Posts Tagged ‘Michael C. Corvallis’

Narratives and Reasoning

May 19, 2017

This post was inspired by and draws from “The Truth About Language” by Michael C. Corvallis.  The brilliant William James, the founder of American psychology, made a distinction between two types of language, narratives and reasoning. Here is what William James wrote, “To say that all thinking is essentially of two kinds—reasoning on the one hand, and narrative, descriptive, contemplative thinking on the other—is to say what every reader’s experience will corroborate.”

In terms of usage, narratives account for the vase majority of language use.  Many healthy memory posts have spoken of memory as a vehicle for time travel.  We process information incorporating it into memory.  Then we use it  to decide upon course of action in the future.  We imagine future outcomes and draw upon our memories to determine which is most desirable.

Language uses our memories to form narratives.  We tell stories about ourselves and others.  Descriptions of events  take the form of narratives.  The majority of our conversations are narratives with each of the participating parties making contributions.  Narratives can be true, false, or some combination.  Narratives might capture history or traditions of a people.  They can also be for our entertainment as plays, television shows, movies, novels, and short stories.  Indeed these are large, commercial enterprises.  There are standards for narratives.  Are they interesting or entertaining?  Are the funny?  Do they hang together?  Are they coherent?  Do they convey some larger message?  We could go on and on with this.

However, reasoning is much less frequently used, and it is used for different purposes.  Reasoning is needed for critical thinking, for induction, deduction, and abduction.  The objective is to determine whether something is true or internally consistent.  Legal arguments are, or should be, largely a matter of reasoning.  Reasoning often calls upon data or experimental research.

Sometimes specialized languages need to be used such as symbolic logic or mathematics.  Reasoning can be both extensive and intensive.  Reasoning is mental work that can become quite difficult.

A sound argument can be made that faulty reasoning is the source of most problems.  Insufficient or faulty critical thinking is done.  In Kahneman’s terms, reasoning is System 2 processing requiring cognitive effort.

Unfortunately, understanding reasoning is also mentally demanding.  Good narratives will trump good reasoning most of the time for the majority of people.  It is quite likely that the amount of reasoning a person does is dependent both on educational level and the areas of study.

The ability to reason and to think critically is especially important for the members of a democracy.  Unfortunately, politicians with the most appealing narratives will likely win, even when critical thinking would reveal the unappealing aspects of the narratives.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Hippocampus

May 18, 2017

The hippocampus receives considerable attention in “The Truth About Language” by Michael C. Corvallis.  As the hippocampus plays a critical role in memory, it is not surprising that it is central to language and time travel.  As we each have a hippocampus in each hemisphere of the brain, we have two hippocampi.

The importance of the hippocampus was first realized when an Englishman underwent surgery for epilepsy, and the surgery destroyed major parts of both hippocampi.  After this surgery he could no longer form new episodic memories.  Episodic memory involves memories having to do with the specific episodes of our lives.   Although his semantic memory, his general knowledge, remained intact.  Not only was he unable to recall the past, he was also incapable of imagining the future.

In the final years of my Mom’s life she suffered from dementia.  When I visited her, she was always glad to see me.  However, if an attendant took her to the restroom while I was visiting, when she returned she acted as if I had just arrived.  That is, she had stored no memory of my being there.

The hippocampus is the hub of the brain circuit involved in episodic memory and mental time travel.  Brain imaging shows it to be activated both when people remember past events and when they imagine possible future events.  It is also activated when people are asked to imagine purely fictitious  episodes.   Although other brain regions are involved, reflecting the fact that memory and imagination involve information stored in widely dispersed areas, the hippocampus appears to be the most critical component in that damage to it has the most debilitating effect on the ability to mentally escape the present.

The default-mode network, responsible for our mind wandering, is identifiable in primates and even in rats.  The hippocampus plays a critical role in both rat and human memory.  Recording from the hippocampus of the rat reveals that single neurons code where the animal is located in the spatial environment.  These neurons serve as place cells and together generate what has been termed a cognitive map of the environment that tells the rat where it is.  It plays the same role in humans.  Studies have shown that the hippocampus  is enlarged in licensed taxi drivers in London, who are required to memorize the map of London for their licenses.

