a unified experience-generating organ with no Cartesian dualities that have traditionally hindered scientific understanding. (Journal of Consciousness Studies, 19, No. 3–4, 2012, pp. 6–48)
- There’s another interesting sense in which percepts or mental states count as evidence. Were I among the lucky few to encounter the Flying Humanoid in Chicago, I might say, “I couldn’t believe my own eyes.” This may be somewhat a matter of distrusting what the world is giving me, but there’s also a sense in which my mind is complicit (due to optical illusion or even a kind of self-delusion about wanting or not wanting to believe what I’m seeing). This can be taken even further when the mental state isn’t a precept, but amounts to some elaborate narrative that has been concocted out of, for example, paranoia at losing my job. Mental states in these and other ways (e.g., being prone to hallucinations is an obvious example) seem take on an evidentiary role in themselves. Where to draw the evidentiary line between the stimuli in the world and the percepts in the mind in these cases?
Also, I wonder how this perspective aligns with Richard Gregory’s notion of perception as the brain’s way of hypothesizing about the world, as described in his classic book (that I have not yet read) Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing (first published in 1965, last updated to its 5th edition in 2015).
- It strikes me that there’s an interesting and plausible story to explore here of the evolutionary benefits of those aware of a event experiencing varying intensities of response, from the height of adrenaline to dryness of detachment. That’s another discussion.