I recently came across a paper by David Cole, which challenges Pinker's and
Fodor's ideas concerning thought.
I have not read Pinker's or Fodor's work and did not need their ideas to
come to the conclusion that thought does not take place in natural language.
I was surprised that people actually argued on this topic as it seemed to me
to be an almost common sense assumption, for two reasons:
Words have no intrinsic meaning - the closest we can get is our now limited
use of onomatopoeia - they are merely symbols representing something else.
We can only explain sentences by the use of other words, ( the exceptions
are not important in this context) which are more symbols with no intrinsic
meaning, and so on and so on. Obviously the "meaning" of the words must be
encoded in all the associations they evoke, singly and in context (which
will have both visual and emotive aspects). If words merely evoked other
words there would be no possibility of thought at all as we would have
another of those infinite regressions to nowhere.
Other than the awareness of the words and sentences (hearing), natural
language is immediately encoded, “translated into the language” of brain
function, which takes the form of nerve impulses in complexes of neural
networks. The idea that there is no point in translating into mentalese and
then back again, as this would be an unnecessary complication, I see as
complete nonsense. As soon as the sound waves rattle the cochlea the words
are encoded, and then decoded into sounds in the auditory centres. The
actual meaning of a word and its associations, the something else that is
represented by the word, are induced in an unknown manner, but again in the
form of nerve impulses and neural complexes
I view listening as a divergent process - the words and sentences inducing
networks of associations both rational and irrational. The latter I would
characterize as part of our natural logic, as opposed to educated or formal
Logic. (Natural logic being an important aspect of hunter/gatherer
Speaking entails convergent processing, and herein lies the difficulty. The
divergent process is relatively easy to understand, but what constitutes
thought and how is all this mental juggling consolidated and encoded into
coherent natural language?
During conversations, and the answering of externally or internally
generated questions, a certain degree of convergence must take place through
an inhibition of associations inappropriate to the themes under
consideration. This would entail a constant feedback to the meaning and
context of previously uttered sentences or the mental voice in the head.
One process aiding the convergence would be the inhibition of our natural
logic ( What looks the same is the same, what sounds the same is the same,
etc), the type of logic we do not inhibit when in artistic or religious
mode, where the verbal and visual metaphor reigns. (In everyday life we
happily switch between modes without bringing the fact to consciousness)
It is much less difficult to imagine how conversations take place (Which
tend to be a series of informational monologues) than to imagine how the
brain deals with problem solving, which entails much more than whittling
away all the irrelevant associations that are likely to interfere with
Having said that, visualizing in metaphor, when in an altered state such as
sleep, can lead to the solving of technical and scientific problems. The man
who invented the “eye at the bottom” sewing machine needle and Kekule, the
chemist who came up with the structure of the benzene ring, both reported
having their “eureka” moments during shallow sleep. (Kekule could not
fathom the molecular structure of benzene until he went to sleep and saw
snakes writhing about, one of which grabbed its own tail, and the benzene
ring structure was born.)
It seems probable that much thought takes place in the form of imagery and
this works in concert with our built in propensity for pattern and principle
seeking. It is possible that some of the processes that take place during
dreaming are identical to aspects of the processing used when thinking
(working out problems).
A dream I had many years ago is a good example of how the brain naturally
finds patterns and associations and forms “visual principles” that may be
close to the convergence point where thought gives way to language.
My analysis of the dream would fill a book, so I will stick to one aspect.
In part of the dream I found myself tossing a chaff-like material into a
nest which contained burning objects. The closest description of the form
of the objects is the shape of the piece of peel you would obtain if you
pushed a rectangular biscuit cutter into an orange. However, the objects in
the dream were pure white and somewhat thinner than orange peel.
