Monday, October 14, 2013

Understanding that Falls Apart

A Case of Mental Fluidity

Although I can’t think of any particular examples, it’s happened often enough. Someone will explain something to me, often something technical, and I’ll understand the explanation as it’s being given to me. I may even repeat it back, paraphrase it, or answer questions. And it hangs together.

For awhile.

But an hour or three or a day later, it falls apart. I no longer understand. My understanding was supported by the words of the person who did the explaining.

The same will happen with reading. Something makes sense while I’m reading it. But awhile later, when the text isn’t in front of me, that same thing, whatever it, no longer makes sense. It doesn’t hang together. Again, my understanding depended on external support, the written text.

What’s going on? What is the mind that you can understand something one moment, and not understand it the next? This is one of the things I have in mind when I talk of the mind being fluid (on many scales). Sometimes the fluid evaporates and the understanding is no more.

Of course, there is also simple forgetting. Someone tells you something, or you read it – Dizzy Gillespie brought Chano Pozo to the USA from Cuba – and then you forget – where’d Chano Pozo come from? What I’m wondering is that if, at the neural level, this kind of simple forgetting is the same as that kind of collapse in understanding.

How could this be so? Well, remember, I think of the mind as a cognitive network and, in the model Dave Hays and I put together, that network is organized on several levels (sensorimotor, systemic, episodic, and gnomonic). Simple forgetting would correspond to a failure at the systemic or episodic level whereas collapse of understanding would correspond to a failure at the gnomonic level. That is, physically, at the neural level, systemic, episodic, and gnomonic nodes and links are the same king of thing, connections within populations of neurons. But mentally, they are different.

So, we have an interaction that sets up one kind of linkage and when that linkage becomes fixated, a simple fact has been added to the network: Chano Pozo came from Cuba. But a rather different kind of interaction sets up a pattern of inference, an abstract pattern. When that pattern becomes fixated we are able to reason effectively about a new class of problems. But if the pattern doesn’t become fixated, then we no longer understand problems of that class.

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A different example of mental fluidity: Often when practicing I’ll come up with a particular lick, or phrase, or even a whole melody that I like and want to use again. But once that practice session is over, the lick, phrase, or melody is gone as well. However, it sometimes does return in a subsequent session, often when I attempt to prompt it by thinking myself into the state of mind I was in when the phrase originated.

A Quibble About Conceptual Blending

That’s one of the (many) quibble I have about Fauconnier and Turner’s conceptual blending. Blending is conceived as a relation between mental spaces, where mental spaces are temporary constructs, mental scaffolding the mind erects while working on a problem. And that scaffolding requires external support provided by someone else’s words, whether written or spoken, or by something else (a diagram, picture, film, or even some event taking place). In blending theory, understanding is said to occur in the blend.

So, when someone says “the Grim Reaper visited the Kaufman’s last night” we’re to understand that someone in the Kaufman family has died. Nothing was actually said about death, but “Grim Reaper” is a metaphor for death. In blending theory “death” is extracted (as it were) from the blend between different “input spaces” (the harvest, human death).

But if that is so, then how could “Grim Reaper” convey any permanent knowledge? As long as the sentence containing those words in one’s ears or before one’s eyes one has those mental spaces available from which to extract the meaning, but as soon as that sentence (the external support) disappears, the mental spaces disappear as well. And with them, the meaning. It’s gone. Gone, as Coleridge said in his preface to “Kubla Khan”, gone “like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!”

The fact is, the Grim Reaper is a thoroughly conventionalized metaphor. As such the phrase “the Grim Reaper visited” is operationally the same as saying “someone died”.

So the Grim Reaper is a poor example. But it’s not my example. It’s Fauconnier and Turner’s example, and a central one at that. So that example masks the problem I’m pointing out. Fauconnier and Turner can reconstruct the “blend” for the purpose of providing an example. But there’s no reason to believe that that blending apparatus is actually set up when anyone makes reference to the Grim Reaper.

But my criticism remains. If understanding exists only in the blend, then it’s tough to see how understanding can persist after the blend dissolves.

I should add that the problem is not specific to blending theory. I certainly believe that the mind does set up temporary constructs, that “deep” metaphor is one of them, and that they can be a vehicle for permanent understanding – Dave Hays and I sketched out a theory of metaphor along such lines, Metaphor, Recognition, and Neural Process. But the temporary construct is not enough. One needs to show how it leaves a permanent precipitate (Hays and I, alas, did not quite do that in our metaphor paper).

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Incidentally, this suggests a problem I’ve got with the whole cognitive linguistics approach to abstraction and figurative meaning. Cognitive metaphor theory and blending theory are both mostly verbal constructions. Metaphor theory is about permanent structures in the mind while blending theory is about temporary structures (conceptual spaces). But that distinction doesn’t have much force in a purely verbal theory and so gets lost in practice. For all practical purposes, the conceptual spaces of blending theory are permanent constructs as well.

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