Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Do we own our thoughts?

Helen Keller was not born deaf & blind, but became so at the age of about 1-1/2 years after a bout of meningitis. At the age of 7, she was freed by a teacher who was able to help her connect sign language to concepts representing reality.

Keller says of that experience that it was like an awakening. "Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten--a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me." Before this, her world seems to have been a swirl of thoughtless emotion, "This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure."

Hm. No thoughts without words? Then whose words create our thoughts?

Soon after her release from permanent isolation, Helen Keller wrote a story called "The Frost King" for one of her mentors, in appreciation for his efforts to reach out to her.

Unfortunately, the story was discovered to have much in common with a previously published story. Helen was so mortified by the unconscious plagiarism [cryptomnesia] that she never wrote fiction again. Her writings suggest that she never again really trusted her thoughts to be her own, either.

Helen is not alone--there are many examples of apparently innocent cryptomnesia in the field of intellectual property, including incidents involving George Harrison & Vladimir Nabokov.

Keller was a ravenous reader & catching up for lost time quickly, but she simply didn't have as much background to draw on & mix together, so the story similarities leaped right out.

But do any of us actually own our thoughts?

While clearly a "forbidden experiment", social isolation appears to result in psychosis, while language deprivation experiments seem to lead inevitably to muteness. Although problematic to interpret, so called, "wild children", who are raised apart from human contact do not develop normal mental lives.

Even when doing science, the most objective activity humans are capable of,
We are all a part of a cultural matrix, which, even if unconsciously, affects the way we think. As Schiebinger puts it "We cannot free ourselves of cultural influence; we cannot think or act outside a culture. Language shapes even as it articulates thought."
Some scientists have proposed--as in the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis--that "different language patterns yield different patterns of thought. This idea challenges the possibility of perfectly representing the world with language, because it implies that the mechanisms of any language condition the thoughts of its speaker community."
Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached ... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. (Sapir, 1958 [1929], p. 69)
And in less objective activities, language is even more influential. Culture wars erupt over language used to oppress social factions. The never-ending flap over "political correctness" demonstrates this, even though PC itself originated as an overdue response to suppression of women & minorities through language. The irony is usually lost in the heat of battle.

So how, specifically, can words influence thought? Well, here's a way: "indirect relationships between unrelated concepts can be inadvertently triggered by a 'bridge' through a phonetic relationship", a process called homophone priming. So what might be the effect in a culture, say, whose word for "war" sounds similar to the word for "children"?

Certainly, manipulation of language is a common political tool used to exert control over populations. And its overwhelmingly effective use in advertising goes strangely unquestioned by its victims. Phillip K. Dick once said, “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words."

But those are topics for a new post :)

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