The dream was the final one of a trilogy, and the theme seemed to centre on
my father and smoking (At that time I was smoking heavily and was about the
same age as my father when he died of cancer), and some of the dream action
took place on a farm I frequented as a boy and where we made pipes and
smoked tea leaves. I could not fathom what the strange curved, white,
rectangular objects represented until I sat down and pulled out a cigarette
paper to roll a cigarette. It suddenly struck me that there was part of my
brain that did not function on natural language and did not encode the
perception as a cigarette paper, tobacco and Basil Hall lighting a
cigarette; it merely recorded the thin white rectangular object which was
associated with finely divided brownish material and a flame. The answer
suddenly hit me . Preceding the dream, over a period of a few weeks, three
things had occurred:
1) I had started to roll my own cigarettes using rectangular white papers.
2) We had bought a new breakfast cereal that contained crushed oats and
curved strips of white coconut, which I had not recognized as such at first.
3) Our Peach-faced love bird Ralph? had laid a white egg among the seed
chaff at the bottom of her cage.
Here I had three examples of whiteness associated with divided plant
material, further connected by their association with bowls: the bowl of a
smoker’s pipe, the bowl of a nest and a cereal bowl. My brain had taken the
three objects, the cigarette paper, the strips of coconut and the egg and
combined them in a single object, a kind of visual principle.
I have found that the content of my dreams are often things and events that
have a high emotive aspect or ideas induced by unsolved puzzles and
problems. My initial inability to work out the nature of the curved white
strip in the cereal probably set in train a basic type of thinking that made
the object “meaningful” by uniting it with other white objects in a visual
“principle”. This is a long way from the theory of relativity, but the
production by the brain of “visual principles” comes closer to verbal
principles than considerations of depolarizations occurring along axons and
There were inner voiced sentences in the dream but they were comments, such
as “It’s another way of sleeping”, and “ That is one way of doing it“. There
were also visual puns - one at a cricket match (It was through an accident
playing cricket that my father was diagnosed as having cancer) concerning
the word plumb, as in “He was plumb LBW” (Americans should consult
LBW/cricket in Google) , “He was dead plumb”, “He’s dead” (out). When I
caught the cricket ball in the dream it turned out to be a big black plum. I
have read about other dreams in which cancer has been visualised as a black
polony, and the tribes of Patagonia have the same word for black lumps of
burnt wood and cancer.
What has all of this to do with humour? First of all, it suggests there is a
demarcation line in the processing of jokes past which the lexicon of
linguistics has no meaning. Secondly, it suggests the possibility that
some thought, at least, is in the form of visual metaphors and visual puns -
their verbal counterparts being at the heart of some joke mechanisms.
Thirdly, it suggests that during particular modes of thinking we inhibit
processes such as natural logic, and so we can view the mechanisms of some
jokes as forcing a failure in this inhibition, leading to a clash of
opposing modes and subsequent laughter.
A few weeks ago, Jason, our moderator, asked that a certain line of debate
be terminated as though it were off-topic. I consider this narrow view of
humour/laughter to be an impediment to the solving of problems the subject
poses. I came to humour through a general philosophy of life and my own
interpretation of the phenomena of pleasure and pain. I had also came to the
conclusion that lying to ourselves, and repressing distasteful ideas, was a
built in mechanism that protected the organism from mental collapse, and by
doing so we handicapped ourselves in certain areas of investigation. As I
said in my essay on laughter:
“We can consider laughter as part of the system which suppresses and
deflects the problematic thoughts that challenge our cognitive faculties or
are at odds with the comforting fabrications of the conscious mind.
As the theory presented in this essay relies to some extent on the exposure
of ideas we tend to suppress, it would be extremely ironic if the laughter
process was instrumental in masking its own nature.”
I consider it to be extremely naive to think that humour can be studied
piecemeal and in isolation. Finally humour is about the whole of life - how
we react to existence itself; it is about how we function as organisms and
the inadequacy of language in mirroring reality in a subjective being; it is
about the neural mechanisms that process stimuli and mediate responses and
motivations, and can only be studied in the knowledge of the organism that
is studying it. Only when we have fathomed how our mental tools work, and
become aware of their biases and limitations, can we be certain that our
conclusions concerning humour and laughter come somewhere near the truth.