January 30, 2013
A friend sent me a link to this Radiolab episode (“Voices in Your Head”) from a couple years ago in response to a different inquiry altogether (having to do with certain experiences of schizophrenia and auditory hallucinations), but it was startling to me in an unexpected way.
Jad is talking to developmental psychologist Charles Fernyhough about how he believes children learn to think by internalizing external verbal processes:
CF: I don’t think very young children do think.
JE: Like, think, period?
CF: I don’t think they think in the way that I want to call thinking.
JE: What he meant, is that thinking as he defines it, is just words sounding silently in your head, and before you have those words in your head, you can’t think.
Early in the episode, Fernyhough asks us to think of a parent and child solving a jigsaw puzzle together, and the back and forth dialogue between them in which, he posits, a child learns to think. The “thinking” here, he says, is happening in the interaction between parent and child, and not internal to one or the other at all. It’s by learning to make this verbal process internal, that we become thinking people, he says. “If you watch any kid with their parents, anywhere in the world, doing this kind of thing, you’ll see them thinking together,” he tells us.
Immediately I thought, “How insulting to non-speaking or non-verbal people,” or even to people whose primary intelligence is not linguistic, but spatial, movement-oriented, artistic, or musical?
But then I was even more stunned. Wait, I thought…Is this possibly why so many people cannot imagine that someone who doesn’t talk doesn’t truly think? Why people are so highly skeptical of the genuine intelligence of someone who can type but not speak? Because most people do, in fact, learn to think by speaking and can imagine no other way?
I never did engage in the kind of mutual narration described, or individual narration about what I was learning to do; being forced to engage in that kind of communication while trying to understand or carry out a task actually badly impedes my ability to do it. I have the damnedest time getting people to understand that I’ll be better off if they show me something once or twice and then leave me alone to get comfortable with it, rather than hanging over my shoulder and re-explaining and correcting until I’ve got it perfectly, which will never happen under those circumstances. It’s also one of the major reasons why I did so badly in cognitive-behavioral therapy: Because having to speak severely impedes my ability to think. I speak by translating and selectively externalizing my internal understanding; I don’t think by internalizing what’s external.
Even my memories of learning to write are hardly verbal at all; they’re very experiential, visual, and physical. I remember the pattern of it becoming intuitive more than the words themselves.
Frequently in my line of work, I find myself defending the intelligence of dancers to other people, explaining that you just can’t expect them to be able to communicate much of their intelligence verbally. It’s just not how they work best. It’s not the framework in which they’re approaching the world.
But look at their intuitive grasp of physics, space, movement, group dynamics, and the capabilities of the human body. That is just as much intelligence as anything you can measure on a standardized test, and it never stops being astonishing to me.
Or, in college I knew an art student who reported that when she’d been painting alone for a long time, she had a really hard time switching back over into speech…like if her roommate came home unexpectedly and said hello. I have a really hard time buying that in those preceding hours, she wasn’t thinking at all just because she wasn’t doing it in words, but in color, shape, and movement.
It’s incredibly arrogant, too, the presumption that because this is how you, or even most people, learn to think about the world, that that is how it must be done, and if it wasn’t, then those people aren’t really thinking at all…that thought itself cannot occur in a frame of reference radically different from the one that most people take for granted. Or that nothing of significance could be understood if it can’t easily be translated to speech or verbal language. And that’s not even taking into account all the conditions by which someone may in fact have a very verbal understanding of the world, but not be able to physically speak for whatever reason (like oral motor apraxia). The prejudice is to assume that they cannot think or understand, rather than to look for ways that they could make their understanding known.
What I’m starting to think is that it’s not the autistic who have a theory of mind problem.
I’m at my favorite coffee shop again, like I usually am on days when I don’t have to be at work till evening. Patrons are actually sitting outside this morning, because it’s sunny, calm, and 45 degrees instead of 10. A woman smoking at the table nearest the door pushes her last fragment of baklava—shimmering with honey—to the edge of the table for the sparrows to share, and as one alights on the edge of the table to seize it, the sun for just a moment shines through its widespread wings, turning both bird and pastry a translucent luminous gold…like the bird was solidified from light itself.
And though I write poetry, there are no words I can find sufficient for the sight…not really. Even the above paragraph feels and sounds klutzy and contrived compared to what it actually looked and felt like.
If I had even fewer words than this to describe it to you, would that mean that I didn’t truly see or feel or understand that moment? I don’t think so.
February 9, 2011
I’m not a big fan of mandatory schooling, as most of my readers will already know. Okay, I’m not a fan at all. But I’m starting to think it’s about time to require everyone to read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
And I mean everyone.
I read it myself last year, in a campaign of reading stuff that we should’ve been assigned in school but weren’t. I was a little bit (okay, a lot) appalled that as much as I thought I knew about evolution, I had actually attained a degree in biology without ever having read the seminal work on the subject.
If you need evidence that our schools are profoundly failing to educate, consider that. Most biology students never have to actually read On the Origin of Species.
