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How well do you know your own thoughts?
January 13, 2008 7:39 PM   Subscribe

"A few years ago a psychologist and a philosopher got into an argument over whether we can accurately describe our thoughts. "Yes," said the psychologist; with training and the help of my special technique, we can accurately describe our thoughts. The philosopher doubted it. To resolve their argument, they recruited a young woman who agreed tell them her thoughts, so that they could argue over whether she was credible." Eric Schwitzgebel and Russ Hurlbert debate the transparency of inner experience. See also Schwitzgebel's extremely interesting blog.
posted by painquale (34 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
I hope the young woman wasn't wearing the t-shirt I saw on a girl recently, which read:

Believe me - I'm incredible!
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:47 PM on January 13, 2008


That blog is going to eat up the rest of my evening, I think.

http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2008/01/inner-speech-imageless-thought-and.html
Might bilingual people -- really bilingual people who shift easily and regularly between two languages -- more easily recognize unsymbolized or imageless thought than monolingual people? A monolingual English speaker might experience a thought content and then falsely assume that the thought must have taken place in English. A bilingual person, forced to think about what language the thought transpired in, might in some cases find no basis for choice and so more readily recognize the non-lingustic nature of that thought.

Having just read The Stuff of Thought recently, this is now something I would love to know the answer to. I think "do you think in English or Spanish?" is something that bilingual people are asked all the time, and when I've heard answers to it, they seem to be a bit ambivalent about it.

I think people sometimes mistake the audio-loop the brain sometimes uses as working memory for thought itself. If you transcribed it directly, it would be nonsense.
posted by empath at 7:53 PM on January 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


I think "do you think in English or Spanish?" is something that bilingual people are asked all the time

Not me, because Spanish is not one of my other languages.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:58 PM on January 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


You know what I mean. Replace with X and Y if you like.
posted by empath at 8:04 PM on January 13, 2008


When I was studying Chinese, thoughts would sometimes pop into my head in Chinese, rather then English, and when I was working on assignments or trying to speak it, I would never have to "think in English" and then translate it in my head or anything like that. I was never super fluent in Chinese, but it definitely made me more aware of the of the "disconnection" between thought and language.

(Or made me feel more aware of something that might or might not 'really' exist, as thought experiments are fun, but not necessary scientifically rigorous)
posted by delmoi at 8:05 PM on January 13, 2008


I've been trying to find the audiofiles mentioned in the article which are supposedly online. Can anyone track them down?

Also, aren't the names of the participants, Schwitzgebel, Hurlburt and Melanie, just absolutely perfect?
posted by Kattullus at 8:12 PM on January 13, 2008


it will remain impossible to accurately describe our thoughts until a modality of description comes along which is as fast as thinking. i suspect that this will require brain implants and work a lot like when you synch a pda with a pc.
posted by bruce at 8:48 PM on January 13, 2008


This is fascinating, and similar to something that's frustrated me for years. I'm quite good at writing down a stream of consciousness only to find I no longer believe a word of it and am not certain that it's what I was trying to get at at all. But then, when I write I'm often and most definitely 'talking' to myself. I also have a tendency in my more, er, 'energetic' moments to be able to recognize that there are definitely multiple streams of thought going on at one time, and more interestingly they seem to branch of in different directions. It never feels like words, though, until I start to think about it. Guess I could've made all that up as well, come to think of it. Good job, brain!

I second delmoi's experience though, also with Chinese. I got to the point where I was dreaming in it, although I swear at some points it was just gibberish (or if you want to be optimistic, things I'd somehow picked up the meaning of without fully being aware). Regardless, it totally blew my mind and is something I'd like to re-achieve someday.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 9:10 PM on January 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


bruce: it will remain impossible to accurately describe our thoughts until a modality of description comes along which is as fast as thinking.

Even then, either self-reference or memory bites you.

If you have a thought and then, just after, go about describing it, there's some time gap between thought and description i.e. memory employed.

If you attempt to transcribe your thoughts in "real-time", then your thinking is about describing your thinking and the transcription itself i.e. self-reference.
posted by Gyan at 9:24 PM on January 13, 2008


Having just read The Stuff of Thought recently, this is now something I would love to know the answer to. I think "do you think in English or Spanish?" is something that bilingual people are asked all the time, and when I've heard answers to it, they seem to be a bit ambivalent about it.

