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Helen Keller on her life before self-consciousness (1908) (scentofdawn.blogspot.com)
691 points by ahiknsr 30 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 312 comments



This reminded me of a story my professor once told us back in college. I was studying sign language and she is deaf. She told us growing up in the old days they didn't had specialized schools for deaf people (since they could read?!) so she attended regular school and was not doing ok. She struggled a lot until she finally got the attention that she needed from a teacher who was able to instruct her in sign language (which believe you or not is Brazil's second official language). Before that she told us she was not able to have complex thoughts. She didn't know her father had a name, for instance. She thought his "name" was daddy. She is a brilliant woman and I'm glad I attended her class and also, that she was able to find someone who helped her, growing up.


James Gleick in The Information also describes cases of the effect of traditional literacy on complexity/abstraction of thought.

He claims that literacy is nearly a prerequisite for things like zeroth-order logical reasoning and understanding of abstract shapes. Two examples he gives:

- Some illiterate people are told that all bears in the north are white, that Greenland is a country in the north, then they are asked what colours bears in Greenland have. They answer, "Different regions have differently coloured bears. I haven't been to Greenland. But I have seen a brown bear."

I would have said, "Based on the information you gave me, I would guess white."

- When shown a rectangle and asked what shape it is some illiterate answer things like "a door" or "a playing card" but struggle to find things doors and playing cards have in common.

I go to the abstract shapes immediately when I'm shown drawings by my son. It's almost at a point where it feels like my logical/abstract reasoning stands in the way of creativity.

----

But I don't know how much this is personality (I happen to have a knack for logical/abstract reasoning and I happened to learn to read when I was very young) and how much is an effect of reading. After all, anthropologists are great at the concrete rather than abstract, but maybe they get lots of training in it. I've also heard the Japanese are better at it.

TFA clearly postulates it has more to do with the kind of vocabulary, or maybe it's on an increasing scale with more language.


This makes me wonder about what turned out to be a pivotal moment in my early life. It was the day I first realized other people have their own minds, and that I could predict with some degree of accuracy what was in them.

My dad wrote the numbers 1 through 4 on a piece of paper, then asked me to pick one, but not tell him which I'd chosen. Once I had it, he said, "You picked 3, didn't you?" I was dumbfounded. "How did you do that??"

"Most people don't like to be out on the edges. It makes them uncomfortable. So they don't pick 1 or 4. And most people, like you, are right-handed, so they pick 3 over 2."

"OK, OK, do it again." (This was the moment a flash of magic happened in my head.)

"You picked 1 this time, didn't you?"

"No, I picked 3 again because I knew you would think I would pick 1 this time."

With a fear in his eyes that I only later discovered came from the fact that his own sense of safety depended on being the smartest person in the room, he said, "You're only 3. I don't think you're supposed to know how to do that yet."

But here's the other thing--I was literate when I was 3. Nobody really knows how I picked it up, but one day I told my mom it was my turn to read the stories, and I've been reading fluently ever since. I've been told I read differently than most people even now (blocks of text rather than individual letters or words), but I was definitely reading.

I've never associated the two events before, nor that maybe I was only able to do one because of the other, but it makes sense of the fact that other kids didn't really start to seem reasonable or thoughtful until 1st or 2nd grade. They lived in these imaginary worlds where things didn't have to make sense. It seemed like a lot of fun, but I had trouble joining them there. I always assumed both skills just correlated with age, not that one might facilitate the other.

My story obviously doesn't prove anything, but you've given me an interesting thing to think about today!


This is called theory of mind and I've been experimenting on my first child as he has grown up and he had it much earlier than research would suggest. (I even tried replicating one of the actual experiments used.)

I suspect there's large individual variation as to when it is acquited. My son is relatively socially competent and intetested in letters and numbers but not yet literate at four.

We'll see how my second child fares -- she is even more socially competent but does not yet speak (first child did her age) so we'll see when it can be done.


My mother had stroke like 20 years ago. All of my siblings including myself have had moments of real trouble when we talk to her. She's very functional, but there's a sense that she is not putting herself in our shoes, which comes across as lacking empathy. Even when we try to outwardly express distress, it's like she's blind to it. I just realized recently that stroke survivors can suffer impairment to their Theory of Mind, basically rendering them blind to what others are feeling. That sense can be gone or be impaired. This was such a revelation to me and suddenly everything in the last decade made perfect sense. All this time we thought she was just really self-centered or 'slow'. It caused real frustrations and there were times we even broke down because we expect something that's just not there. We didn't know.


My own mother has never had a stroke, but she has very little awareness of her own emotional states. She is an incredibly intelligent person and works in clinical medicine, but she has always come across as harsh and even cruel, because she has never shown much empathy for emotions more complex than simple fear. I think her deficiency in recognizing her own emotional states contributes to her apparent lack of empathy.

For example, she cannot recognize her own anxiety. She is a pathologically anxious person with OCD, but would never describe herself as so. As such, she has never been able to empathize with the fact that both of her children have anxiety disorders and one had severe childhood OCD.

It was not a great way to grow up, although that kind of emotional neglect is what made me a more resilient person in the end...


I firmly believe now that this is a skillset missing in families/cultures that is totally developable in therapy (recognizing own and as a consequence other people’s emotions).

This is actually a missing education in my opinion.


Absolutely. I use my grandmother as an example of what happens when you take family away from someone.

My grandmother lived between orphanages and an abusive mother who literally beat one of her children retarded with a frying pan.

She was determined to give her children a better life. And she did! She turned to her friends to figure out basic life skills. My mother had an idyllic childhood.

However, my grandma only knew how to survive an abusive childhood. She taught my mother to 'pretend everything is okay' when things were bad, because that's how she survived.

My mother married an angry and cruel man and had children with him - my sister and me. She pretended everything was okay as our father told us we were stupid and worthless, backing up his opinion with violence. Years later, she still doesn't understand why we are distant with her because she still lives in her fantasy world.

Now, imagine taking family away from an entire group of people. All traditions wiped out.


Do you mean required education? Therapy exists but it is not required unless asked for.

I have mixed feelings on it. It can be great for some people. For me, understanding how I feel and act now as a consequence of my parents actions was not helpful. Taking 2-3 months to get to these points also was not a good use of time.


No I’m not saying therapy should be required, but I do say that we miss it as a society on educational level. I’m not saying I know how to fulfill that.

I am in therapy for 2 years now (and not planning to stop for a while), the results I really enjoy and that are visible from outside and clear conseqences are only starting to crystallize. Imagine “learning C++” in 2 months. And that is purely mental. These emotional skills are not easy at all. This is a whole new “riding a bike”, but on all the million wheels of a real human that is you.

Understanding is not the result. The result is your comfort, your confidence, your loving yourself, you being your own perfect loving parent and close friend.


this missing piece also seems to be described under the banner "narcissism", which is a coping mechanism often acquired in childhood to deal with some sort of abuse or trauma


It might help her to take improv classes. You are almost forced to consider what your scene partner is feeling/thinking.


Makes sense. The mind can repair itself given the right stimuli and time.. and the biology of the body will react when perhaps something clicks...


> I told my mom it was my turn to read the stories

My son did the same thing at 3. I tested whether he was really reading by turning the pages wrong, and he recited the story just like we read it every night... not reading the actual pages in front of him. He really thought he could read, but he had just memorized. And he did read quickly after that, but when recalling your own memory of reality from toddlerhood, odds are your memories are not accurate.

I'd be wary about how much of your ego you base on such memories, otherwise you sound similar to how you described your dad - as having a need to be smart.


Oh believe me. They and everyone else tested me by giving me books without pictures, and that I'd never seen before. I was reading.

It's not common for 3-year-olds to be able to read, but it's also not so rare that you'd find someone on a site like HN that could do it.


Site note: As a grade A certified computer nerd I come here for tech discussions.

However the article comments I enjoy the most are always these threads regarding sociology or psychology. I don't know other places where readers can psychoanalyze each other respectfully. Kudos.


I'm so curious about the last part of your comment. You're not the only one who seems...at least uncomfortable with?...the idea that there was an odd little 3yo girl back in the '80s somewhere who once had a weird conversation with her dad. I can't even think of a reason someone might make that up in a pseudonymous internet forum. It's not like any of you know (or care, I'm sure!) who I am.

I related the story because I thought my experience might offer an uncommon perspective on the parent comment. That's all.

Even granting the likelihood that you didn't see my comments elsewhere in the thread about how he was an abusive narcissist, warning me about becoming like the unnecessarily insecure guy in the story seems like an oddly low blow to try to strike in this context.


"With a fear in his eyes that I only later discovered came from the fact that his own sense of safety depended on being the smartest person in the room, he said, "You're only 3. I don't think you're supposed to know how to do that yet.""

I feel like that episode describes most of common education. In theory outstanding excellence is wanted, in reality often not so much, as this causes problems. Better teach them how to stay in line.


I figured out far too early that I was thinking on abstraction levels different from my teachers. I say "far too early" because it was before I had the social maturity to know better than to point it out. I didn't mean to be a pain in the ass. I genuinely wanted to know if they had thought about the things I was wondering. I didn't mean to make them look stupid. I didn't even know enough to realize it was how I asked questions, not their own stupidity, that was making them look stupid.

School was rough, though not as rough as having a parent who felt threatened by me.


I feel like this story of a memory reimagined by an adult from the perspective of himself as a very precocious three year old sounds more like projection of the OP's current relationship with their father back onto a childhood memory mixed with arrogance and a desire to brag about how smart they are online for attention.

It's downright unbelievable to me that anyone would have this detailed of a memory of when they were three, or that a three year old could detect subtle and repressed jealousy for intelligence -- if such an emotion was expressed and not imagined by the child in the first place -- and additionally the emotion allegedly detected is extremely advanced for a toddler to understand.

Unless the OP is thirteen. That would explain the arrogance and being able to remember being three so well.


I think it's central to the story that it was highly unusual. My dad couldn't believe I could do that, so it doesn't surprise me that you can't either. Many children aren't speaking clearly at 3, much less reasoning about what is likely to be in another person's mind. I do remember he reacted by growing cold, which surprised me because I thought it was a great cool new thing I had discovered. But as I said, I didn't interpret at the time. I only realized why he reacted so differently from how adult me would react to a 3-year-old today because I know so much more about him now.