Research using rats has indicated a similar competence.  In an experiment rats were trained to alternate left and right turns at a particular location in the maze.  Between trials they were introduced to a running wheel and, while they were running, activity in their hippocampi was recorded.  This activity coded which way the rats planned to turn in the maze on the next trial.  Apparently these rats were planning ahead for their next try at the maze.  The researchers also noted that autonomous activity in the hippocampus involved the computation of distances, and also supported the episodic recall of events and the planning of action sequences and goals.  One researcher wrote that “replay in the rat hippocampus can either lead or follow the behavior once the map of space is established.  This suggests that replay phenomena may support ‘mental time travel’ through the spatial map, both forward and backward in time.

Research on human patients about to undergo surgery had electrodes placed in cells in the medial temporal lobe, in an attempt to locate the source of epileptic seizures.  They were then asked to navigate a virtual town on a computer screen and to deliver items to one of the stores in the town.  Then were asked to recall only the items and not the location to which they were delivered.  However, the act of recall activated the place cells corresponding to that location, effectively mirroring the replay of place cells in the rat brain.

In another study, people were shown sequences of four videos of different events.  At one level. narratives were linked to each video, encouraging attention to individual details. At the next level, narratives linked a par of videos, and at the final level a narrative linked all four videos.  As the people processed these narratives, activation in the hippocampus progressed from the rearward end to the forward end as the scale of the narrative shifted from small and detailed to larger and more global.    Dr. Corvallis notes that this probably happens when we read novels.  Page by page, we focus on the details, but as the story progresses we build a more global understanding of what the story is about.  Dr. Corvallis writes, be thankful to your hippocampi that you can make sense of a novel at all.

Dr. Corvallis suggests that although  the generativity spatial mapping is nonlinguistic, it may well underlie the generativity of language itself.  “In the rat these elements may be restricted to simple aspects like sounds or smells, and we may perhaps allow ourselves the luxury of believing our own experiences to be incomparably richer.  Yet the generative component itself probably has a long evolutionary history.  As Darwin famously put it:  ‘The difference in mind between man the the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree, and not of kind.’”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Truth About Language

May 17, 2017

“The Truth About Language” is a most informative book by Michael C. Corvallis.  Its subtitle is “What It Is and Where It Came From.”  The title and the subtitle informs the reader exactly what the book is about.  This is an enormously complex topic.  There are more than six thousand languages today and they vary among themselves tremendously.  Moreover, this language ability is the skill that puts our species in a unique leadership place.

The question as to where it came from is still highly contentious.  Dr. Corvallis presents his analysis and conclusion, one which HM finds compelling, but there is no consensus on this topic.

This blog is posted under the category “Transactive Memory.”   Transactive Memory is memory storage external to our personal memories.   So this includes information stored in the memories of other humans, and memories storied in external media.  In this case the storage medium was a book and the presentation device was an iPAD.  There is a tremendous wealth of memory here.  Dr. Corvallis is a scholar of the highest caliber who is drawing from the knowledge of a very large number of outstanding minds.  And a reader applying attention to this book derives a large amount of knowledge.

There is a personal interest for HM here.  The book discusses the behaviorist B.F. Skinner’s tome, “Verbal Behavior.”   As an undergraduate, he argued Skinner’s thesis before a linguistics class.  Although his performance was pitiable, a charitable professor gave him an “A” for the class.  As a graduate student, he taught undergraduates Chomsky’s Transformational Generative Grammar.  His post-doctoral work did not involve linguistics, so he lost touch with the topic.  Dr. Corvallis’s book brought him up to date and reignited his interest.

So it is clear why HM is interested in this book.  Should any readers have a general interest in this topic, it provides fuel for a growth mindset which helps foster a healthy memory.

It is not known when language began.  Presumably sometime during the hominins, but that is debatable.  There is also no general agreement as to how long it took for language to develop.  There are two general schools.  One is that it developed suddenly.  This school is found in certain religions and with the linguist Noam Chomsky.  Dr. Corvallis is in the second school; it developed gradually over an unknown but probably long period of time.

Dr. Corvallis argues that the development involved gestures. It is interesting note here that deaf babies gesture.  It is also important to note that American Sign Language is recognized as a legitimate language.  The development was gradual and occurred over time.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.