Okay, perhaps I have too much time on my hands. But this issue has been bugging me for a couple of years at least, and I have never had an answer from anyone. And I’m not particularly sure where to look anyway to find an answer, other than plowing through obvious tracts on brain physiology and evolution.
You see I got the idea from watching something or other on dogs and cats and how they think. And it occurred to me, that at some point in human evolution, hominids must have faced the same issue.
The question is exactly how do you think when you have no language? Ha! bet I caught you on that one. Have you ever thought of that? Do you have time in your normal lives to even contemplate such issues? Well, for whatever it means, I seem to. I fear this disease is catching. On the road today, the Contrarian in the midst of driving on the freeway with cars and trailer trucks zooming willy nilly left and right, he pointed to the glove box and said, “why did they call it a ‘glove box’ do you think? Why not the flashlight or tool box or map box or registration box?”
Well, that set me back a step or two. Like a gnat buzzing around my ear, interfering in my life, he drops this lovely little notion into my unprotected and not prepared for combat, ears, and I have to start contemplating that instead of the fine look of the passing cornfields. But we aren’t going to discuss glove boxes so just stop thinking about it if you were.
We are discussing thinking, in general, and thinking without language in particular. Now, I am firmly aware that all of us, at least those considered sane, and those not proficient in the meditative arts, are engaged in a general conversation with self all our waking hours. We chatter about the past, rerunning any number of old films about what could have been, what should have been, what didn’t happen, what did, and what we should have said, not said, and so on. We wander around the future in the same way, playing out plans and scenarios that we hope, want, plan, expect, are afraid, will happen to us or others we care about, love, dislike, hate, wish were dead in the near, middle or far future.
We chat along, as if there were indeed two of us, all the time explaining to self what the self is drudging up in memory. It’s all quite strange and odd when you come to think about it, but we all do it, and we don’t often talk about doing it. I don’t know if we are mildly embarrassed or what. We are somewhat curious about others doing it, since on occasion, we inquire, “penny for your thoughts,” or just the mundane, “whatcha thinkin’ about?”
Anyway, we spend a lot of time, and goodness knows how many words we might utter in this silent talk, if they were all written down. I’m rather surprised no one has done a dissertation on that, but of course, maybe they have. Given the output of the planet in terms of written material, I can hardly be expected to keep up with it all. It’s hard enough to keep track of the grocery list most weeks as it is.
So, there was a time before language. That seems obvious. Chimps don’t have a verbal language, and neither do the apes. We have a common ancestor, and we once were even more like them than we still are, so language developed from grunts and pointing, to grunts that had lilts and drops and became at some point multi-syllabic I assume. I assume, since I’m way too lazy to look all this stuff up. That’s what blogs are about, I trust somebody out there knows and can save me the trouble!
Anyway, when Oscar, (the hominid) had put the kid to bed in the cave, and the wife was tidying up the campfire, and Oscar was burping from a fine meal of mastodon, or cave lion, picking his teeth with a stick, and looking up into the night sky, he starts to wonder what that big old pock-marked grey thing is up there. How exactly does he contemplate it? How does he wonder? How does that conversation go with no words?
This drives me nuts to think of actually, since I spend some time every day, doing my darnedness to stop the yackety-yack of my head so I can ummmm, reach a higher plane of “being.” Inquiring minds want to know!
The best answer I’ve come up with is what I came up with for dogs and other less intellectually stellar creatures, namely that their heads are filled with pictures, that flash one after the other. Now with animals it may function crudely enough that they can’t string them together in long “movies” if you will. Which is why animals seem easily distracted into new pursuits so readily. Perhaps we can string pictures together in our mind that tells a story of sorts, and is akin to “thinking.”
How else do we “figure” out how to shape a cutting tool, or a spear or throwing spear? We must be able to control the sequence of pictures in some coherent manner than allows us to progress in “thinking” through a difficult problem with some degree of sophistication. Anyway, the more I think of it, the more my head hurts. If you have an answer, why I’d be happy to hear it.
By the by, in closing lets go to something completely different: I’m wondering what you like, dislike, would like more of, less of on this blog. I write first for me, but also because I think some of you enjoy reading. Too much churchy stuff, not enough? More politics? More humorous nonsense like this post? More reviews of the news today? Something else you’d like to see? Can’t say as I’ll comply, because of course this is a personal thing first and foremost, but I’ll consider ideas certainly with great interest. Let me know!
Pat - Arkansas said:
You and I reached the same conclusion about pre-language “thinking.” Had to be mental images. Language developed, I believe (no scientific basis or research on this), when the need to convey a mental image to another became important for survival. If I had seen a rapidly moving, legless, slithering creature which I observed striking and biting a companion, and said companion later died, I might have developed a sound that, when repeated in the presence of others of my kind and in the presence of said slithering creature, would convey a warning. Whether this sound ultimately became “danger” or “snake” is immaterial.