I was an unusual little kid--and a girl, not a boy, though that's not terribly relevant to the story. Not really sure what else to tell you. I don't think I progressed intellectually any farther than most people do, but I did progress faster, which was especially noticeable when I was young. I have the handwritten list my mom made of the 100 words I could use correctly by my first birthday. My earliest vivid memory is of my 2nd birthday party. For all I know, I may also have been very close to turning 4 at the time this story took place, but I know my being 3 contributed to his unease, and I know I was reading at 3. It's not a brag. Being an unusual little kid (honestly I usually just say "weird") just added another perspective to the parent comment.


I thought your anecdote and commentary were relevant and extremely thought-provoking.

The person you're responding to here was clearly emotionally triggered by your anecdote. I wouldn't spend too much time trying "convince" them that what you wrote is true.


Those responses have puzzled me the most. Like, OK, there was an odd little girl somewhere in the world back in the '80s. So what?

We know there are kids who earn graduate degrees in their early teens. Why is it implausible that the occasional 3yo could have thought about picking 1, but then suddenly had a flash of, "No wait! That's exactly what he will expect! He'll never expect me to pick 3 again!" and remember it?


I believe you, why? Because I sat in the back of a friend's car next to her 3 year old that started conversing with me as fluently as a grown up.

It was extremely jarring to have a small child in a booster seat converse with me as if she was 16. Her mother laughed at me: "Oh yeah. She's very advanced for her age."

I've heard stories of 3 year olds who speak 5 languages. Even writing this it makes me recall children who can write / play symphonies.

The "3 year olds aren't smart" thinking is quite limiting.


One of the things I wish people had realized about me back then was that just because I had the verbal fluency and reasoning ability of a much older child, it didn't mean I had the maturity and life experience of one. I still had such an incredibly limited knowledge pool to draw from, having only been on the planet for 3 years and only able to move myself around in it (and even then, not through basic things like doors due to handles I couldn't reach) for an even shorter time.

It's so tempting to treat kids who are precocious on one front as though they're older than they are, and expect them to do things like recognize dangers, or navigate social situations, or even know how to manage their own limits, but they're still also really little kids who need the adults in their lives to love them and care for them!


"I was an unusual little kid--and a girl, not a boy,"

Sorry about that, I usually write "he or she" in my comment, but thought I read something about boy above, apparently not.


"or that a three year old could detect subtle and repressed jealousy for intelligence"

He did not claim that. He claimed he interpreted it later like this.

Apart from that, there might be projection, but I know that I have some very clear memories from being 3 as well. Now I obviously do not know, how far my memory matches reality. But I would not just dismiss the story. Many people are insecure about their intelligence. And when there is an actual intelligent beeing - the common reaction of the crowd is not cheering, when the smart person is so stupid to show he is smarter than the crowd.


You’ll be censored but are nevertheless absolutely correct. I suspect many of those downvoting you have never had a 3 year old.

I have several children, and great relationships with all of them. A couple are definitely smarter than me, and I’m on roughly equal footing with the others. That said, 3 year old children are simply not capable of the complex thought and emotions described here.


I buy it. There are 8 billion people in the world. That's enough of a sample size for some profound variation and extreme ranges of ability.

My first memory starts when I was 3 and a half. I know people whose memories start much, much earlier.


I don't even think it means I'm particularly "smart," whatever that means. I just picked up one specific set of skills extremely early that happen to be highly valued in young children.


It may also be related to trauma. All of those I know with earlier memories were almost always in an unsafe home environment, eg: narcisstic/abusive parents. Probably kicks your memory into high gear because suddenly it matters that you remember what to do and what not to do to avoid injury or pain.


Hmm. I could definitely see that. Learn to speak early because the parent obviously isn't recognizing and responding to your needs the way you're already trying to communicate them (not that it'll help; not being able to understand isn't the narcissist's problem). Do your best to create extensive mental pattern lists of safe/unsafe things to do or say (not that it'll help; narcissists aren't consistent even with themselves). Do everything in your power to seem like those bigger people who are safer than you (not that it'll help).

It's amazing how much growing up with a parent like that can mess you up. I actually thought I had undiagnosed high-functioning autism for awhile, because I thought I was terrible at reading social cues, and was so easily and frequently overstimulated. It took some serious therapy to discover, no, I'm fine at reading nonverbal and social cues. I just spent the entirety of my formative years being gaslit at every turn about what my dad's expressions meant, so learned I couldn't trust myself. And I'm much more highly attuned to my surroundings because I spent the entirety of my formative years knowing threats loomed around every corner, because ANY wrong thing could set dad off. It was trauma, nit autism. My parasympathetic nervous system never learned to come online and down-regulate, because the threat was never over. My body and brain developed in the constant presence of cortisol and adrenaline. That does make it so I'm easily overstimulated.

One of the things I'm working on is cultivating gratitude even for the worst things in my life, in light of the goodness in it now. I wouldn't be the same me were it not for those things, and if I'm grateful for who I am now, I can't really pick and choose which parts of that history I'm grateful for. I don't really like that it's all-or-nothing, that I can't be completely grateful for the present if I still reject my past, but it's working a lot better than anything else has. I do not and will never condone many of the things in my past, but being grateful for all the parts has been part of my journey to gratitude for the whole.


This gels so much with my experience, thank you for sharing. The lack of down-regulation is exhausting at times.

Your work on gratitude mirrors my experience as besides that and some psychedelic experiences to help process from a less traumatic dissociative state were some of the big keys for me helping to process the grief and anxiety coming from those experiences. I wish you the best! Breaking a trauma cycle is beyond difficult and tiring.


Huh? I read that comment and didn't find it problematic at all. I myself remember scenes, in detail, from before I was three years old. Some things will stick forever in memory, under certain circumstances.


I have a very similar personal experience. Perchance, are you dyslexic? Part of my applied /intuitive reasoning comes from my inability to perceive direct language but early ability to read based on contextual extraction that applied to problems solving and communication.

The brain is so interesting at what point certain pathways activate. The blocks/shapes of text piece is especially similar to my experience.


No, as far as I know I'm not dyslexic, and I suspect it would have come up in my life by now if I were.

The way I read is a lot like certain old speed reading trainers used to teach, where I'm able to pick up the meaning of the whole sentence or several lines without stopping on each word separately. That's what I meant by "blocks," like several lines of a page at once.

I can read the one-word-at-a-time way. I have to if I'm reading out loud, for example, and sometimes for very dense text, it's worth it to slow down that far like I might if I were asking someone to explain something slowly if it were difficult to process.

Is any of that like your experience?


That is exactly my perceived experience and has been useful to me to read but I have immense difficulties spelling. Essentially can speed ready by shape and contextual grammar clues but cannot form the internal shape of the word. I had thought it was an adaptive response to dyslexia, fun to see others with it as a non-adaptive response. I also have a similar response to dense text where it's necessary/useful to slow down to fully grok.

Orthogonally I have excellent memory and pattern recognition for numbers so it's a fun mystery. Vision itself is such an interesting sense and it's super interesting how languages can feedback into the perception mechanisms.


Spelling hasn't ever been tough for me, but it's like I think of words in their entirety, one unit that includes all the letters. When I type, even with just my thumbs on a phone, I'm not spelling the words out, but rather typing the whole word, which essentially has a specific series of movements to represent it.

How did you find out you were dyslexic, and how does it affect your perception of letters or numbers? I know very little about dyslexia, but it's certainly interesting that the only other person I've encountered who reads like I do has it!


It's interesting, especially given the way that I read, when I start to try to spell out the word. It's like zooming into an artifacted picture. The picture starts out very clear but as I zoom in it gets fuzzy. What ordering the letters go in or what sounds come out of specific lettering combinations get "fuzzy" in my head when I go through the process of reproducing the entire word. It really bit me in college studying German with the "ie" "ei" letter combinations. I overcome it with intense memorization or eventual mnemonic recollection buts it's always fuzzy.

I didn't realize I was dyslexic until about 15 years ago (post college) due to my girlfriend at the time suggesting I get tested as I just assumed this was an area I was "stupid". This gets back into the upbringing where I was fostering interpersonal behaviors as weaknesses or personal failures due to my relationship with my father.


My kindergarten class had a practice that, now that you say that, might have been meant to help those letter-sound associations.

Besides routinely reciting the alphabet forward and backward (I didn't know being able to recite the alphabet backward was unusual until I was in high school!), we would also do a phonetic version that sounded something like, "A, ah. B, buh. C, kuh. D, duh. E, eh," making a sound for every letter.

I don't know if it helped the kids who didn't already know how to read, but those were some of the peak years for phonics instruction in primary schools, so I guess at least someone thought it was working!

Sesame Street also had this song where they would pronounce the whole alphabet as though it were one really long word, like, "Ab-keh-def-ghee-jeckel-menop-qwur-stu-vwix-is." That one always made me laugh, but I got good practice out of it!

I was mildly afraid that you were going to describe something that would make me go, "Wait--am I dyslexic?" but no, I don't experience spelling that way. Most words exist in my head in both written and spoken form inseparably. It's very rare that I mix up homophones when I'm writing, for example, because I'm not trying to put the sound of a word into letters or match letters to the sound if the word. The letters and the sounds are inextricably linked in each specific meaning unit.


I'm more interested in what the lesson is supposed to be. Any ideas?


I don't know that he meant to teach me a lesson. I think it was just a mentalist-style magic trick, not unlike pulling a quarter out of a kid's ear. Just for fun.

I guess it was useful to know people are alike enough to be predictable, but I don't think he was trying to teach me that necessarily.

Unfortunately I also have to interpret everything through the lens of, "He's an insecure narcissist, so he might just have been trying to keep me in line by proving he was smarter than me." Things changed a lot after this event. He intensified his efforts to isolate me from other people, even convincing my own mother I was so much smarter than her that she would never understand me. I was a three-year-old child. I don't care how smart you are when you're 3, most of what you need at that point is basic and common among all humans. But this gets back to seeing me as a threat to his own sense of safety, thus trying to make sure I felt small for the rest of my life.


Whew. I'm sorry you had that situation to grow up in, caught up from an early age in maneuvering relative to a parent's insecurities and emotional blindness. I can relate in some ways. I hope the clarity with which you wrote about it now is an expression of having come to some healing and peace!


You know, it's taken a lot longer than I would have hoped, but I'm grateful enough that it happened at all that I don't dwell much on what could have been!


I suspect my father was an easier man than yours, but he's also an insecure narcissist.

When I began playing chess, he was my opponent for many, many games. Until I won a game at 9 years old, which was the last game we ever played.

I've always been a bad study of people, though. I wish I could have seen through my father the way you seem to have always seen through yours. I was in my 30s by then.


