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Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky and the neuronaut's guide to the science of consciousness
July 11, 2003 7:57 AM   Subscribe

We are because of others. We are born into this world with minds as naked as our bodies and we have to rely on others to feed, clothe us, and to teach us to think of ourselves as selves. The key is language -- grammatical speech and human culture build upon the brain's biological capacities to create a mind that is something different again than that with which we are born. We are conscious because we can speak to others and ourselves, because we can speak of ourselves to others and ourselves. Language gives us as individuals, memory, and as groups, culture, the social memory. Or so thought Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky, among others. Welcome to the the neuronaut's guide to the science of consciousness.
posted by y2karl (36 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

British science writer John McCrone's thoughts on apes that speak and feral children provide an easy to read introduction to Vygotskian psychology. Heady stuff it is--stimulating and intriguing. All this comes from my wanting to post about feral children last night, only to find that jonp72 had beat me to it. Along the way, I came across McCrone, and hence Vygotsky--all this is almost as new to me as it is to you. So, let us construct this together, link by link, as the day goes on.
posted by y2karl at 7:59 AM on July 11, 2003

I'll be engrossed in this for hours - thanks.
posted by spazzm at 8:09 AM on July 11, 2003

From Philosophical Biographies - Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky Resources. Vygotsky Centennial Resources. John McCrone's Consciousness Links--I am going to be working my way through these for a long time. Great linkage.
posted by y2karl at 8:12 AM on July 11, 2003

So people with aphasia, or mute people, or others who cannot understand language for whatever reason, are not consious beings?
posted by Veritron at 8:15 AM on July 11, 2003

Read McCrone on the deaf.
posted by y2karl at 8:26 AM on July 11, 2003

Also read about the inability of feral children to acquire language, as in grammar and syntax, after reaching a certain age. They are conscious in the moment but not conscious as you or I--in time with past and future, able to form complex thought and concepts, a sense of self.
posted by y2karl at 8:31 AM on July 11, 2003

Thanks, Karl. This is a great addition to my endless reading list (which chases and harasses me like the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz).
posted by troutfishing at 8:33 AM on July 11, 2003

Great stuff, y2karl - thanks. I believe the study of human consciousness will replace space travel within a couple decades as our main tool of probing the secrets of the universe. Any and all discussions about how consciousness works are welcome.

That said, McCrone seems to have a great breadth, but as far as I can tell, not so much depth. I say "as far as I can tell" because I'm not an expert on most of the areas he's written on, but I am in the interface of consciousness and dreams. This article, which seems to his only one devoted to dreaming, is entertaining but scattershot and ultimately incomplete. McCrone attempts to describe the various states of consciousness possible in dreams, but completely fails to mention lucid dreaming, a state that arises naturally in all people at some point or another, and which has the richest potential for examining non-dayworld consciousness. He even mentions Hervey de Saint-Denys, the 19th-century pioneer who first studied and deliberately instigated such dreams, but fails to connect him to the phenomenon. He also makes several blanket generalizations about the dream state which don't necessarily hold true for lucidity, such as the disjointed randomness and instability of the reality.

I realize that as a lucid dreaming fan I would have a tendency to inflate the importance of the state; but it is important any time you're specifically talking about dreams and consciousness. Additionally, every one of us can embark on this kind of exploration; it doesn't need to be "mediated" for us by a scientist with electrodes.

That said, it looks like there's a lot of interesting stuff here.
posted by soyjoy at 8:46 AM on July 11, 2003

The whole "consciousness from language"-meme smacks of solipsism, if you ask me.
posted by spazzm at 10:12 AM on July 11, 2003

These are interesting links. At the risk of further burdening your reading list you may find the concept of Autopoiesis interesting, it seems a natural fit from cognitive science.

However, I'm not convinced. This stems from a discussion with my father, for whom I bought a copy of Bryan Magees' Confessions of a Philosopher. In the book Magee turns angrily on the linguistic school in which he was brought up, confessing himself astonished that anyone could ever have believed that language, thought and conciousness were deeply related. In discussion with my dad it became clear that, unlike myself, language and inner dialog plays only a very small role in his self-conciousness. Mathematics, music and other non-linguistic forms are much more important to him. He is by no means dim, having been a professor of engineering although he does read excruciatingly slowly - something I have never been able to understand.

