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What is the origin of thinking? A new book argues that it's action, not language.
Barbara Tversky takes an outdated idea to task in Mind in Motion.
- In Mind in Motion, Stanford psychologist Barbara Tversky argues that action is the foundation of thinking.
- Tversky focuses on a variety of communication systems that transcend language, such as gestures, signs, maps, accounting, and music.
- Paying attention to our environment makes us better communicators and, arguably, better thinkers.
In 2001, Colombian neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás declared that prediction is the ultimate function of the brain. Such a sentiment was apparent in the earliest forms of biological life. Eukaryotes used intention to survive; move toward sustenance, flee from toxicity. Predicting where to harvest the necessary and avoid danger, he argued, is the foundation of what would evolve into nervous systems and all that followed: emotions, thoughts, consciousness.
This is also the process that birthed minds; Llinás prefers "mindness," denoting an active process over a static occurrence. Thinking, he continued, is the result of the "internalization of movement" by these predicating organisms. Before conscious awareness was even possible, movement propelled cells and, eventually, neurons around the planet (and throughout bodies). What we now term thought is the extension of prediction achieved through movement.
Thoughts are not usually presented as movement, even if they are known to "run away from us." In her new book, Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought, Stanford University psychology professor Barbara Tversky challenges the long-standing notion that language is the true catalyst for thought—that thinking is impossible without language. She argues that it is not verbal communication at the root of thought. Instead, spatial thinking gave rise to the myriad systems of written and oral communication we employ today.
Tversky focuses on a variety of communication systems that transcend language: gestures, signs, maps, accounting, music. Our brains attempt to pin down moving things so that we can act upon them with our minds. As it's impossible to comprehend the intricate relationships of parts in action, we instead grasp sections and fill in the gaps from experience—prediction. While language is the vehicle we often use to express these relationships, Tversky writes that far superior tools are at our disposal. We use them all the time.
Dr. Barbara Tversky — Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought (SCIENCE SALON # 69)
Mapping is one primary example. The cognitive leap it took to imagine life from above is astounding, especially considering that it occurred eons before drones (or photography). Humans are oriented spatially; we best understand head-foot (top-down) directionality, followed by forward-backward. Our worst orientation is left-right, a fact I can confirm, having taught yoga and fitness for 15 years; students regularly confuse sides.
(Interesting factoid regarding our internal navigational systems: "Western soccer referees are more likely to call fouls when viewing leftward action.")
The oldest map, dating back over 15,000 years to a Spanish cave, offers an extremely complex understanding of spatial orientation. Not only the direction of various landmarks (seen from above), but, it is believed, a plot to ambush game. Spatial awareness plus prediction. In the ensuing millennia, brave voyagers of the mind mapped oceans and cosmos using rudimentary tools. An inner GPS, sure, but also the endless creativity afforded us by our complex imaginations. Unlike other animals, we can mentally see ourselves from multiple angles.
Even with all that creativity at our disposal, written language is derived from the most pedestrian occupation: accounting. Using lines and dots on rocks and papyrus, tallying grain and livestock proved to be an essential business skill for farmers and craftsman in emerging nation-states. The marks we today call language originated with ensuring my dozen cattle were fairly compensated by your ton of wheat. Before poetry takes flight, Maslow would argue, nutrition must be ensured.
We still orient spatially; we have no other choice. Biology still dictates culture. Tversky says language isn't the best vehicle for accomplishing this. Many signals are wordless. The glance of a potential partner. A waving arm suggesting east. A red light doesn't stay "stop." Though a stop sign does, a red octagon would suffice.
The same holds true for instructions. Tversky has spent decades conducting such studies; she finds furniture assemblage to be a particularly important skill for determining spatial orientation. Interestingly, she notes that people high in spatial ability related to assembly are better able to articulate instructions in both words and diagrams. Communication crosses mediums.
A similar phenomenon underlies her entire book: Paying attention to your environment makes you a better communicator. Our surroundings constantly send us instructions.
Indian youth perform a classical Bharatnatyam dance during celebrations for Hindu Heritage Month in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada on November 3, 2017.
Photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images
In the human domain, Tversky spends many pages covering gestures, which are actually a more informative means for conveying information. It makes me recall the Indian dance style, Bharatanatyam, in which the subtlest eye movements and finger turning convey so much. We all gesture, all the time, with a wink, the sucking of teeth, pointing with our fingers or eyes.
Thought, then, is preverbal, rooted in movement. As Llinás would say, thought is movement. Understanding that fact makes us powerful conveyors of information. As Tversky puts it, "If thinking is internalized action, then externalizing actions on thought as gestures that perform miniatures of the actions should help the thinking." Just as bilinguals can communicate with a broader range of the population than monolinguals, people that convey nonverbal forms of communication seem to be stronger communicators overall.
This has important consequences in an age of fractured, tribalist media. When we map, we assume the perspective of others, a phenomenon Tversky calls "empathetic design." She noticed that empathy not only leads to better design choices, it also spurs creativity. The ability to step into the shoes of others not only makes you a better communicator, it has the potential to make you a stronger critical thinker and, arguably, a better person.