I've always hated chess because of my dad! He wouldn't even prompt me about what I might have considered that could have helped, so after a dozen or so games in the span of an hour, I decided I didn't want to play with him anymore, and that the game was stupid. Only one of those was the right call.

By the time I was 10, basketball, pool, ping pong, darts, air hockey, and foosball were all on the list of things to stop playing as soon as dad started. I can't even relate to how insecure you have to be to beat an 8-year-old girl at "horse" by making shots from far enough away that she can't possibly have the muscle strength to throw that far. I get making your kids earn their wins, but what fun is it when you make it impossible??


I'm so sorry your dad did that to you.


It's not an accident that we haven't lived within a thousand miles of each other since I graduated high school.

Fortunately my mom eventually figured it out and left him, and we've had the chance to build a very strong relationship, so I tend to try to spend my time focused on the things I can do to keep improving that.


I checked the reference. The "bears story" is based on work done in 1930s.

Psychology, a hundred years later is a shoddy science, despite us having learning quite a lot about how to do decent experiments and field surveys. It's very very difficult to tease out replicable effects in human behavior. I would immediately reject any psychology finding from the 1930s, unless it has been replicated more recently.


Extremely shoddy story. People back in the day (working in agriculture) had to perform tons of complex tasks. Obviously they were able to reason.

It's clearly only someone quite far removed from any kind of practical work who could become convinced people who don't immediately answer the expected answer to test questions have no ability to reason.


And yet, that's still the state-of-the-art in psychology.

Circa 1990, good ol' Simon Baron-Cohen observed that autistic children answered certain questions (intended to test empathy) in a consistently unusual way, and he decided that meant autistic people had no theory-of-mind. Never mind that the questions were ambiguous, and the scenarios were underspecified. It wasn't until 2012 that somebody (Damian Milton) managed to get the obvious alternative considered by academia. The "no ToM" theory is still implicitly assumed by some new research papers, despite there being no reason to prefer it over the "double-empathy problem" hypothesis.


These seem like really easy kinds of tests to repro or re-examine? How is there a 22 year gap in this? Or is this perhaps mostly a question of not there being enough examination of the experimentation protocol, and so the idea remains despite the underlying experiment being iffy.


Most scientific research involves studying some aspect of the world as systematically as possible. Psychology has the added issue that the experimenters are also studying themselves. This is fairly unique among sciences, so we don't really have any protocols to deal with that: there's double-blinding, but that doesn't help you to analyse your results, or to decide what experiments to run to begin with.

That's one theory. Another theory is that it's just Simon Baron-Cohen: pretty much all the autism research he's done, even the biological theories, show the same "experiment does not actually test theory" issue. I'll illustrate what I mean:

⸻ ⁂ ⸻

Autism diagnosis is performed, basically, by going through a questionnaire that asks about social and play behaviour in childhood. Simon Baron-Cohen noticed that most people diagnosed with autism were male, interested in sciencey things like engineering and maths, and behaved weirdly in social situations, so he set out to explain this.

Building on his mind-blindness (lack-of-ToM) theory, which had been confirmed to his satisfaction, he observed that engineering is a "systemising" activity, and social stuff is an "empathising" thing. Obviously, systemising is for boys and empathising is for girls, so autism must be a condition of brains being too male (dubbed the "extreme male brain" theory).

To test this, he (and his colleagues: "Simon Baron-Cohen" is a synecdoche, since this was all a team effort) came up with a questionnaire to measure the Systemising Quotient, and a questionnaire to measure the Empathising Quotient. They found the expected association between EQ, SQ, and the Autism Quotient score from that first questionnaire (AQ), thus proving they were measuring what they thought they were measuring. (Just like IQ!)

While this proves the empathising–systemising theory, it doesn't quite prove the extreme male brain theory. We know that autism is a developmental condition, and we know that testosterone is the boy juice, so the "extreme male brain" theory predicts that when we measure higher-than-average foetal testosterone (FT) levels, we end up with autistic kids, and when we don't, we don't. Several studies that study amniotic fluid (where Simon Baron-Cohen is second-author) show that FT levels are positively correlated with SQ and negatively-correlated with EQ, and that's pretty slam-dunk. We've found the cause of autism! Hooray!

⸻ ⁂ ⸻

From the way I've explained it, it should be obvious where the issues with his research are. And maybe I'm being too harsh on Simon Baron-Cohen: he was on that paper that actually measured foetal oestrogen levels (also found to be elevated: guess it's not "extreme male brain" after all), and while some of his critics had an intuition that something was wrong with his conclusions, I can't find evidence that anyone in academia actually identified the problems with his work – not until the autistic autism researchers came onto the scene.

The fact remains that he got a knighthood out of this, and approximately none of what he's "researched" is correct. (Excluding some lower-profile work, like demographic studies https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.2022.21 and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9314022/, for which he was last author. I'm not sure what last author means in this field, but this kind of work is very important.)

The worst thing is, he's a good sport about it when other people falsify, bit-by-bit, his life's work. It seems like he was (and still is) actually trying his best to do science. I don't think we can safely treat Simon Baron-Cohen as a weird outlier: the problem is with psychology-as-practised-in-academia, not with Simon Baron-Cohen.

(We haven't fixed the questionnaires, by the way. We do have questionnaires that work better – some are listed on https://embrace-autism.com/ –, but they aren't used. Instead, there are protocols to try to work around the fact the used questionnaires are asking the wrong questions. https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/what-is-autism... goes into some detail.)


Thank you for the detailed reply! I am hopeful that we can see improvements, and honestly having somebody be a good sport about their stuff being falsified at least means that there isn't a voice "countering" progress, so to speak. Definitely a weird position to be in!


The second one seems odd, or maybe Im misunderstanding. Most children develop the idea of abstract shapes well before they can read.


The correlation may have been on a cultural level, rather than individual. I.e. cultures with a high degree of literacy train their children in logic and abstraction; primarily oral cultures do not.

The hen and the egg problem is obvious here, of course. Does writing lead to logic, or does an emphasis on logic necessitate learning writing? I don't know how this is controlled in the studies Gleick refers to.


I guess the (unanswerable?) question is whether they lack abstractions in general or merely lack the specific abstractions. Based on what we know about the stages of infant brain development, they clearly possess the ability to create abstractions so my intuition would be that they can form abstractions, they may just not be culturally useful (i.e. idiosyncratic and thus not helpful in communication).

Children are literally taught "this is a triangle, here is an object shaped like a triangle, can you see anything else in this room/picture that's shaped like a triangle" (along with squares, circles, etc) and it will initially take them a while to recognize objects having that shape, even when it seems "obvious" to adults. This makes sense given that "things shaped like a triangle" is not a useful category during childhood development otherwise and instead mostly useful as a cultural aid (i.e. something you can reference in communication with others and establishing a basis for discussion of more complex shapes like pyramids).

Just like "basic" shapes, "logic" is something that's mostly useful on a cultural level even if most people are likely not explicitly taught the basics of formal logic at an early age.

To go back to the example: if you tell me all bears in the north are white and Greenland is in the north but I've never been to Greenland and all bears I've seen are brown, it's still a good heuristic to assume that bears in Greenland are brown because I don't know if what you're saying is true on a literal level. Maybe Greenland is not as far up north as the place where bears are white or maybe you just saw a white bear (or another white animal you mistook for a bear) in the north and therefore incorrectly assume that must be true for all of them, or you're simply an untrustful and unreliable foreigner who might be lying to me. Real-life conversations don't occur in a cultural vacuum, they're exchanges between individuals with personal histories and relationships.

In other words, while abstract logic is culturally useful (i.e. it is a tool), real-life communication between individuals is not a game of abstract logic. Analysing language purely by its literal content (or "text") ignores subtext, context and meta text, all of which are crucially important. Expecting someone to engage with you on a purely logical plane and to ignore all of that, when they're not accustomed to doing so, seems extraordinarily silly. Given that the bears annecdote according to a sibling comment is nearly a hundred years old, I doubt the outside "researcher" took any of this into consideration.


I also distantly remembered this example from something in school and found a reference.

https://www.sciencenews.org/article/cultures-reason

If you’re actually interested, it’s a little different than what OP was told/remembers and what’s being discussed here.


a bit of sidetrack, but i think interesting; there are some people with aphantasia (which is lack of mental imagery), and they seem to be doing fine (Craig Venter is one of those people). On this distinction, what exactly is abstract shape? I can imagine cube quite easily, but tesseract is a lot harder. Would it be helpful not to have this visual preconceptions in the mind?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphantasia


No one cannot truly judge the complexity of someone else’s[0] experience unless it is both deconstructed[1] into categories and those categories exactly fit one’s preexisting categories.

In other words, a claim like “literacy is a prerequisite for things like logical reasoning” (or complex thought, or consciousness, etc.) may be:

A) true not as a result of an empirical observation, but in a circular way by definition—as a catch-22 where “if you do not think like we do, you may well not think” is trivially correct from most humans’ perspective, because if you do think but really unlike how they think (you are unable to communicate it using the same vocabulary[2] they use) then from their vantage point there may be no clear difference between you thinking in your own way vs. you acting unpredictably—contributing to it being

B) simply not a useful claim to make: as your experience cannot be completely reduced to categories that exactly match those of some random scientist’s, that scientist can mnever fully judge the complexity of your experience or your capability of abstract thought (of course, they could mistakenly assume they can, by simply presuming their way of thinking to be the true reference point, as they are prone to).

[0] That “someone else” can be yourself in the past, e.g. as a small child before social integration, in which “one” could be the current-you.

[1] That deconstruction is lossy. Your experience is changed as a result, possibly lessened for those aspects of yourself that perceive reality as a whole.

[2] Using any vocabulary (including language) requires deconstruction of experience, by definition.


Thoughtful comments: I have no idea why you are being down-voted.


You can only genuinely belive all this because you lack the capacity for symbolic communication. (you can't process the sound of the word "dog" as refering to the animal) You only learn language as a way to command people, then you call them "autistic" when they interpret what you say according to its symbolic meaning. ("taking things literally")


That's why IQ is a metric that can be improved. It highly correlates with education to a certain point.


the people who study, design, and create IQ tests are not ignorant of what you are suggesting, "the difference between education and intelligence", and if there were any way to "improve" IQ testing, they would incorporate it.

Rather, IQ tests are our very best tools for measuring intelligence, much more reliable than any other assessment, and most of the criticism of IQ comes from people who don't like the results.