I suspect the fact that we are here, on the web, which is after all a torrent of language, means that we think alike and that McCrones' theories will be appealing. Not everyone is like us however. Many people claim to totally lack the running 'inner dialog' which I, personally, identify with my self-conciousness and cannot imagine being without. If you attend a 12 step meeting you will be told that this inner voice is a curse which can and should be suppressed.

What is certainly true is that there are modes of conciousness which are not lingustic. Music is the obvious example. There is, therefore, more to the story than the simple equation that McCrone makes. We are more complex than that.
posted by grahamwell at 11:03 AM on July 11, 2003

Been working on the oneironaut thing. Fruitful.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:17 AM on July 11, 2003

Music is the obvious example.

And these feral children, they have music? Music or mathematics have complex and intricate structures, developed generation by generation. Does differential calculus exist like a fire in Plato's cave, unmediated by thought and culture? Do minor seventh chords exist as templates in the brain? Is the concept of harmony innate and universal? I would imagine that it can quite easily be argued that there is a grammar to mathematics and music. Calling either mathematics or music nonlinguistic seems absurd--both are intricate intellectual systems, data structures, as it were, learned through language, and in fact, they are, in a very real sense, language.

And exactly what simple equation are you speaking of?
posted by y2karl at 12:04 PM on July 11, 2003

huh? wuzzat?
posted by quonsar at 12:06 PM on July 11, 2003

Been working on the oneironaut thing. Fruitful.

Those who are asleep are fellow-workers in what goes on in the world.

Heraclitus of Ephesus
posted by y2karl at 12:11 PM on July 11, 2003

I would imagine that it can quite easily be argued that there is a grammar to mathematics and music.

y2karl - it could even more easily be argued that there are grammars to math and music. Most of the world's music contains no minor seventh chords (or did pre-mass media, anyway), and look at the way the Romans conceived of math versus how the Arabs did. There may be something ineffable behind these, but we're apt to get caught up in the one we grow up with and mistake the term for the idea - or the "shadow" for the "object."

I think this only amplifies, rather than contradicts, your point... I think.
posted by soyjoy at 12:26 PM on July 11, 2003

The simple equation was of the origin of conciousness with language, language as normally understood - words and their relations. That was my understanding of McCrones point - correct me if I have misunderstood. You are free to expand the concept of language to include music and mathematics, indeed to any and all intellectual systems, but if you do the formative influence of 'language' so defined on conciousness starts to sound rather empty and tautologous (not to mention a bit post-hoc).
posted by grahamwell at 12:52 PM on July 11, 2003

Well, for a fact, soyjoy, I'm out of my depth here, as it is, and frankly, I don't think I necessarily made all that much sense in my last comment.

I have been looking at Imagination, Mental Imagery, Consciousness, and Cognition: Scientific, Philosophical and Historical Approaches just now.

And here's an interview with Temple Grandin, where she talks about visual thinking. It seems related to all this in my mind.

And this transcribed lecture by J. Kevin O-'Regan on Change Blindness caught my eye, as well.

The first and third are from McCrone's links, by the way. He got good links.

I came across Music and Language: A Fragment by T. Adorno, googling just now...

Upon review, I don't know, grahamwell, your description of McCrone's writings seems to be a gross over-simplification to me. It's easy to knock down someone if you reduce what they are saying to the point of absurdity--the phrase straw man comes to mind. I don't see it as being all that simple, myself.
posted by y2karl at 1:08 PM on July 11, 2003

Research Shows Correlation Between Music and Language Mechanisms is interesting, as well. Calling music nonlinguistic seemed a little broad to me--it certainly partakes of the structure of language, it seems to me. Can music exist without language, memes or culture being involved? Vygotsky seems, to me, to be saying that consciousness is something we learn, that it is not part of the hardware necessarily, and that language is involved. This is why I find the feral child studies so intriguing. But I can't pretend that I understand any of this for sure. I just find it rather fascinating--food for thought, as it were..
posted by y2karl at 1:21 PM on July 11, 2003

Mathematics is a Language--from Mathematics as Language.
posted by y2karl at 1:33 PM on July 11, 2003