As to what I’d like more of… the same. I like the variety. I think your mix is nearly perfect. I look forward to seeing what avenue you are going to be pursuing this time.
//exactly how do you think when you have no language? //
You don’t…. but then you are qualified to get a job with Fox News.
Pat, you make a good case! I especially like that you see the moving force for language the need to communicate danger rapidly. I think that fits.
Yes, I was “thinking”, too, that thinking had to have originated as pictures in the mind. Like in dreams.
The forerunners of alphabets were pictures, weren’t they…..like heiroglyphics. Our alphabet evolved from that. Each letter was once a picture which stood for something on its own.
I love this subject……wish I would have realized that long ago and went to college to study more about it.
Yes Jeannelle, good point about the heiroglyphics. I bet that is spot on!
Oh if I had a few other lifetimes, this is one area I’d love to explore more too!
rick allen said:
Obviously language has some “fitness to survive” value. The question is, why didn’t it appear in other animals to the extent that it appeared in humans?
[hint: a large, black monolith]
Rick, how do you know ‘language’ didn’t appear in animals? Haven’t seen Most talking a lot? Geese, Birds, most all sound-emitting animals?
Ever watched 2 Parakeets chatting Very sophisticated, many ways, for hours? We call our 2 professors.
That’s a good question Rick. But I’m missing the hint unfortunately.
lol, long thoughts, Sherry. Short thoughts:
Betcha Thinking is in Concepts; we associate them with words.
Glove bixes May have been called that because the early recesses in Dash Panel were Like glove boxes.
BUT: I pose a more serious concern: Whe call Dashboards Dashboards?
Gitcha! Winner gets $50. Monopoly money OK?
LOL…I’m throwing that one at the Contrarian. He started this!
I can buy concepts, but without words?
“Glove box” because people used to wear gloves while driving a car! (and for lots of other things as well) There were special gloves used just while driving, more sturdy than your lady-like church-going stuff. Comes from the days of hats and gloves. You know, the olden days that I barely remember…
The whole language thing makes me think of what they’re finding with very young children: start them off with sign language first. They can communicate their needs more quickly than an adult can interpret their grunting or whining.
See Shannon, I thought the answer was easy. I figured it really did contain gloves.
Interesting idea that sign language was first. Hmmm, I’ll have to think on that.
rick allen said:
“Rick, how do you know ‘language’ didn’t appear in animals?”
Of course there is communication, pretty sophisticated in dolphins, pretty weird in ants. Which is why I tried to use the qualifier “to the extent that it appeared in humans.” But so far no animal has written an “Iliad.” Or even a “Melrose Place.”
NPR news recently was that one ant at Harvard was shown to comminicate by the type Acid it emits!.
But THE question: How do parakeets communicate so sophisticatedly? ever whatched them?
THAT is the question!
On the language, I have a book “how to speak dog” by stanley coren, very interesting. I think they are just as perplexed by us.
I love your blog, and the varied topics you cover. I have found blogs and topics that I wouldn’t have normally read.
Hmmm, Vicki, are you suggesting I’m weird? ROFL…
Don Schreiber said:
I think the only real answer is “I dunno!” Because we use language as the medium of thought it is the only reality we know. Any other reality is opaque to us. We can make educated guesses, but that’s all they are: guesses. To really understand cognition in another species would be to somehow enter their cognitive world, which is impossible. And even if it were possible, would it be intelligible?
I’d like to see some discussion about entering the cognitive worlds of others who are not like us. How do we communicate with fundamentalist creationists, for example? It is perhaps ironic that, though we all use language, and often the very same vocabulary, we somehow fail to communicate.
Don, you may well be right. I guess it will be up to science to give us their best conclusion. And, given our reality, we may be ill equipped to even relate to any other way.
I struggle with fundamentalists and that mentality all the time. I think the key to getting through frankly is to treat the underlying mental issue, the desire for surety in an unsure word. They find absolute certitude in a book, because they need that stability to handle life. If you can show them that life is simply becoming comfortable with the uncertainty, then I think you have a window.
I would think that the animals think the same way we do when our more ancient pathways are used (there’s actually two different paths where you ‘see’ things, one not being attached to the occipital lobe to allow for quicker almost instant reactions). When something is coming at you (generally speaking, of course), you don’t generally think “Hey, I see something coming at me, and maybe I should duck to avoid it”, it’s often not even consciously recognized by you but you’re already moving. Is that ‘thought’? Depends on how you would define it.
However they think it would be nothing like how we do, since a lot of our thinking would involve the frontal cortex which is not as developed in the other animals, and I would have to agree with Don that any ideas we come up with are tainted by how we perceive the world.
Timothy, thanks for you imput. I think I understand what you are saying. I knew we might attract a brain or two who could explain this a bit better than I. All I have are questions. You helped me see the possibilities a bit better.