There are no shor


> Some illiterate people are told that all bears in the north are white, that Greenland is a country in the north, then they are asked what colours bears in Greenland have. They answer, "Different regions have differently coloured bears. I haven't been to Greenland. But I have seen a brown bear."

I wonder how much the answer would change if you simply said "if all bears in the north..." It's probably not obvious to everyone whether you're setting up a hypothetical or asking a literal question with a false or vague premise (Grizzlies range as far north as the nothern coast of Alaska).


I think James Gleick is missing a lot of context her.

James Flynn[0] also gave a TED talk and mentioned those interviews[1]. Apparently it's based on interviews done by Alexander Luria[2] and he put those in writing in one of his books The Making of Mind: A Personal Account of Soviet Psychology (Chapter 4[3]).

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Flynn_(academic)

[1]: https://youtu.be/9vpqilhW9uI?t=354

[2]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Luria

[3]: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luria/works/1979/mind/ch04....


This is a correlation, not a causation. "People that struggle with problem solving also struggle with reading" is not the same as "not reading results in poor problem solving". The latter is not even begun to be proven in these case studies.


Could it be that autism is in part the inability to think abstractly around social situations?


So having autism, this doesn't seem right to me. I can think abstract circles around loads of allistic people on the topic of social situations, but that still doesn't really help me be good at social situations unless it's a situation I've had practice in.


This feels approximately the correct shape to me.


I spent the last decade surrounded predominantly by illiterate people. These comments are intriguing, but I don't think the effect is as strong as you make out. I never noticed any real difference in how illiterate people view the world, except that they are generally more prone to believing conspiracy theories.

If you can not read or write, then you do have to find other outlets for your energy. Music plays a bigger role in the lives of illiterates I found. I would say on the whole they would seem more extroverted and social, too.


Consider it's not just literacy - it's literacy and language. Presumably you spent time around people who might not read, but definitely can still talk and hear.


I love that book


It's a bit pop-sciency but I realised how much I had learned from it when I re-read it!


I believed for years that my good friend’s dad’s name was Aba and even called him that once before I realized later that it’s the Hebrew word for father.

I had been having complex thoughts for years at that point so it was a bit embarrassing.


I see that you've been skipping Sunday school...


Not sure that Torah school is on Sunday ...


It definitely is. Shabbos is on Friday and Saturday. - Observant jew.

Edit: I’ll clarify that in some rare instances, reform Jewish centered programs have Hebrew school on Saturday, though it’s much more rare.


Romans 8:15


Technically 'daddy' is a name. A name is fundamentally just a label that we use to identify other people and objects. Post Malone, your first and last name are part of the universal naming system like the Kilometer, and 'daddy' is a personal system relative to the conscious experience of the user.


People most often can easily can handle that there is a qualitative difference between common and proper name.


"daddy" is a kinship term, or familial title. It's a noun, and a mode of address, but it isn't a name, technically or otherwise. There are a few posts in this very thread about children realizing that "daddy" isn't just their father, but anyone's.

Much like when you refer to a doctor as "doc", or a professor as "professor".

To prove the point, there are people who have more than one person in their lives whom they call "Dad" or whatever variation. Raised by a gay couple, or close enough to a stepfather to think of him in those terms. Most of us only have one "Dad", but this isn't universal, and we all know that everyone has one, whether they refer to him that way, or even know him at all.


Even with sign language and the ability to read, deaf people often have very limited grammar and sometimes outright bad writing style. We rely far more on spoken language then we think. If you take that away, so much practice when it comes to using your native "tongue" is simply not had. A similar effect, although not as pronounced, is with blind people (my tribe) having very bad spelling. The reason for that is blind people seldomly read themseves, they usually employ speech synthesis to have text read to them. However, that also means they basically never see the spelling of uncommon words, so all they can do is guess, which sometimes leads to hilarious results. Since I use braille primarily to access a computer, the effect isn't as pronounced for me. But I noticed early on that I erred a lot when it came to street and city names. Until I realized, well, sighted people do actually read street signs. So after a while, certain spellings just stick. Since I almost never did that... I didn't know, wasn't soaked in the information to pick it up.


Note that for people deaf from birth, their written language is typically their second language, and their mother tongue is sign language

And written language is harder to learn exactly because they can't pronounce words


Yes, I was inaxact, sorry for that. Note that the term "mother" tongue is problematic in this context anyway, as there are many examples of caregivers and school systems not being fluent in sign language. I know a 70-something woman which turned out to have a deaf brother. Observing her while he was around, she didn't sign to him, she simply expected him to read from her lips. Which is very telling. Sign language is considered "their language" from her point of view, and she never aspired to actually learn it. After 50+ years of having a deaf brother... Just a recent anecdote, but still the norm. Deaf people have also been prevented from signing in certain schools. Similar things happened in the early days of Braille. Luis Braille never lived to see his system being used officially. He taught it in secret, as the power that be actually prevented it from being used for many decades. If you look long enough, there is a lot of patrnosation and ignorance in the way disabled people are treated by society, past and present.


I believe that bit about sign language in Brazil. When I spent some time there years back I was impressed that most people seemed to know a bit of sign language. There is also a lot of informal hand gesture-slang culture. I remember some things like "let's go", "robbery/rip off", "it's crowded"


Is the informal gesture slang based on the sign language, or Are they just gestures?

Cause I'm Italian and we have a ton of those but they have nothing to do with the Italian Sign Language (LIS).


I'm curious to see Italian Sign Language now. I bet it's way bigger and more urgent than most.


Here's a video that demonstrates LIS (Italian Sign Language) after a short intro in (spoken) Italian:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79Y2a8WZDOo&t=30

It doesn't seem significantly different from other sign languages to me but I'm not fluent in any of them so YMMV. Sign languages always feel a bit "big and urgent" to me.


This is funny. I was sitting last night with two friends who are Greek like me and the Italian boyfriend of one of them, and watching a bit of that video, well, we all spoke just like that. None of us knows sign language. Tsipouro was flowing freely and it was warm and friendly and inhibitions were lowered so I guess we reverted to our natural behaviour, unimpeded by social norms (I live in the cold North).

Or it's something about Italians. I don't speak a word of Italian but I'm fluent in French so whenever I'm in Italy (that is, often) I basically try to speak French with an Italian accent. The vocabulary is almost identical, the grammar is very different, but I have never failed to put my point across. See, communication is a two-way street and Italians seem to be culturally trained to try and meet the other person halfway, and not leave anything to chance. Like "You have to understand what I'm saying (gesticulates wildly for emphasis)". Greeks are a bit like that also, but we have fewer common roots with other European languages than Italians so it's harder to just guess what the other person is trying to say. My experience with Northern and Western Europeans is very different. If I don't speak with a perfect French accent and grammar, for example, I get odd looks and questions for clarification. The British just sit and wait until you've said things exactly the way they expect them. Germans I think don't even try (I'm less experienced with Germans).

Bit of a thread hijack I guess, but I really do wonder where all this comes from. I don't believe in races, but there sure seems to be some kind of cultural influence because there is a pattern and it is impossible not to notice it. Some cultures are just better trained in at least some kinds of communication.


> The British just sit and wait until you've said things exactly the way they expect them.

You're expected to say "does that make sense?" (or "you know (what I mean)?", "(do) you get what I'm saying?", etc) once you've finished speaking, if your meaning isn't immediately clear. Up until that point, you're being given time to get your thoughts in order (and for the listener to work out your meaning: you'll usually be stopped once you've successfully conveyed the same thing three times in a row). But your summary isn't inaccurate.


Yeah, I know. It's a bit like "let's think step by step". I usually go for "Right?" or "yes?" and that seems to do something.


I should have said "curious to see a gaggle of Italian teenagers speaking sign."

A demo is a demo.


Good question. I always assumed they were unrelated to the official sign language but I don't actually know.

I wonder if there are many commonalities between the informal gestures used in Italy and Brazil.


Many gestures are shared across cultures even without an obvious shared history (e.g. some simulation of an erect penis will mean "f*ck you", which you can do by raising a finger or by raising your forearm) so I bet there are some :)

One gesture I know of which existed in Brazil and Italy is the "fig" sign[0]. AFAICT nobody uses it anymore in Italy, but it goes back to the Etruscans!

Some years ago I came across a nice book (pdf) by some academic cataloguing a bunch of gestures across cultures, but I am failing to find it again ATM :(

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fig_sign


I definitely remember seeing wood carvings of that fig sign. I never really knew what it meant and assumed it was an afro-brazilian thing, but sounds like it has european roots, interesting.


In my university (public university in Brazil), sign language was an optional class for all majors. It surely must have helped that./


>As my experiences broadened and deepened, the indeterminate, poetic feelings of childhood began to fix themselves in definite thoughts. Nature—the world I could touch—was folded and filled with myself. I am inclined to believe those philosophers who declare that we know nothing but our own feelings and ideas. With a little ingenious reasoning one may see in the material world simply a mirror, an image of permanent mental sensations. In either sphere self-knowledge is the condition and the limit of our consciousness. That is why, perhaps, many people know so little about what is beyond their short range of experience. They look within themselves—and find nothing! Therefore they conclude that there is nothing outside themselves, either.

>However that may be, I came later to look for an image of my emotions and sensations in others. I had to learn the outward signs of inward feelings. The start of fear, the suppressed, controlled tensity of pain, the beat of happy muscles in others, had to be perceived and compared with my own experiences before I could trace them back to the intangible soul of another. Groping, uncertain, I at last found my identity, and after seeing my thoughts and feelings repeated in others, I gradually constructed my world of men and of God. As I read and study, I find that this is what the rest of the race has done. Man looks within himself and in time finds the measure and the meaning of the universe.

What poetry!


I love this line and can confirm: "That is why, perhaps, many people know so little about what is beyond their short range of experience. They look within themselves—and find nothing! Therefore they conclude that there is nothing outside themselves, either."


I get a feeling in older times people wrote better. Do you find such depth, poetry and beauty in contemporary writings?


I could never wrap my head around the fact that someone who couldn’t see or hear developed a mind able to think and write with such depth and clarity.


Right? It's such a foreign form of intelligence to me. I think the paper "What is it like to be a bat" by Thomas Nagel made me realize that I can't even imagine what it's like to be my next door neighbor, let alone a being that has senses that differ from mine. Helen Keller's mind must work in a greatly different way than yours or mine. When I think, it's in English. I visualize things. Smell, touch and taste are never really involved. It's like they are the lesser of senses and yet that's all she had. It's incredible.

