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Monday, January 25, 2010

Surrounded by Words


I learned so much reading Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation that I only hope I can remember some of it. I’ll easily remember the parts that were already familiar to me, such as the idea that humans and dogs co-evolved or Grandin’s contention (something I’ve suspected myself) that pain and suffering are two different experiences. What I’d like to remember are the things she says that I’ve never suspected or read or thought or been taught before. I found it fascinating, for example, that researchers now look differently at animal experiments in which the subjects self-stimulated a particular region of their brains. Remember those studies? Remember the so-called “pleasure center” of the brain? Like Grandin, “I thought the ESB animals must be experiencing something like a permanent orgasm.” Well, evidence now says what the rats were stimulating circuits in the brains having to do with curiosity, interest and anticipation, not satisfaction per se.
That’s not as surprising as it sounds when you think about it. At the most basic level, animals and humans are wired to enjoy hunting for food. That’s why hunters like to hunt even if they’re not going to eat what they kill: they like the hunting part in and of itself. Depending on their personalities and interests, humans enjoy any kind of hunt: they like hunting through flea markets for hidden finds; they like hunting for answers to medical problems on the Internet; they like hunting for the ultimate meaning of life in church or in a philosophy seminar. All of those activities come out of the same [“seeking”] system in the brain.


Has someone been watching David and me on a hidden camera? No, we are just typical animals, rejoicing in the thrill of the hunt at bookstores, libraries, thrift shops, flea markets and roadside produce stands.

A more alarming section of Grandin’s book is a section titled “Words Get in the Way,” dealing with a phenomenon called “verbal overshadowing.” Let’s say you witness an event, subsequently engage in an unrelated activity, and then you are asked to write down what you remember of the event. “For example, in one study people watched a short videotape of a bank robbery...,.” Their viewing was followed by 20 minutes of unrelated activity, and after the 20 minutes the viewers were divided into two groups, one asked to write down what they remembered about the robber’s face in the video, the other assigned an “unrelated task.” Finally, both groups were tested to see if they could recognize the robber’s face.
Two thirds of the people who wrote nothing down and did unrelated tasks could identify a photograph of the robber, while only one third of the people who wrote verbal descriptions could pick him out. This is a well-established effect; many studies have found exactly the same thing, and some studies have extended the effect to auditory memory as well. People who write down a description of a voice are less able to pick it out from other voices than people who didn’t describe the voice in words.

How counter-intuitive and shocking is this? “Write it down so you’ll remember it,” we typically say, but now it turns out we might remember better if we didn’t write it down! Are witnesses to real crimes, asked to repeat their testimony over and over, less likely to get the story right or be able to identify suspects correctly? Is describing what you saw in speech different from describing it in writing, or is describing in speech subject to the memory problems? And what about writers who keep journals? Are they chipping away at their memories rather than anchoring experiences in place? And is it only identification of faces and voices that is more difficult after writing a description, or are all kinds of recall adversely affected? There is some comfort to be had in the finding that visual memories are not erased, only suppressed, by written descriptions, but what it takes to recall the nonverbal memories is not necessarily what a court witness or memoir writer would automatically do, so the questions, for me, remain.

Well then, next, having read Grandin’s book, I picked up again Andrei Codrescu’s The Disappearance of Outside with (or through) a whole new frame (or grid) of reference. This book is an example of the very “professor” sort of literature the author rails against in chapter after chapter. a long, long, long series of polemical statements, one after another. The author never has questions, he never wonders, he never doubts or thinks maybe there’s another way to look at matters or says “It seems to me” or “perhaps.” No, the text reads like this: “This, I say, is true. This, I say, is true. This, I say is true.” It’s mentally exhausting, like being punched in the head over and over and over and over. To make matters worse, almost every one of his pontifical declarative sentences is abstract in nature. It’s never “The sun was shining” but always some abstract Take-my-word-for-it truth claim--and often metaphorical, to boot. Not that I have any general problem with figurative language (we would not have poetry without it), but if it’s possible to abuse metaphor, this author has done it.

My suspicions were already considerably aroused before I reached the end of Part Four, entitled “Living with Amnesia,” and found myself (having been thinking a lot lately about words and images) reading the last sentences of that section over and over again:
Unlike words, images do not overthrow each other: they join up. To get beyond them we need to know how to disrupt their joining. We become flatter as they become more multidimensional: each trick of perspective that we dispose of, they take up. Eventually we may become mere images, trapped like shadows in some collective hell, the United Fascist States of Utopia. In another generation, people raised by images will not be able to imagine escape. The walls of Plato’s prison-cave will be animated.