Another twist to consider:

Birdsong as language

This isn't the link I was looking for. I just want to add something to this page that isn't from y2karl before he gets slammed for turning this into his own little blog.
posted by soyjoy at 1:41 PM on July 11, 2003

Well, for a fact, I have written to McCrone, sent him the link and offered to print verbatim any comment he might wish to make. So, we shall see. Cool link--soyjoy. I was just thinking about birdsong as music, myself.
posted by y2karl at 1:54 PM on July 11, 2003

Fantastic links, y2karl. Thanks!
posted by homunculus at 2:29 PM on July 11, 2003

stop it y2karl, you're wearing out google.
posted by quonsar at 2:39 PM on July 11, 2003

So people with aphasia, or mute people, or others who cannot understand language for whatever reason, are not consious beings?

I know that for instance Kurt Goldstein essentially drew that conclusion. He studied aphasiacs and indicated that the kind of consciousness they experienced was not really human consciousness - they lived in the concrete but not the categorical world.

I have epilepsy and sometimes have these partial seizures that basically wipe out my linguistic functioning for a little while. To those around me I tend to seem confused; I don't usually realize I'm confused until afterward, unless I try to read or write while in that state. So I know there is a certain kind of consciousness without language. But I also know it is exceedingly difficult to communicate - to signify - to give meaning to - anything in that state. You need language to be aware of your consciousness. That awareness, self-reflection, is really what (seems to) differentiate human consciousness from simple world-awareness.

The simple equation was of the origin of conciousness with language, language as normally understood - words and their relations.

Yes, I think this is what he's getting at. Math and music may be systems of organization, but can they be self-reflective? Can you somehow math-ize about math? Also, math is meant to represent factual relationships, whereas language is a way to represent individual perspectives - perhaps this differentiates them.

Although, the ancient greeks did use the same word for "ratio", "language" and "reason" (which I happened to note on my site today)
posted by mdn at 3:03 PM on July 11, 2003

y2karl, who needs flash on Fridays? This is perfect, thanks for the much needed neural stimulation!
posted by moonbird at 5:28 PM on July 11, 2003

Words come after thought.

As a child, I knew of ideas and concepts that I simply couldn't put into words, no words were involved in the appearance of the concepts in my mind. Thought is not dependent on speech, only speech-thought is, and that particular way of thinking.

Any philosophy that suggests that human conciousness is dependent on words and language, is severely in error. I mean, you can think in images.

Speech-thought is useful for moving the furniture round, so to speak, but discovery and insight is the carpenter. You don't need language for that. IMHO.
posted by Blue Stone at 5:31 PM on July 11, 2003

hey came across this site yesterday :D with articles on drugs ("Animal research indicates that Homo sapiens is the only species that will voluntarily take a psychedelic drug again after having experienced the effects"), dreams ("the ability to mentally rehearse threat perception and threat avoidance in a perfectly safe place: the virtual reality of dream consciousness"), the lack thereof in platypi ("Its brain suggests an absence of consciousness in dreams") and more!

also found a history of thinking recently :D "Neurons are made for pattern recognition and so don't do sequential processing very well, and so it took bigger brains to handle sequential processing, but it turned out to provide so many benefits that it was worth the extra metabolic load." this is also kind of interesting! “a mystery into which the human mind will never penetrate”.
posted by kliuless at 5:52 PM on July 11, 2003

Although I already put this in the title tag, let me lay out this paragraph rom McCrone's home page.

You will find this site focuses on three basic arguments about the nature of consciousness. The first is that the human mind is bifold - as much a product of memes or cultural evolution as of the biology of brains. The second is that brain processing takes time - about half a second to develop a settled "frame" of consciousness. The third is that the brain is a specific example of something more mathematically general - a complex adaptive system (CAS). To understand consciousness demands getting deep into holism, hierarchy theory, biosemiosis, general systems theory, heterarchical causality and other obscure stuff that is guaranteed to blow the gaskets of any reductionist who dares to venture within.