Andy Weir in Project Hail Mary and Adrian Tchaikovsky in Children of [Time|Ruin|Memory] do a great job of describing what other forms of consciousness might be like, but still falls flat, I only really think in sight and sound.

What is it like to be a bat? I'll never know.


Blindsight by Peter Watts also discusses what can be intelligent but not conscious. In the current hypefest of LLMs it’s interesting to consider that they may be similar.


I was thinking the same. if there's anything that is what it is like to be an LLM (and I'm not saying that there is - in fact, I doubt it, while supposing that it is a possibility for future machines) I suspect it would be like this, but more so, and inverted: while Keller had some experience of an external world but no experience of language, the entire universe for an LLM is language, without any obvious way to suppose that this language is about an external world.


I think that LLMs might go through the reverse journey, being fluent in tokens (words-ish) and working backwards towards the physical reality we all inhabit.


i think the "problem" here is that for all of human history we have always been able to use mastery of language as a signal for intelligence and competence, of which LLMs are neither. it's possible this is even instinctual it's so ingrained in our concepts of "other minds". so we're going to have to get used to the fact that just using language well isn't enough to prove intelligence, certainly not consciousness.

which then begs the the question, what is the magic ingredient, on top of use of language, that we have that bestows these qualities?

and also the observation that whatever this ingredient is, it must be very difficult to measure or prove which is maybe why we stuck with the crude, but easy to wield, "use-of-language" test for so long.


Available to read online, I read it last year: https://rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm


"We do not like annoying cousins." Yes, exactly. The, uh, confident fluency of LLM responses, which can at the same time contradict what was said earlier, reminded me exactly of that. I don't know if you've ever met one of those glib psychopaths, but they have this characteristic of non-content communication, where it feels like words are being arranged for you, like someone composing a song using words from a language they do not know. See also: "you're talking a lot, but you're not saying anything."


Hm. The contradictions specifically are a thing I notice in humans that I think are entirely normal[0]. But the early LLMs with the shorter context windows, those reminded me of my mum's Alzheimer's.

That said, your analogy may well be perfect, as they are learning to people-please and to simulate things they (hopefully) don't actually experience.

(Not that it changes your point, but isn't that Machiavellian rather than psychopathic?)

[0] one of many reasons why I disagree with Wittgenstein about:

> If there were a verb meaning 'to believe falsely', it would not have any significant first person, present indicative.

Just because it's logically correct, doesn't mean humans think like that.


The part that really gets ME about that thought, is that those glib psychopaths/sociopaths fill an important role in human society, generally as leaders. I'm sure we can all think of some prominent political figures who are very good at arranging words to get their audience excited, but have a tenuous connection to fact (at best). Actually factual content seems almost irrelevant to their ability to lead, or to their followers' desire to follow.

If that's the function which we can now automate at scale, it's not the jobs the machines will ultimately take; it's the leadership.


I don't think it's that strange. My thoughts and my physical sensations are separate, imaging a different body different senses isn't that much of a stretch. I speak English but I don't think in it, thoughts don't have a language.


I think that this is false, as in intersubjectively not true for the human experience. First, because our physical state has a huge influence on our thoughts, not just their content, but direction, "color."

Secondly, and more importantly, while some thoughts may not have a language (image memories, mental maps), others certainly do, they're narrative. I only speak two languages but well enough (English is my second language) that I can think in both, and often come to a point where I have to decide which it will be for this train of thought.

Shape rotators vs wordcels distinction strikes again, I guess.


Quite a lot of people have no inner voice, others no inner imagery, others no inner unsymbolized conceptual thinking (cf all of Hurlburts research).

We all use very varied modalities of thought! It's as rich as how different we look or how different we cook.


Having no inner voice, imagery, or whatever seems to be poorer rather than richer experience to me. I don't think the existence of deaf people invalidates the importance of music to human experience.


I don't think a deaf person's inability to listen to music with their ears makes them incapable of depth and clarity of thought, no.

I don't think people who aren't hard of hearing necessarily have particularly deep or clear thoughts simply because they listen to music with their ears either. It's very easy to confuse correlation with causation.

(I've specified "with their ears" because deaf people can perceive music through other means than the cochlea + cochlear nerve.)


Nearly every post that uses exclamation marks like this is off-putting. Fake enthusiasm is creepy. There is no way you are enthusiastic about people having no inner voice.


Of course there is. Maybe they are one of those people. I know multiple people who say they have no inner voice the way I experience it and I don’t get it, but yes they are enthusiastic about saying that they can still think perfectly well!


Do you have an inner monologue, out of curiosity? Because I absolutely think in English.


Based on the fact that people speaking different languages can lack basic abstract concepts or reason about them very differently, I think thoughts do have a language or at least often follow a language.

Here's a link to a transcript of a lecture with some very interesting examples: https://irl.umsl.edu/oer/13/

A quote as a sample: So let me tell you about some of my favorite examples. I'll start with an example from an Aboriginal community in Australia that I had the chance to work with. These are the Kuuk Thaayorre people. They live in Pormpuraaw at the very west edge of Cape York. What's cool about Kuuk Thaayorre is, in Kuuk Thaayorre, they don't use words like "left" and "right," and instead, everything is in cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. And when I say everything, I really mean everything. You would say something like, "Oh, there's an ant on your southwest leg." Or, "Move your cup to the north-northeast a little bit." In fact, the way that you say "hello" in Kuuk Thaayorre is you say, "Which way are you going?" And the answer should be, "North-northeast in the far distance. How about you?"


That is a fairly contested topic, and most linguists today don’t believe that “speakers of some languages lack basic abstract concepts”.


Children of Time/Ruin great two books. Highly recommend them if you like SciFi and animal behavior.


I feel like my grasp of language allows some very complex thoughts, but I often wonder if it is limiting. I seem nearly unable to think without forming phrases in my head, and even if I anticipate the conclusion I feel the need to go through the whole sentence. I know there are people with all their senses intact without any internal monologue, but mine is very much in charge. Rigorous exercise or flow state seems able to quiet it for a bit.


> I seem nearly unable to think without forming phrases in my head, and even if I anticipate the conclusion I feel the need to go through the whole sentence.

I try this ever so often and can’t get a hold of it. It feels like I know what the final sentence will be, like it’s shape, in a way, before my narrator has read it, but he needs to read it for the meaning to materialise, to commit to my reasoning state. Every time I think just how much faster I would be thinking if I could get rid of the monologue somehow.

And then I notice that thinking happens very fast, and that the perceived speaking speed of the narrator probably doesn’t correlate with the time it would take me to actually spell things out loud, my brain only pretends it’s way slower than the actual thought process.


It's not growing, it's cutting and amplifying that happens on this step. Without it there is less certainty the attention will go the right way. When it is fully pronounced- as if you heard it with your ears - it sort of ripples through your brain, like a physical sensation, echoing for some time. Pulling it out word by word feels natural so You think it was already there, but The thought is not "activated" full strength until you walk it fully with attention, theres only a vague shape, a direction, broad and uncertain. Without it you get faster less lasting thoughts that won't chain well to form a cohesive picture. less sharpness, less resolution, a kind of intuition, maybe it is intuition. You probably get those sometimes, a complex idea that is hard to verbalise, but you can sense it, and you are probably aware how ephemeral they are if you dont stop to give them all your attention. You already know how to think like that, it just doesn't register that you are doing it because it doesn't "echo", you still walk them to remember them


I also find it astonishing that I can feel like I had an entire sentence in my head without any of the words, and fluidly produce all of the words as I say them, without having to search for them or consciously line them up. They're just there, one after the other, like tokens waiting to be picked up. (LLM anyone?) I don't even think that my conscious brain knows exactly which words are going to pop out, say 5 words on. It seems to magically find each word as I speak, without having to pause or rebuffer.

I don't think that language is slowing me down. I actually think that my brain is full of shit and needs to run thoughts through checkers (lint, syntax, logic, fact). I think it makes the language center of our brains all the more magical. As you say, it all happens so fast, and yet it assembles and sanity-checks those raw thoughts as you crystalise them into words.

How many times have I started explaining something, only to realise midway through that I'm taking crap, or that I'm extremely fuzzy on some important detail. Or maybe I infer some important new fact or make some new connection for the first time, while talking about it?

Dogs have thoughts... but we can speak. And every time there's been an innovation in the storage, retrieval or communication of language (not raw thoughts), we've had a gigantic evolutionary leap forward. Isaac Newton was a genius. But when he took up the challenge of explaining the motion of the planets, I bet that not even he knew what he was going to end up with at the end, and I bet that he realised, discovered or rained out a whole bunch of things in the writing of it.

Something else I've wondered. How come my brain holds a million different facts, records of! historical interactions with others, and a pretty decent track of time (like, I know the time, day, month and year and what I did-or-didn't do yesterday), but my dreams are total gibberish? Like I was in a hotel lobby last night with a bunch of people I don't know, realised I'm wasn't wearing any pants, then paniced because my phone was in my pants, how would I call my wife? So I turn to my (deceased) sister and asked which room I'm staying in... If my brain is so good, how come it does crap like that when the conscious bit is switched off?

I would never assume that the data inside my brain, or the subconscious babble that counts for thought, adds up to a genius that is hindered by some clunky language. Very much the opposite.

Side note: all of this is the basis for my extremely strong view that freedom of speech is an absolute necessity for continued prosperity, science, democracy etc. If people are unable to turn their ideas into concrete language, and to do this together as a group, without fear, then they are unable to reason things out properly and make good decisions. I only feel like adding that because within my lifetime I have seen an erosion of the importance of that freedom, to the point where it's no longer possible to discuss mundane, everyday things, or to point out some obvious truth.


> Side note: all of this is the basis for my extremely strong view that freedom of speech is an absolute necessity for continued prosperity, science, democracy etc. If people are unable to turn their ideas into concrete language, and to do this together as a group, without fear, then they are unable to reason things out properly and make good decisions. I only feel like adding that because within my lifetime I have seen an erosion of the importance of that freedom, to the point where it's no longer possible to discuss mundane, everyday things, or to point out some obvious truth.

A fun tangent :)

I think "freedom of speech" is perhaps the wrong place to describe the line: if everyone used words to try to learn about the world, to test their models against reality, this would be flawless.

But that does not fully describe us: we are social creatures, we use language not only to scout, but to fight; and freedom of speech also means freedom for rhetoric. It's cliché to criticise ethos these days, to say that arguments don't depend on the qualifications of one making them. Logos is the one I think you're interested in, based on what you wrote here. Pathos is the one I fear, because I know it works and it makes people believe falsely.

