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Barbara Tversky takes an outdated idea to task in Mind in Motion.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) english mathematician, physicist and astronomer, author of the theory of terrestrial universal attraction, here dispersing light with a glass prism, engraving colorized document.

Photo by Apic/Getty Images
  • 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?

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

The history of using the Insurrection Act against Americans

Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.

The army during riots in Washington, DC, after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., April 1968.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
  • The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
  • The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
Keep reading Show less

Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

Scroll down to load more…