Strange notion, isn’t it, that images will kill imagination? Here’s my one-sentence summary of the passage above: Images are ganging up on us and will take our place, if we’re not vigilant. (When my university students complained that John Locke was too difficult to understand, I had them reduce each paragraph in the Second Treatise on Government to a single sentence. It wasn’t easy, but they could do it, and it’s a good way to figure out what a difficult writer is saying.) Well, if I’d grown up under Stalinism I might find this kind of hyperbole convincing, but as it happens I attended graduate school in philosophy before post-structuralism had been laid to rest (I’m told it that only pockets of it survive today), and so I am as skeptical about scholarly obfuscation as Codrescu is about political propaganda. Also, having spent years picking apart arguments I don’t adopt conclusions too easily, whether my own or someone else’s. So after reading the excerpt above several times over, I went back to the beginning of the long paragraph of which these sentences are the end, and here’s how it begins: “All images want to become one image, the Sacred Image, the Icon.” And I asked myself, “Do I believe that?” And I answered in the negative. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe images want anything, and I don’t even believe that there is a tendency for images to collapse into one another, reducing to a singularity. Quite, I would say, the opposite. The immediacy of the visual world is such that we cannot, unless in some state of psychic shock, avoid a succession of perceptions, or images, and opening our eyes to them, really looking, trying to see, can be an antidote to the often misleading abstractions of words. At least, I find it so.

Is it easier to break an image’s spell with words than it is to break a verbal spell with an image? I don’t think so. Words can be used to overthrow each other, but they can also be used to reinforce, to confuse, to silence, and they have often been so used.

I wrote the other day that David usually sees much more than I do and has a much better visual memory and can describe people better than I can. We left a shop recently, and I asked David if he had noticed the clerk’s tattoo. He hadn’t. It was on her forearm, I told him, indicating its size on my own arm and describing it to him. He was as delighted as I was that my eyes had been open to what was in front of me.

Seeing! What a delight! Shall I shut up now?

8 comments:

upwoods said...

It IS fascinating, this world of perception. Interesting that words might actually de-rail memory rather than heighten it.

Thinking about walking into that completely remodeled kitchen a couple months ago and being the only person in the room that didn't notice it. It was because it was meaningless to me...in the same way that haircuts and clothing are meaningless. Must we be making the effort to view more deeply what we've determined isn't that significant? Just wondering...

On the other hand, I probably would have noticed the tattoo. Because it was alive, different, breathing, creative!

Interesting ponderances...thank you.

torchlakeviews said...

Trying again to say . . . Please do not shut up.

torchlakeviews said...

Aha! Blogger and WordPress are playing nicely today. For the moment. So:

What about a sentence that reduces Codrescu to "The image-makers are ganging up on us and the images they project will take the place of our culture and our very concept of reality if we’re not vigilant"?

And memory . . . I'm a good map reader, and I tend to depend on maps. I suspect that is why I fail to make note of subtle landmarks the way other people do. I once carted a whole vanload of Central American refugees around Windsor, Ontario, in a minivan (it's a long story) and they, in a place they had never been before, knew exactly where we had been better than I did - which turned out to be a blessing when I discovered I'd taken a wrong turn. (And, um, I used to spend a fair amount of time in Windsor back in the day.)

P. J. Grath said...

Good question, Kathy! Yeah, do I want to pay more attention to visual details of cars? I don't think so. The "big picture" (impression) is enough for me there.

Gerry, your one-sentence summary works for me. As for driving a load of people around a city, I can imagine you'd have difficulty taking in the scenery. If you'd been driving alone, at dawn, before other traffic had picked up, I'll bet you'd have seen plenty. Anyway, wrong turns? Don't we all take them? One friend of mine moved to Cincinnati and after work would purposely drive around town until he got lost, then figure out how to get un-lost, and that's how he learned the city.

dmarks said...

I'd never seen the name Temple Grandin before an hour or so ago, when I read about a movie of her. Then I come and read this post.

P. J. Grath said...

She is a new hero of mine. I just finished another one of her books, ANIMALS MAKE US HUMAN.

Carson said...

I tried writing down my dreams, which are filled with astounding sensory details: lights and music, incredible mosaics of design and reality; desperate plot twists. Once they were written down they disappeared from my memory, as if I had never dreamt it but now only saw it as an inept attempt to describe something indescribable. I stopped writing down my dreams and consign them to a deep memory bank now, as I did most of my life.

P. J. Grath said...

Dreams are the quintessential elusive phenomenon. Your story of trying to fix them in memory by writing them down is fascinating, Carson. Do you really remember them when you don't record them? Mine, with all of their complexity and detail, vanish with the light, as if they had never been. Odd to lose "experience" that way.