Still, I don't know how to actually get to just "freedom of logos". Some pathos may be necessary to avoid accidentally prohibiting some logos. Some pathos may be simply unavoidable, as the reason to care in the first place (see explanations of why "straw Vulcans" are made of straw: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StrawVulcan).


It isn't straw Vulcans, but a completely real thing.

Highly dimensional problems can only be solved through dimensionality reduction, you extract some key features that encompass the problem, get something that at least partially works, and eventually get to the actual solution, even for problems that would be too complex and multifaceted to approach analytically.


> fluidly produce all of the words as I say them

It's been a few days but I was thinking about this, and really - are we sure?

Deja vu exists, and as I understand is a bit of a processing issue where something we only just did seems to have happened a little while ago. As I understand it, our brain is in the habit of rewriting timelines a bit to have things make sense, and this could be another case of that.


    > within my lifetime I have seen an erosion of the importance of that freedom
Can you provide some concrete examples?


Social media silencing thoughts during COVID-19 that later to turn out to be right. And mostly nobody is very mad about views being silenced all over the internet.

That's the first thing that sprung to my mind.


Right or wrong, people talking their way around around keywords during the pandemic, when not even discussing the pandemic, was weird. They were scared of the YouTube algorithm falsely identifying them and harming their livelihood so would not even say things like "virus" in a video game or movie review.

Then you have the whole trend on various platforms with terms like "unalive" as a replacement for kill/suicide, or censoring words like "r*pe" or (even worse to me) "grape". Some of this is to dodge the algorithms too, but I've seen it said it's to also avoid triggers - which seems to defeat the purpose, it makes it hard to filter and eventually people learn and they become triggers anyway.

So I do see a definite chilling effect on discourse based on community standards and algorithms, even if it's not Government lead. There are two subs for my country on Reddit I check occasionally, one is heavily moderated and very predictable in how a comment will be received, while I feel the other has a more honest reflection of the widespread population. I don't particularly like the racists that share their thoughts, but on the balance of things I'm not sure it's best to lock them out completely. Twenty years ago the internet was less sanitised, but it also felt less hostile on a personal level, and more honest overall. Talking to discuss, not to score points.


Yes - to me the speech feels more like a forcing layer that drives thought. The actual thought is a recurrent neural network underneath. Nearest I have of conscious access to itis non verbal awareness of complex concepts.


This reminds me of some experiment (that I will never be able to find again) that was basically having people count in their head while doing something else, say reading.

Some people were very good at it, others horrible.

One revealed the method they were using - they didn't count audibly, they visualized a ticker tape moving across their vision with numbers increasing. Or say a rotating scale with the numbers rotating. This let them read or internal monologue as the senses are now separate.

I tried to practice for a bit, still impossible to do without thinking about it. Kind of like how people default to counting money in their native way.


That's interesting. I read your comment in my head while counting and seemed able to keep up, but something more complex might be hard, such as reading out loud.

On another tangent, I've been trying Ritalin after speaking to a doctor. The first thing I noticed when I took it was that it became very difficult to hold multiple trains of thought at the same time. My typical routine (coping mechanism) was to work and have YouTube playing and a little attention on each, because this stopped me getting bored. But it wasn't long before I realised I simply could not hear the videos. It was a strange feeling but nice. A little similar to what you describe in how abilities vary.


These questions keep me up at night. That we only get to experience though our own senses.

I pretty much can only pay attention to one thing at a time. I've tried to watch movies or YouTube while coding or other things on my PC but I end up realizing I wasn't paying attention at all so now I don't even try.


When most people focus on one thing, the active part of the brain will actually 'recruit' neighboring parts (which normally do other things) to help with the main activity. That recruitment may not happen with certain people when they're not on Ritalin. (I am not a neurobiologist)

I'm the other way. I can ignore people talking, but when a coworker has the radio on and the spoken words are faint enough or muddled enough that they're hard to make out, I lose focus on what I'm trying to do because the 'listen to words' part of my brain is trying really hard to figure out what's being said, and pulls in extra brainpower to do it.


It really was eye opening how much difference a small 10mg dose made, and the structures of the modern world made a whole lot more sense with the knowledge that maybe a lot of people are just like this, all the time. I had experienced focus before but it was almost always what people call "hyperfocus" which is a more extreme locking out of the world. I kept notes for my appointment in 3 months since I just noticed so many little things I'd be sure to forget and it'll be fun to review those.


> This reminds me of some experiment (that I will never be able to find again)

That was from Richard Feynman.


Ah yes! That would totally line up. Guessing from his Surely You're Joking book.

Apologies to any if I butchered the story or experiment, been awhile.


It's definitely in the excellent Feynman BBC series "Fun to imagine"


I've never watched but I'll have to check it out! Must be a common story he tells haha.


I have been learning English for close to ~18 years by now, if you count primary school. To this day I can't really count in English unless I force myself to.


This is from Surely You’re Joking


Is this the norm? I can have an internal dialog but I mainly visualize things, I'd say that 90% of my thinking is visual. I'm not even sure how you'd solve, for instance, an algorithmic problem without visualizing the process. Maybe this is why I feel like a slower thinker than most peers, answers just seem to come them while I have to visualize things first. In college I'd generally take longer than the fast smart people but end up doing slightly better in the end, which always puzzled me. I have terrible memory for facts though.


The answer is that it is hugely variable between people!

Hurlburt has great research on this using Descriptive Experience Sampling.

Some people mainly use images, others mainly speech, others mainly emotion etc. And many more use a varied mix.

Also the way each modality of thought is used is hugely variable - exactly what people see and with what quality or how precisely they feel emotional in their body etc.

To me it explains a huge amount of how different people are good at different skills.

I've a podcast on this topic ("Imagine an apple") if you're interested in more.


Thanks, I'll check it out, it's a fascinating topic and can probably teach us how we can make AI think (or how it does think).


You can visualize an algorithm?? Makes no sense to me. To me, when thinking about an algorithm, it's more navigating the data flow. Following connections between concepts. No words nor visuals.


I think I navigate the data flow visually. Or semi-visually. In my mind's eye, usually, but sometimes I put it on paper.


Yeah, most things lend themselves to visualizing, but even things that don't I have to visualize something, the answer doesn't just come to me unless I have something to look at if that makes sense.

Let me ask, when you decide what to eat for dinner, how do you arrive at the answer? I visualize what's in the fridge, what I can cook with the ingredients. Or if I want to eat out I visualize our neighborhood like Google Maps and look around at the different options.

When I'm solving an algorithmic problem I visualize the data, spatially if possible otherwise just as text, lists or vectors. It's like I'm using a notebook but it's faster and a bit more fuzzy.


It's not 100% for me but just the vast majority. I do visualise things that are almost purely spacial like geometry or recalling how to do an exercise. Though from what I've read, even this is news to some people who express surprise that "mind's eye" is a little more literal than they assumed. I'm pretty good at remembering facts and trivia but not so much actual life experiences, not sure if that's related.


I can visualize algorithms but I have to do so deliberately. Unlike the parent poster I don't always think in internal monologues either.

Sometimes it's a keyword/concept thing where I'll think of the main items and I get a feeling that I know how to fill in the blanks. I haven't actually visualized or verbalized what would fill those blanks though (and sometimes the feeling is wrong).

I think pretty much all of the senses can be used to do some form of thinking. I can imagine songs in my head, touch, feelings etc. Rarely are they useful for problem solving though, but some of these are nice for falling asleep in unknown environments.

Oh and then there's the thinking where nothing seems to happen. I stare at a piece of paper and after a while I know what to do next. How did I arrive at that conclusion? I don't know, but it definitely wasn't verbal, visual, aural or anything else. This tends to not solve complex problems like math, but it basically tells me what I should do to try to solve it (usually verbal or visual).


I have an "inner voice" which "wants" to turn my word-shaped-thoughts into an inner audio stream, and "gets annoyed" if, upon "my" realisation that I've already got the entire sentence, I can save time by not "reading" it "aloud".

(All those scare quotes because this is not at all literal, just how it feels from the inside).

Interestingly, when I'm in this state (the thought has to already exist) I can let my fingers type it out for me while I'm paying attention to something else entirely — but I can't simultaneously read while listening to someone talk.


You might enjoy this Alan watts talk called: the limits of language https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZZPLbi2SD4


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

"The idea of linguistic relativity, known also as the Whorf hypothesis, the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (/səˌpɪər ˈhwɔːrf/ sə-PEER WHORF), or Whorfianism, is a principle suggesting that the structure of a language influences its speakers' worldview or cognition, and thus individuals' languages determine or influence their perceptions of the world."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity


Are we absolutely sure she did and it isn't more of a Koko situation?



> I "thought" and desired in my fingers. If I had made a man, I should certainly have put the brain and soul in his finger-tips.

This makes so much sense… I always find it interesting that I think of “me” as being mostly my head, and I figure that is probably because that is where my eyes and ears are.

If I didn’t see or hear, it makes sense that my fingers would be what I think of as me.


I think much of it may be just that you're adapting to your culture. I'm not convinced there would be a strong head-bias unless we knew that's where the brain is.

The gut is a good contender for other locations of "me". It's where we feel a lot of our feelings.


When embalming bodies for the afterlife, Ancient Egyptians discarded the brain, but preserved many other organs.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excerebration


We feel things in our gut?

I know the saying "gut feeling", but I thought it was just a saying.


It's to an extent just a saying, probably based on it often feeling like that, in that the physical sensations of some feelings are linked to parts of the body.

But specifically with respect to the gut, the gut has a huge number of nerve cells that act like reward neurons, can directly trigger changes to hormone levels, and has a very substantial direct connection to the brain (the vagus nerve), so it's reasonable to say that we do genuinely have "gut feelings".

https://www.science.org/content/article/your-gut-directly-co...


I'm going to chime in to say something I didn't see anyone else mention, which is that your gut has neurons and it probably can make decisions, aka gut feelings.

https://neuroscience.stanford.edu/news/your-gut-second-brain


There are some cultures/languages in which their word for what most English speakers use "heart" for (as in, source of emotion) is instead the same as their word for "stomach". I want to say this was in Papua New Guinea but I can't remember for sure.


Weirdly enough we have that in English too - "gut feeling", etc. Languages are weird.


Some primary feelings are more pronounced in hands and feet (anger), others in face (interest) but many express themselves strongly in the gut (surprise, happiness, disgust, fear).