I speak a bunch of languages (Swedish and Estonian since childhood). I don't generally think in language at all, and it seems a bit weird to me that people claim to do that.
posted by martinrebas at 9:43 PM on January 13, 2008


I've been bilingual since 2. First Icelandic and French and then between 6 and 10 French faded and English took over, but I didn't start living in an Anglophone environment until 2002. I think in both languages. I sometimes have thoughts in words, sometimes in images and sometimes in non-verbal and non-sensual ways. I have a hard time putting into words (duh!) what it's like. Okay, I'll resort to metaphor. When I'm not thinking, my brain feels like a hand waving through the air, very little resistance but a bit of friction. When I'm thinking non-verbally and non-sensually it's like my brain is a hand moving through water, more pressure and resistance.

I don't think this is a very good metaphor, but I can't think of a better one. I'll try to think about it.
posted by Kattullus at 9:55 PM on January 13, 2008


I'm convinced that it's impossible to describe conscious experiences. A simple example: describe the color red to someone who's been blind from birth. The "what it is like" (what philosophers call "qualia") is impossible to fully reproduce without actually experiencing it yourself. And by that point, you wouldn't need a description.

But there is a lot of stuff we can describe pretty closely, which is why novels work. We can get a pretty good idea of what other people think and feel, but never the whole story. Consciousness is a fundamentally weird part of the universe.
posted by wastelands at 10:07 PM on January 13, 2008


This is way too cool. Thanks so much for the link!

I'm bilingual now, but I've never really 'thought' in any language even when I was monolingual.
posted by tickingclock at 10:07 PM on January 13, 2008


The mind is capable of more than thoughts, which are simply strings of words. But very few human beings rise above thoughts. Every single one of us have experiences that are below thoughts. It would be silly to say that my experience when I slam my finger with a hammer or fall off of a cliff is 'describable in words;' it's not an experience of words. Animals have these kinds of experiences all the time, and they don't fit into any real words, either.

I have a feeling that, through words and the thoughts we make out of them, we can rise above those words and thoughts to the point where our words and thoughts give us some understanding of the way things are. I call this feeling science.
posted by koeselitz at 11:01 PM on January 13, 2008


I've thought in English (or, when studying Japanese, in Japanese) for as long as I can remember. I find it difficult to imagine thinking without words.
posted by SPrintF at 11:25 PM on January 13, 2008


I should explain. When I'm talking about thoughts I am not talking about pure feelings or reactions but a brain process involving reason. For instance, recently I had to face up to the fact that a friend of mine had become a negative factor in my life. This had been the case for a while. When thinking about it in verbal or sensory ways my feelings and emotions concerning this friend were overwhelmed by logical arguments as to why I should stick by the friend and good memories from our shared past. But then, one day, I focused on the feelings, attitudes and emotions I had towards the friend and could start moving them around, rearranging them, feeling their contours and weight. I took stock of my present experience of my friend and came to the conclusion that this was a seriously harmful facet in my life that I needed to contain and deal with. I must stress that all of this happened in a completely non-verbal and non-sensory fashion. The description is unfortunately metaphorical, but I can't think of better words to use. While thinking like this I don't think about it in terms of metaphor.

A lot of very important decisions in my life have been taken on this kind of level. To be honest, before this post I had never given this thought process much thought. If it matters the first time I can remember this is from when I'm 15. I woke up one day and came to the conclusion while still half-asleep that I didn't like my personality much and needed to change it. Since then I've always been working on myself and most of that self-work goes on in the manner which I described above. I'm not thinking with words or stimuli but feelings, attitudes, emotions, reactions, sentiments, moods and the like. I figure this must be a pretty common way of thinking, but I don't know if this is something only people who're bilingual can notice.
posted by Kattullus at 11:43 PM on January 13, 2008


it will remain impossible to accurately describe our thoughts until a modality of description comes along which is as fast as thinking.

