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Posts Tagged ‘How the mind work’

13EdithAltman“Reclaiming the Symbol,” the exhibit by Edith Altman at the State of Illinois Building drew in a large crowd for the panel discussion.  This was many years ago.  I have been puzzling over it ever since.

The panel consisted of professors from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and, most impressively,  Wendy Doniger, the American Indologist and Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the Committee on Social Thought. I had been reading her “Other People’s Myths,” one of several books on symbols, mythology and poetry that I was trying to decipher at the time.  These were  my big interests and still are.  Why do we do this?  How do symbols work?  Why do people create gods?  How does the brain function when it’s playing with metaphors?

Imagine my excitement when Doniger was at the dais taking questions from the audience.  I was so engrossed and felt so much on this author’s wavelength that I simply asked, “what is a metaphor?’   She looked out at me over her reading glasses and got a little flustered.  In her helplessness, she turned to her fellow panelists, left and right, as if to say, “what’s this person doing here? How am I supposed to answer this question when this person is obviously barely literate, at best a high school drop-out? Every eighth grader knows the definition of a metaphor.”  Right.  I know the definition, thank you.  What I wanted to get into was the boiler room of the imagination,  the depth of the messy, noisy gray matter where things get connected when they seem  logically and rationally so far apart.  How does the mind do this metaphor business?  I did not defend my question by adding the context in which I asked it. I was momentarily shocked by Doniger’s shallowness and realized that she collected honorary degrees because she knows a lot of definitions.  I went home and took her book, not to a used book store, but to the alley where I dumped it in the garbage.

This fall I was reading Stephen Pinker’s “How the Mind Works.”  Finally!  Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, does get into the boiler room of the imagination. But it’s a demanding book.  Even though it’s written in clear prose and with abundant wit, I found myself resisting his findings, probably because of my lingering romantic ideas about free will.

As the brain evolved over eons, so did the brain’s “machinery” of induction and deduction.

Here’s Pinker:  “Why do we make …analogies?  It is not just to co-opt words but to co-opt their inferential machinery.  Some deductions that apply to motion and space also apply nicely to possession, circumstance, and time.  That allows the deductive machinery for space to be borrowed from reasoning about other subjects.”  (p.353)

“Space and force pervade language.  Many cognitive scientists (including me) have concluded from their research on language that a handful of concepts about places, paths, motions, agency, and causation underlie the literal or figurative meanings of tens of thousands of words and constructions, not only in English but in every other language that has been studies.” (p. 355)

“Location in space is one of the fundamental metaphors in language, used for thousands of meanings.  The other is force, agency, and causation.” (p.354)

In other words, in other metaphors:  The brain of our distant ancestors had to figure out how to navigate the body through space and time in the context of evolving notions of causation.  Ideas come much later, when the inferential machinery of the brain is already in place.  The Athenians of 500 BCE were hanging out in the agora to discuss truth and beauty.  But they did this with brains that had evolved to make certain causal and spatial inferences.  The boiler room of their imagination and rationality was already running smoothly, so to speak, as in a metaphor.

“The mind couches abstract concepts in concrete terms.” (p. 353) This is how we write about ideas.  We try to talk about the mind and find ourselves talking about furniture and gravel soup.  The mind is endlessly funny.

I read Pinker on the mostly deserted beach, while bundled up next to a large sturdy umbrella to shield against forceful and shifting winds. The lake threw up high roaring waves.  Almost every afternoon, as it was getting late in the day, a woman named Denise would spend a half hour throwing a day-glow green ball way out  over the waves and a black lab retriever named Kiva would hurl herself into this absurdity, snap up the ball and rush it back to her human.  The dog couldn’t take her eyes off the day-glow throwing stick, ready for more absurdity.

On the beach, Pinker’s analysis of the mind became readable. Well, no, it was still hard to take, all this talk about “inferential machinery.”  I recommend reading “How the Mind Works” in turbulent weather. I, for one, found some consolation camped there in the sand with the lake coming at me.

Of course, the lake is doing no such thing.  “Coming at” is a spatial and intentional metaphor.  And so forth.

13BeachSunset

http://www.chgs.umn.edu/museum/exhibitions/witnessLeg/survivorsRefs/altman/

http://reclaimtheswastika.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika

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