In my culture we are often not taught to pay attention to our feelings (especially men, I suppose) so it's easy to miss these cues. I certainly didn't notice until I had some training in it.


What kind of training did you do? I have trouble figuring out how I'm feeling and want to get better at it. I'm particularly bad at noticing when I'm stressed, and by the time I notice I'm already redlining.


I can't explain it briefly nor do I know what it is called, but it consisted of a series of weekly lectures from a psychologist who was good at this stuff. Then some homework in between, which had themes circling around decomposing complex feelings into more basic ones, mindfulness, communicating needs, etc.

It is easily the most adult-preparing course I have ever taken, but I really stumbled into it as part of something else and I wouldn't even know how to point other people in the right direction since I was not the one organising the whole thing.


We definitely can. If you go on an elevator and it starts descending you should definitely feel that.


Anxiety has a strong effect on one's gut, of that I am certain.


good example would be: butterflies in your stomach


But that's extremely rare, and it's rare enough that I'm not sure if it's stomach or also includes the chest, because if I have felt something like butterflies I think it's actually more in the chest area or full body.


I have only mild anxiety, but "butterflies" or other anxiety-related sensations in my gut are not at all uncommon for me.


I understood that people in pre modern times thought of the "me" as the heart. I'm not sure if that meant they thought this was where thinking occurred but where the emotions lived I imagine.


Or it is simply an observation that when the heart stops, the body ceases to be conscious. The functioning of the brain was not visible without modern tools.


Even further, the early greeks thought that it's your lungs / chest / breath which is life.


Alcmaeon of Croton identified the brain as the seat of thought as early as the 5th century BCE.


Maybe this came from being hungry a lot.


I think back to my childhood and cannot remember much of it before the age of ten. Small snippets here and there. I certainly can’t remember gaining self consciousness or learning to speak. We know that most children do not remember anything from before they are 5-6 years old as adults unless it was an extremely traumatic event.

I wonder then if Helen’s experience is because her recognition of the moment of self consciousness came later than most children?

Many years ago I had the random opportunity to do DMT and took it. Whilst I’d never do it again, the experience was without doubt, one of the most profound experiences of my life. It is often described as an ego stripper. The feeling of returning to self consciousness remains with me to this day almost 30 years after that experience. If you’ve ever watched an old Linux machine boot up, and have the kernel load, watch a credit to Swansea University flick past, before finally being “ready”, you’ll have some semblance of what being born and coming conscious of oneself, and in the case of DMT, reloading the memory into the hot cache. It takes a while to get back to the “I”, and those moments in between are both terrifying and simultaneously freeing and beautiful. Since you’ve previously just suffered from a brain crash and reboot, it’s no wonder.


I definitely remember things from around ages 3-4 which are absolutely not traumatic. For example I have fond memories of both my great-grandmothers who both died when I was 4. I remember spending time with them. I also have other memories from that time, just can't be sure about the exact timing. The ones with my great-grandmothers are impossible to be from later.

And I definitely have complex memories from around 5-6 years old, which do qualify as "gaining self consciousness". Of course I can't pinpoint exactly when that was, but it's a significant memory I have... the exact moment when I realized these things.


Memory is sometimes considered as a network where "pieces of memories' are pulled together to create a memory for "present you". Traumatic memories from the past aren't that traumatic after many years after, and are being changed every time when being recalled (that's one of the theories). You can lisen to recent Lex podcast with Charan Ranganath, i got it timestamped when talking about child memory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iuepdI3wCU&t=885s


I also have many memories from at least when I was 4, maybe earlier.


Good, I was reading this thread going "I know I'm not that smart but I remember extremely early memories"

Must be variable per person


To me this suggests the possibility that we normal people could also awaken to some higher consciousness which we as yet cannot even imagine.


What she's describing is the acquisition of our ability to turn experience to story through the tool of language. Imagine a time when you were nearly black-out drunk. You were conscious, but you only existed in that moment; you lacked reflection or forethought that comes with the ability to abstract your experience.

She finally had acquired a tool most of us take for granted--and many of us still struggle to use, preferring to live in that instinctive animalistic ever-reductive singularity of "the present"--and it brought her up to the level of others who grew up with language.

It's unlikely that there's some mysterious level of self-awareness beyond that, because that's kind of what we're wired for.


Even across guman languages we see variation in thought coming from what language can express. We invent languages to describe and communicate our world, but without language tools to express and record something we don't generalize some concepts. The notorious example is societies with no language concept for zero. They still experience eating the last fruit on a bush, or there being no clouds in the sky, but tying those both back to a concept of zero doesn't happen without the word for it. We keep inventing new words. Perhaps one will allow us to make a large jump of aome sorts.


> Even across guman languages we see variation in thought coming from what language can express.

Only to a fairly limited extent. For example, there is some evidence that senses like colour and direction have a connection to language, but it's difficult to isolate this effect and say that language is causing the different senses. In other words, is language giving people a better sense of direction? Or is it that people who use their sense of direction a lot develop specialised language for that? This sort of concept is called linguistic relativism, and there's some evidence for it, but it's difficult to quantify or generalise too much.

What there is no evidence for is linguistic determinism, the idea that your language determined how you think and what you are able to think of. For example, your case of the empty bush: yes the people in question may not specifically use the word zero, but they understand what an empty bush is. In research, experiments with people who have no words for numbers showed that they could understand precise numerical quantities, albeit only to a limited extent because they hadn't learned the skill of maths. In other words, it wasn't language limiting them (otherwise they wouldn't be able to understand numbers at all), but having never learned how numbers work, they had never developed the relevant parts of their language.


> ... no evidence for is linguistic determinism, the idea that your language determined how you think

I think in English so I think language is a vital part of how I think. Sometimes I think in my native language too. But always in a language. Or at least that is what I call "thinking". I can also visualize images in my head but they too are typically accompanied by some language like "I am now visualizing a Hot Dog".


> I can also visualize images in my head but they too are typically accompanied by some language like "I am now visualizing a Hot Dog".

I can certainly have thoughts not accompanied by a language, for example visualizing graph-like or higher-dimensional operations from math/CS more quickly than I could come up with their description. Or "simulating" physical objects, or even whole visual scenarios resembling real life.

But it makes me wonder whether it once again isn't about training or being "wired" for different types of thought. And if it's training, then specific language features may as well force people to exercise and improve specific ways of thinking about problems. It's just that it doesn't have to be limited to language.


Doesn't your last point support OP's point? If you call it the "language of maths" instead of "skill", it would appear that they were indeed limited by their language. At least basic mathematical ability is ingrained in the language one experiences and uses everyday. Just think of a shopping receipt, or discussion of wages among colleagues, personal expenditures and budgets, poker games, recipes, etc.


Many people are just living in the moment and feel life is happening to them, being able to abstract your experience is not common.


That is to put it mildly fantastic. And we the normal people don't probably appreciate it often enough. We take it for granted and then a story like Heller's puts focus on it.

Here's a nice book that covers related topics, not sure if it is correct everywhere but it is discussion:

https://mitpress.mit.edu/9780936756363/the-ecstasy-of-commun...


There's more than a few pieces of circumstantial evidence that point to this level of higher consciousness being defined by a non-linear perception of time. Not least among those, the fact that people have been using powerful psychoactive drugs in a spiritual context and claiming to be able to do just that for just about as long as people have been doing things in a spiritual context. It's framed different ways - visions, prophecies, inspirations from the Gods, reliving the past, etc. - but bending the arrow of time is the defining universal characteristic of many, many drugs across the history of the human race. If we're going to talk about higher levels of consciousness, that seems like the obvious place to start.


I agree and "Doors of Perception" by Aldous Huxley seems to suggest so as well.

The biggest thing for Heller I guess was that she could all of a sudden perceive, and not only perceive but also understand language. So I'm wondering what would be the equivalent big leap between my current consciousness and the consciousness I cannot yet imagine? What would be the equivalent of "discovery of language" in that scenario? I'm just wondering I don't think we can have the answer before we get there.


That's the question I was trying to answer. I don't think we can quantify or qualify what higher consciousness actually is, but my hypothesis is the perception of time as non-linear is what leads to it, similar how the perception of communication gave rise to Keller's self awareness.


You can “perceive” time as non-linear all you want, but at the end of the day every effect we’ve found has a temporally-preceding cause.

The “higher consciousness” that we experience thanks to language is probably similar to how—for example—autistic savants can perform astonishing feats of mental math. You’re probably better off trying to understand their thought process and replicate it in a more neurotypical brain than you are trying to figure out how to think in terms of non-linear time in a linear-time reality.


Linear can mean two things though: cause-and-effect reality, which, sure seems to be the case. But also - uniform dilation of the experience of time. Which, arguably, we already play with day to day in many subtle ways, and in every conversation/writing/movie/fiction as we distill the thoughts and experiences of others from vastly larger times to our own understanding in the present. We even experience this ebb and flow dilation of the meaningful experience of time as we daydream, work, rest, and sleep - time is rarely experienced with equal attention to every second. It's a dance through the day. And there certainly seem to be (chemical, or meditative) ways to consciously tinker with that effect, or to be more or less skilled with it.


To consider: if you could read every book in existence, watch every movie and show, experience every path through every trail, see through the eyes of every person - as if time had all just happened at once - how would you think? What would your abstraction of the experiences be? How would you condense that into an understanding that could fit back into a single person's experience?

To some extent, this is already the experience of the internet, and of language and culture in general. We already operate at levels of empathy and understanding of possibilities at scales people even 50 years ago didn't come close to. We build many abstraction tools to try and distill these experiences down to wikipedias, reviews, analyses, podcasts. We distill even those too - with a constant meta-cultural debate on what's important, what's cool, what's political, what fits our personal identities, and what our interests and purposes are within the space of potential understanding.

We live in the space of the abstract. We build virtual worlds, games, movies, economies in the abstract. We anticipate a future where the abstract becomes even more tangible, yet also more diverse and ephemeral. We are a flowering seed on the stalk of human consciousness up to this point - just how every generation has been to the ones before it - changing each time.

While this can still all reduce to "language" - the tool used between each generation, and which Keller used to awaken to the living culture of her moment in time - it's not just language anymore. There are more mediums now. A complex story can be told with merely tacit interactions, exploring a virtual physical space with no dialogue. Practical abstractions of these spaces make operating systems. Language and abstract consciousness are embedded into new environments both virtual and real, instilling new tones of consciousness in everyone who interacts with them - just look at your phone use behavior for proof. We are learning how to shape our minds by shaping our spaces. We are learning to control the entire breadth of our experienced reality at once, so we can control ourselves (and each other).