So far as I understand my own mind, the above statement would be useful, but it would also be impossible. The mind (or more accurately, my mind, I haven't peeked inside anyone else's to verify) operates in symbols; we just attach words (which are really more symbols) to them so that we can convey them in a spoken/written language. The words are common to each of us, or at least they are mostly-so. The symbol for 'lizard', or 'apple', or 'sunlight', or 'sadness' would be different and unique to each and every one of us. Even people with similar or identical responses to a given stimulus would symbolize the stimulus (and possibly the response) differently.

I proposed a similar theory several months ago in what was a intellectual sub-forum on a larger message board (it's since been reorganized and the sub-forum was collapsed into another general chat-forum), using physical sight and color as a parallel to these symbols and their interpretation; the theory and discussion can be read here, for those interested on another viewpoint.

Simply put, we cannot define the symbols in our own minds in common terms, because we are not clones or robots. Even if you invented a device to read the symbols of one's mind, such readings would still be subject to the interpretation of a) the device's programming, and b) the people reading the output, who are both likely to have a radically different opinion of these symbols than c) the subject, and d) the subject's unconscious mind, where those symbols would originate from.

That's my take on it, anyway.
posted by Reth_Eldirood at 12:21 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's silly to think we will ever have access to real time consciousness on a level that will allow us to study it scientifically. There are lots of things we study which have much harsher limitations than consciousness, any thing very large or very small, things in hard to reach places or things in the past. Yet we do study these things all the time and there isn't any controversy about intrinsic impossibilities in this practice.

People get stuck up on the subjective feelings of consciousness, what it feels like to see something red. But science is all about studying objective facts that are observable by anybody. A blind person could study color vision and objectively understand why we have the subjective experience of color much better than a sighted person who never studied it could. For some people, the fact that subjective experiences are subjective freaks them out. I'm not sure why, unless they believe that something about nature specifically excludes subjectivity.

The study of subjectivity is one of the most fascinating subjects and right now we don't know that much about it, but I remain unconvinced that there are any a priori reasons why it can't be done. They all seem to boil down to "My perception of red is different than your perception of red, isn't that weird!"
posted by afu at 1:19 AM on January 14, 2008


The human brain can think in many different ways, involving symbols, sounds, emotions and images. Some of these modes of though involve words, some don't. It's hardly surprising that different people utilise different methods of thought, as each has their strengths and weaknesses. Dr. Temple Grandin, for instance, thinks almost entirely using images, which is common amongst the autistic.
posted by talitha_kumi at 1:54 AM on January 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


afu: A blind person could study color vision and objectively understand why we have the subjective experience of color

Has this already been done?
posted by Gyan at 2:32 AM on January 14, 2008


Gyan. Not sure but there are some quite interesting experiences suffered by people going unblind.

Colour blind people do it all the time I imagine.
posted by uandt at 5:14 AM on January 14, 2008


Has this already been done?

What I mean is that from a scientific standpoint, the subjective experience of seeing color is irrelevent to the study of it (I'm speaking theoretically here, practically there are obviously differences in the way a blind and a sighted person would study color)
posted by afu at 5:23 AM on January 14, 2008


afu: the subjective experience of seeing color is irrelevent to the study of it

In which case, how do you know it's irrelevant?
posted by Gyan at 5:30 AM on January 14, 2008


In which case, how do you know it's irrelevant?

The researcher's subjective experience is irrelevant, if he is studying a subjects color vision, than the subjects subjective experience is obviously not irrelevant.
posted by afu at 6:16 AM on January 14, 2008


thoughts, which are simply strings of words.

No.
posted by martinrebas at 6:35 AM on January 14, 2008


I don't generally think in language at all, and it seems a bit weird to me that people claim to do that.

And vice versa! I really can't imagine how thinking in anything other than strings of words could work, to the extent that as a child I took expressions like 'seeing in the minds eye' to be metaphorical, and referred to 'reading back' descriptions in words from memory until I was a teenager. (People find this very odd, given that I write about art for a living, but I know a fair few artists who claim to think in the same way, yet still produce very visual work, if you know what I mean - maybe we're all kidding ourselves, and there's lots of non-verbal stuff going on that we're not immediately aware of.)
posted by jack_mo at 6:54 AM on January 14, 2008