One may argue with the language of my over simplified blurb of a post, but it seems to me there's a bit more going than just the simple equation of the origin of conciousness with language on McCrone's site--if one reads McCrone, and not just my paragraph. Arguing against my phrasing is one thing--ignoring that both McCrone's take on consciousness and Vygotsky's insights are a bit more complex another.
posted by y2karl at 1:31 AM on July 12, 2003

I'm late; but this is great thread, many thanks y2karl and all the others who've posted all the links. I'm bookmarking this and will be going through it a link at a time ...
posted by carter at 2:40 PM on July 12, 2003

kliuless, that looks like an interesting site so far, but again, as for dreams, the "threat avoidance/rehearsal" paradigm first of all omits the vast majority of dreams that are not nightmares, and secondly fails to account for the very common occurrence of the realization that the nightmare is a dream just before waking up. How would this help the evolving organism, since such a realization/reaction would not be available or useful in a corresponding real-world situation?

Still: Keep 'em coming!
posted by soyjoy at 6:12 PM on July 12, 2003

Here is John McCrone to my above mentioned inquiry:
Hi Karl

As you happily make clear, the essential point here is that language organises consciousness. I'm not saying language is consciousness (as consciousness is something biological that brains do).

So what I am drawing attention to is a very specific theory about how language organises human consciousness, There are many theories going around, ranging from language as being absolutely superficial to thought (the standard response of most) to people who have indeed equated language with the basic power of awareness (language as the whole of the story). So Vygotsky - who did his research in the 1920s - can be credited in my opinion as being the first to get the right theory in reasonably complete form, and with experimental evidence to back it up. My own contribution has been to demonstrate the neurological/developmental plausibility of the Vygotskian approach.

Someone mentioned autopoiesis - Maturana and Varela. These guys are also Vygotskian when it comes to the role of language. They also happen to have the correct (in my opinion again) approach to consciousness itself. They see
the consciousness of higher animals as a specific form of something more biologically general - cognition. Genes, immune systems, endocrine systems - all these are ways of knowing the world, of responding adaptively to the
world. Consciousness can be seen as simply a more developed form of cognition.

Someone else complained that I didn't mention lucid dreaming and that lucid dreaming is also not like how I describe normal dreams (disjointed frames connected by a thread of narrative woven by the inner voice). Well I did
write about this in my chapter on dreams in The Myth Of Irrationality. And I've spoken to people like Keith Hearne and Stephen LaBerge. Again, in my opinion, the phenomenology is the same.


John McCrone
I did change the all caps into bold, but otherwise the quote is verbatim...
posted by y2karl at 9:48 AM on July 13, 2003

Great stuff, y2karl, including getting a response from McCrone—MeFi at its best!
posted by languagehat at 3:44 PM on July 13, 2003

Language is a brain hack. New circuitry riding on top of an ancient mechanism. Feedback looping. Apply before the glue dries. Makes me wonder what other hacks might accomplish. Anybody care to breed some VR test flesh?
posted by Opus Dark at 5:17 PM on July 13, 2003

Thanks again, y2karl. The Myth of Irrationality sounds like a very interesting book. I tried to find an excerpt on the Web that had anything about dreams but couldn't. I'll have to find the book somewhere, I guess.

Whatever McCrone says in that book about lucidity, though, my point stands about the article cited above: When one is examining dreams as clues to the nature of consciousness, the "phenomenology" of a dream in which the ego is conscious, and can choose to opt out of the "disjointed frames connected by a thread of narrative" schema is qualitatively worlds away from the standard unconscious dream. But I realize this is slightly off-topic, so I'll take it up with McCrone after I read his book rather than go on anymore about it here.
posted by soyjoy at 8:21 PM on July 13, 2003

A bit more on this sort of thing at the Reith Lectures. Ramachandran and Blakeslee also wrote a book - Phantoms in the Brain - which is worth a read.

With its mechanism sufficiently clarified, perhaps consciousness will stop marvelling at itself.
posted by Opus Dark at 1:53 AM on July 14, 2003

Having had time to think I'll argue, against my comments above, the fact that my house was built with scaffolding doesn't mean the house itself is narrow and tubular.

Further to McCrones' comments above there's more on Maturana and Varela and the Santiago theory of Conciousness here. There's also a good summary in Frijof Capras' Web of Life. Like McCrone I think this approach to conciousness is basically right - see what you think.
posted by grahamwell at 3:04 AM on July 14, 2003

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