Or that, according to a Times article (On Evolution, Biology Teachers Stray From Lesson Plan) on a survey published in Science magazine last month, 86 years after the Scopes trial, only 28 percent of high school biology teachers are actually teaching the straight facts about evolution, the foundational principle of modern biology, while 13 percent are still explicitly teaching creationism.
The article shines a light on what the study calls the “cautious 60 percent” of biology teachers who in some way, shape or form, compromise on teaching evolution outright.
In what other discipline would it not be outrageous to allow 73 percent (the 60 who don’t teach evolution straight up + the 13 who openly teach creationism) of our educators to bow in deference to religious fundamentalism? But that’s what we’re doing in biology. Wouldn’t there be nationwide outraged panic if it were found that an authoritarian sect of some religion other than Christianity were managing to seriously compromise how our kids are being taught?
Yet this is what’s going on in the overwhelming majority of our biology classrooms.
One professor quoted, Randy Moore, doesn’t think that better science education for instructors will help. “They already know what evolution is,” he says. “They were biology majors, or former biology students. They just reject what we told them.”
But do they really know what evolution is? I doubt it. If nearly three quarters of biology teachers aren’t really teaching evolution or teaching it in a half-hearted way; or if they, like me, got through school as high-achieving biology students without ever reading first-hand the definitive books on the topic, then they really might not. And fundamentalist churches aren’t simply rejecting evolution; they’re lying about what the theory actually says and does not say. So when someone who hears about evolution in school but rejects it for religious reasons, are they honestly rejecting an accurately presented representation of evolution, or are they believing their pastor over their science teacher when it comes to what evolution by natural selection really is?
So I come down, cautiously hopeful, on the side of the slightly more optimistic Dr. Eric Plutzer, who says that “We think the ‘cautious 60 percent’ represent a group of educators who, if they were better trained in science in general and in evolution in particular, would be more confident in their ability to explain controversial topics to their students, to parents, and to school board members.”
This is a cycle that can be broken, if educators know how to stand up for the facts.
June 10, 2010
I collect a lot of links to other blogs and sites I enjoy, but I wanted to call special attention to one today, the Gulf Oil Blog, by Dr. Samantha Joye from the University of Georgia. I found this blog in response to a commenter from the “Real nerd girls” post, who, after I mentioned the women working in the Gulf to respond to the BP oil spill, wondered who they were. You may have seen Dr. Joye’s name in the news recently; she’s the leader of a research team tracking and sampling one of the two giant underwater oil plumes. (I went to UGA but did not know Dr. Joye personally…and didn’t do so well in Marine Biology, so I’m all the more amazed by her work right now.)
It’s a really beautiful blog, with both horrifying and beautiful photographs of what the team is seeing in the Gulf, and some much more detailed discussion than what you’d find in the mainstream news of what kind of science is being done on the plumes. Reading about the aspects of the spill that the team is studying, it’s stunning to realize how little we really know about deep sea ecosystems, the biochemistry of what’s happening, and the possible long-term impact of a spill like this, and how important this knowledge will be to protecting our world going forward. The conditions of the spill are truly unprecedented, and this could, hopefully, be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain the knowledge that Dr. Joye’s team is analyzing from their data right now.
I’ve always felt strongly that my chosen career field is in fact what I was fated, or maybe even divinely intended, to be doing with my life, even though the process by which I got here superficially appears so tenuous and dependent on sheer chance, even luck. So it’s especially appropriate that this article and this music video came into my life at about the same time last week, both introduced to me by fellow cast and crew members of my current production.
In Back From the Future from the April 2010 issue of Discover Magazine, Zeeya Merali explores the emergence of the hypothesis of “backwards causality,” or how the bizarre and counterintuitive rules of quantum physics predict that not only do the events of the past cause the circumstances of the present, but that the events of the future affect those of the past, and what this implies for human decision-making and free will. (Do not fear, my non-science-y friends and readers; the writing is very clear and straightforward. You don’t have to be a physicist to be able to understand or be amazed by it.)
I watched Ok Go’s music video, This Too Shall Pass, about 15 times in a row the night that a cast member told me I had to go home and google it, it made me so viscerally and irrationally happy. The story of the video is quite amazing; knowing what kind of video they wanted to make, the band enlisted the help of 20 engineers and physicists to plan it; the Rube-Goldberg apparatus took 3 months to set up, and 89 takes to obtain the footage of it running smoothly. The perfection of the mechanics, musical timing and sensory and emotional beauty of the piece are stunning for just how not inevitable that perfection was, but rather the result of voluminous planning, history, fortune, focus, relentlessness of purpose, torturous tech rehearsals, and thousands of ineffable and seemingly inconsequential decisions which lighted the path to the final frame.
Recently I looked around at my world, and my life, on a sunny late afternoon in SoHo as I was on my way back from dinner to a rehearsal and thought with thankfulness and amazement, “wow, everything here feels right right now.” I believe that the universe, or fate, or God, offers us signposts and signals, if we’re paying attention, that we’re on the path where we should be…and that’s what these two little snippets of human creation felt like, as well as reminders that your fate is not a single ultimate destination, or inevitable outcome, but the entirety of the way in which you live your life.