For what do we have other than our thoughts? As she puts it, "We organize the world the way we organize our minds and our lives." As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out two decades ago in The Tipping Point, humans are extremely sensitive to their environments. He too discusses the influence of gesturing and pantomimes, how masters in these domains become ideal connectors and salesman. Years before the genre existed, Gladwell defined the skillset of influencers. Tiny details—a cocking of an eyebrow; a deep sigh—have profound effects. You just have to be aware enough to notice.
Tversky's prose-filled book (beyond subject matter, she is an exceptional writer) is an essential read in an age when many people orient on their phones instead of by looking around their environment. Sure, cartographers imagining routes led to satellites pinpointing them, which led to Waze; we are the beneficiaries of much trial and error. We just have to wonder what is lost when we augment away too much reality. Tverksy's first law of cognition (of nine): "There are no benefits without costs."
Even with all of our technological advancements, being a good thinker still implies being even better observers. Those who will thrive in the future are those who notice their surroundings. Her ninth law: "We organize the stuff in the world the way we organize the stuff in the mind." Offload too much data and what remains inside?
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Why do so many people encounter beings after smoking large doses of DMT?
- DMT is arguably the most powerful psychedelic drug on the planet, capable of producing intense hallucinations.
- Researchers recently surveyed more than 2,000 DMT users about their encounters with 'entities' while tripping, finding that respondents often considered these strange encounters to be positive and meaningful.
- The majority of respondents believed the beings they encountered were not hallucinations.
What are DMT beings?<p>Do DMT entities actually exist in some other dimension, or are they hallucinations that the brain generates when its visual processing system is overwhelmed by a powerful tryptamine?<br></p><p>The late American ethnobotanist Terence McKenna believed that DMT beings — which he called "machine elves" — were real. Here's how he once <a href="https://www.ranker.com/list/dmt-machine-elves-facts/inigo-gonzalez" target="_blank">described</a> one of his DMT experiences:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I sank to the floor. I [experienced] this hallucination of tumbling forward into these fractal geometric spaces made of light and then I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope's private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them, and I was aghast, completely appalled, because [in] a matter of seconds... my entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I've never actually gotten over it.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">These self-transforming machine elf creatures were speaking in a colored language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent superconducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels. All this stuff was just so weird and so alien and so un-English-able that it was a complete shock — I mean, the literal turning inside out of [my] intellectual universe!"</p><p>McKenna believed machine elves exist in alternate realities, which form a "<a href="https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/old-favourites-the-archaic-revival-1991-by-terence-mckenna-1.3924887" target="_blank">raging universe of active intelligence that is transhuman, hyperdimensional, and extremely alien.</a>" But he was far from the first to believe that DMT is a doorway to other realms.</p><p>Indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin have used ayahuasca in religious ceremonies for centuries, though no one is quite sure when they first started experimenting with the psychedelic brew. The Jibaro people of the Ecuadorian rainforest believed ayahuasca allowed regular people, not just shamans, to <a href="https://atrium.lib.uoguelph.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10214/17902/RichardsonG_202004_HonThesis.pdf?sequence=3" target="_blank">speak directly to the gods</a>. The 19th-century Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio wrote of other Amazonian shamans who used ahaysuca (known as the "vine of the dead") to contact spirits and foresee enemy battle plans.</p><p>In the West, research on DMT experiences has been sparse yet interesting. The psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted some of the first human DMT trials at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990s. He found that <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">"at least half"</a> of his research subjects had encountered some form of entity after taking DMT.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I was neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for the frequency with which contact with beings occurred in our studies, nor the often utterly bizarre nature of these experiences," Strassman wrote in his book "DMT The Spirit Molecule".</p>
Manuel Medir / Getty<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Whenever I tried to pull any information out of the entities regarding themselves, the data that was given up was always relevant only to me. The elves could not give me any piece of data I did not already know, nor could their existence be sustained under any kind of prolonged scrutiny."</p><p>It's also worth noting that not all people who smoke DMT see beings, and that some see beings that look <a href="https://www.erowid.org/chemicals/dmt/dmt_article3.shtml" target="_blank">nothing like elves or aliens</a>. The diversity of these reports seems to count against the argument that DMT beings exist in some objective alternate reality.</p><p>In other words, if DMT beings exist in some other dimension, shouldn't they appear the same to anyone who visits that dimension? Or do the beings assume a different appearance based on who's looking? Or are there many types of beings in the DMT universe, but most look like elves? </p><p>You might start seeing elves just trying to sort this stuff out.</p><p>Ultimately, nobody knows exactly why DMT beings take the forms they do, or whether they're just figments of overstimulated imaginations. And the answers might be beside the point. </p><p>In the recent survey, 60 percent of participants said their encounter with DMT beings "produced a desirable alteration in their conception of reality whereas only 1% indicated an undesirable alteration in their conception of reality."</p><p>DMT beings may be nothing more than projections of the subconscious mind. But these bizarre encounters do help some people find real meaning, whether it's through personal revelation or the raw power of ontological shock.</p>
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>