This discussion is reminding me of "truth and lies in a non-moral sense." In this fragment of an essay Kant defines the 5 different stages a thought goes through in being communicated. 1. non verbal thought. 2. unspoken words in the mind 3. vibrations in the air(speech). 4. unspoken words in the listener's mind. 5. non verbal thought in the listener's mind. Kant is concerned about our ability to communicate at all because between each step is the assertion of equality or even sameness. This seems relevant to this discussion because Hulburt is claiming that talking about our consciousness (ie trying to verbalize the medium, or just a fragment of the experience) gives us meaningful info about consciousness. And the philosopher is saying (ha!) that actual consciousness can not be represented in language. I read it pretty fast but I was surprised that schwitzgebbel did not have a problem with the use of words, just with the ability of a subject to use the right words. Back in '02 I was floored by Kant's argument that the metaphor "X(thought) IS Y(words)" is both an absolute necessity and the worst problem with the use of language. My response to this problem is to get excited about the fundamental nature of metaphor and human poetes.
posted by MNDZ at 7:28 AM on January 14, 2008


The thing I really like is that, although there is no way to find common terms with another consciousness, we all use the same power of metaphor to give our disparate symbols meaning. The point of common reference isn't in the things, it's in the manipulations needed to speak.
posted by MNDZ at 7:34 AM on January 14, 2008


The mind is the most public organ there is. But it makes itself public and available to other minds through many modalities and channels, of which linguistic behavior is only one--and a notably formalized and abstracted (hence limited) one. As tools of communication go, language is very powerful for externalizing some types of internal events, and pretty much useless for others.
posted by jfuller at 8:19 AM on January 14, 2008


"I hope my skepticism isn't too dispiriting or discouraging, or something like that," Schwitzgebel remarks in a later session.
"Nope," says Melanie, cheerfully.
"You seem to have a skin of Teflon about it, so that's good."


Psychologists are so cluelessly arrogant. I love it. (speaking as a psychology major)

Contrary to the gist of the article, not everyone thinks inquiry into subjective experience using language is a fool's game. Language can produce explanations for behavior that are both powerful and parsimonious. No magnets or chemicals necessary. Eastern religious traditions have their own sciences of consciousness for the purpose of altering it, not just publishing a paper or calming down neurotic patients. But now there's what appears to be an explosion of interest in the science of consciousness, as described in page 1 of this article -- but only because of cognitive neuroscience, because now all of sudden we're convinced that we can examine it with cool machines. Or maybe, because psychologists who have been interested in consciousness from day one can finally step up and talk shop with the big biologists? Enjoyed the post.
posted by Laugh_track at 9:17 AM on January 14, 2008


Some of these modes of though involve words, some don't.

I think only in allegorical metaphor. It's a big rock to push up a hill, I can tell you that much.
posted by quin at 9:37 AM on January 14, 2008


She had a picture in her mind of a woman and soldier talking by the side of the road. She reports that the picture was somewhat incomplete -- she couldn't say anything, for instance, about how his legs were positioned.

"How can you be visually imagining some legs without imagining some particular way in which they're positioned?" asks Schwitzgebel. Melanie tells them that she just wasn't concentrating on this part of the image.

Schwitzgebel asks her if the feet she didn't see were occluded by a bush. "No," Melanie replies.


I understand that Schwitzgebel is playing the role of skeptic and trying to parse out an accurate report but I can also understand why Melanie became skeptical of him. I can have an image of a pencil in my mind without being able to report on the sharpness of the point or how much of the eraser is left. The peripheral details are less important than the overall impression. Does it matter that she probably also couldn't report on the road material? Gravel, concrete, cobblestone, dirt? Simply because these details are missing doesn't mean the mental image is incorrectly reported. Mental images are not photographs.
posted by effwerd at 10:53 AM on January 14, 2008


Psychologists are so cluelessly arrogant. I love it.

Schwitzgebel was the arrogant philosopher, and to me was starting to feel unimaginative and annoying by that part of the article. It's funny that it seemed like he was acting as a typical psychologist to you, laugh_track, because I thought he was acting like a typical philosopher :-D.
posted by xorry at 1:05 PM on January 14, 2008


Could it be that the human brain employs a neural equivalent of saccadic masking?
posted by sushiwiththejury at 12:18 PM on January 15, 2008


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