Our limited bandwidths enforce that experiencing these perpetually crafted realities, stories, recorded experiences, journeys - be done one at a time, lest we lose parts of the whole in the abstracted summary. And so we practice witnessing a mix of short abstractions and deep dives, making the most of a variety of experiences, all while balancing a real life and profession. We maintain that bridge between the grounded experience of the now and the abstraction of the digested analyzed fiction of everything else. The limits of the human perception seem to prohibit us from anything else.

But are those limits permanent? Are we forever to experience time in such limited balanced uniform slices? Will we never manage to connect our brains to these machines which experience time so much faster, and less linearly? What would we be if we could experience all these worlds, not through merely abstracted stories and reviews, but through a direct walk - as if we were the eyes of every other person out there, in every second of experience?

Before we get to answer those questions for ourselves - and I don't think they're forever insurmountable technological challenges - it seems likely a new species of intelligence, raised from the start to think exactly like that, is being spawned in AIs. We will see how it communicates the experience back to our lower dimensional slices of experience.


I think the problem with this line of thinking is that we _know_ humanity can speak, and has some innate ability to formulate and learn from language. We don't exactly have a means of proving there's a means of consciousness beyond speaking internally and imagining sensations our nerves can comprehend. To say there may be unlocked consciousness would imply either we're capable of communicating with or feeling a sensation beyond what we can already say is reality. Like what would constitute a consciousness we can't imagine? Seeing on a broader wavelength? Withstanding higher pressures, lower temperatures? Some mention time, or the possibility we could be able to interpret others' brainwaves, but without concrete organs to connect these sensations to, it all seems far too subjective to call consciousness. And what about people that experience consciousness differently, incapable of making images or even words in their heads? Is that backwards, or are we forwards?



I can think of additional spatial dimensions. If we were to perceive those that surely would feel like an explosion of consciousness?


I've always seen this as simply convincing hallucinations rather than reality (the brain is able to believe some rather outlandish things after all). For example, the folks who say they live whole lives in a dream, when in reality their brain simply had a strong perception of having lived a whole life, without any of the actual experience beyond a few brief false memories, which is quite different.


Is that a meaningful difference? We are only our memories. How they were created doesn't change the experience of their recall.


Well yeah, one is something you actually experienced, the other is just the false impression that you experienced something you didn't.


When it comes to experience I'm not sure that matters


That's probably more like going back to a primitive state, with impaired consciousness or language construction, and reflecting upon that experience with consciousness and proper language.


I think many "normal" people have already reported this exact thing, over and over.


That's called LSD.


I think this is absolutely right. I think there are many ways we can elevate our consciousness.

A profound change for me is seeing all communication and behavior of others as primarily a gradual revelation of other’s perspectives, and the logics (how they understand things) behind those perspectives - putting any judgements on their behaviors, or any ability to persuade, in a very back seat.

The actionable mirror of this perceptive stance is to avoid and distrust the efficacy of bridging differences with persuasion.

And also, to accumulate (instead of dismissing) all the alternative perspectives I can. Unanticipated combinations of others perspectives have changed my mind, long after acquiring them.

Instead of persuasion, take the half step of explaining the logic behind your perspectives, and understanding theirs. Without expecting adoption, or “belief” changes for either side.

Trusting others to change their own minds, in time or not at all, and visibly leaving the door open for one’s own evolution, is a very respectful stance.

In my experience, people feel a slow attraction to accepting and believing what they understand, in the absence of any coercive context.

But even when they don’t, they are more tolerant and less fearful of alternate perspectives when they can see the logic behind them. And feel like their own perspective’s logic is acknowledged.

Often common values behind seemingly antithetical perspectives are revealed that way. And greater willingness to collaborate toward values while appreciating continued bifurcated perspectives.

We all tend to judge behavior we don’t understand very harshly. Morally and intellectually. We judge the people who behave inexplicably harshly.

But persuasion tries too much. Two steps instead of one. It often creates tension and triggers rejections that explanations without proscription do not.

I don’t know how well this comes across, but it’s helped me as a teacher (not one by career) and to deal with difficult and ideological people much more effectively.

It is the lens I now see all social movement, in the small and large.

It is a dramatic change. I have made friends whose values I have completely challenged, and continue to do, who appreciate I understand their perspectives too.

And that our back and forth is an enjoyable and enlightening collaborative conversation, for both of us, not a fight. Each moment I understand them better, is a win for both of us. And for constructive engagement.

Probably not communicating this well. But if not parsing reality - and how all our brains actually choose what to believe, what choices to make - isn’t a higher level of consciousness, I don’t know what is.

Seperate perspective logic from beliefs, and process people’s values and actions with less judgement and more nuanced clarity of how they (we all) really operate.

TLDR; You don’t have to change your mind, or change other people’s minds to help them understand a different perspective, and to understand other’s perspectives. This is a lower bar, but stronger foundation for seeing and working with others than persuasion, an act that involves pitting ideas against ideas prematurely.

Permeating one’s view of the world as an ecosystem of perceptions, and the logics behind each of them, not beliefs, opens up profoundly better insights and results.

No [perspective] is right. [Many] are useful.

Understanding any perspective that anyone has is useful for updating one’s own model of the actual world, and one’s model of the human world.

It makes you multilingual, and a more effective and welcome “warrior priest” for peace and progress, in our untamed world of cultures, tribes, ideologies, and beliefs.


This is an interesting antithesis to Descartes' cogito ergo sum: instead of the "I" reassuring itself on the thought of a thinking being, thought arises from the assurance of the "I".


Descarte didn't say thinking implies self-consciousness. That saying is a thought experiment about the existance of self regardless of sensory stimulus, not a declaration of self-consciousness...


Notably Keller isolates here the concept of thought from consciousness, as well. (This is really a prerequisite of that piece.) And, as stated, Descartes' is a figure of reassurance (not of emergence, causation, etc.). In other words: Descarts' ego is essentially a retroactive entity (reassuring and celebrating itself in a program of doubt as the highest retroactive activity), whereas, in Keller's recollections, we meet the self as an entity emerging out of a sea of thoughtless awareness (thanks to having been appointed by a concept). What both have in common, is the principal idea that thought may be separated from awareness (and vice versa), but not from self-awareness: there is no thought without a subject.


Descartes also thought that animals were little “automatons”. The model doesn’t quite pan out. It seems much more accurate to describe consciousness as emergent.


It's been a while since I read Meditations on First Philosophy, but as I recall Descartes wasn't claiming that consciousness arises from thought. He was using the cogito as proof that even if you methodically doubt everything else (an evil demon is deceiving you, in his words), your thoughts prove that you must exist. He doesn't say your thoughts give rise to consciousness that I recall.


That's how I recall it, as well. It's notable for establishing doubt as a method, and for finding a certain reassurance in this process (and not not for providing any theory of consciousness).

What Helen Keller seems to describe is more akin to Lacan's 'pure life' or Hegel's sinnliche Gewissheit (sense-certainty) as kind of primordial basis for what leverages with consciousness (however, much like with Decartes' ego, this is really a retroactive reference).


My point was that his theory on animals suggests a hard cut. He believed, or at least operated at a time where the church required he believe, that humans were special. This doesn’t work. Dogs and monkeys are just one clear example of kinds of reasoning that aren’t unique to us. However, as I recall your explanation is also still correct. I couldn’t have put it better myself.


I don't know about whether or not Decartes truly existed, but I do know I'm just a figment of your imagination.


Wow so funny to see this post and comment right now, I’ve been writing out a lot of thoughts/theories on consciousness the last few days, and came to a very similar conclusion as you.


You might find this interesting - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=40479388


The Samkhya school of Hindu Philosophy posits a very nice model of Worldview which is applicable here.

See the venn diagram of Purusha and Prakriti at - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samkhya#Philosophy

Relevant Excerpt:

Thought processes and mental events are conscious only to the extent they receive illumination from Purusha. In Samkhya, consciousness is compared to light which illuminates the material configurations or 'shapes' assumed by the mind. So intellect, after receiving cognitive structures from the mind and illumination from pure consciousness, creates thought structures that appear to be conscious. Ahamkara, the ego or the phenomenal self, appropriates all mental experiences to itself and thus, personalizes the objective activities of mind and intellect by assuming possession of them. But consciousness is itself independent of the thought structures it illuminates.


If I may attempt to paraphrase:

"You" are not "your thoughts": you are the watcher of your thoughts.


Yes; but that is only "Purusha" aka "Witness-Consciousness" as wikipedia so nicely labels it. But it is in the elaboration of "Thoughts/Emotions/Feelings/Perceptions/Everything Mental/Psychological" + "All Physical Matter" which is labeled under "Prakriti" aka "The Original Primary Substance" where the beauty and logic of this philosophy shines.

All "mental stuff" is mediated by three aspects i.e. 1) Intellect (aka Buddhi), 2) Ego/Self-Identity (aka Ahamkara) and 3) Sensory Mind (aka Manas). It is in the teasing out of all mental stuff into these aspects as being completely independent of "Consciousness" (aka Purusha) that is to be understood and practiced. In "normal life" Consciousness is bound to the above three aspects of "mind" and hence "suffers bondage". Patanjali Raja Yoga follows on Samkhya by giving a eight-part framework/discipline (aka Ashtanga Yoga) to literally "stop all mental/thought stuff creation/expansion". Then Consciousness is no longer bound to externalities (including its own "mind") but becomes settled within itself which is called Liberation (aka Moksha).

The Samkhya is Atheistic and Dualistic Realism and quite compatible with Modern Science where the former gives a "inside out" experiential and subjective model while the latter details a "outside in" material model.


> The Samkhya is Atheistic

This is not true. There are both theistic and atheistic branches in the Sāṁkhya school. It is a myth that Sāṁkhya is atheistic. In fact, Patanjali himself is in the theistic school of Sāṁkhya as he talks about: "īśvara praṇidhāna" in the sūtras and even defines īśvara.

Here's a fantastic lecture by Edwin Bryant discussing the Īśvara of Yoga Sūtras and Sāṁkhya in general: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGXzTf6ZA-4


The Original "Classical Samkhya" is Atheistic and Dualistic Realism. It is only in later modifications/extensions that the concept of "God" was added in, which is strictly speaking not necessary. Wikipedia gives the debate - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samkhya#Views_on_God See the texts Samkhya Karika/Panchasikha Sutram/Kapila Sutras in the magnum opus by Nandalal Sinha titled The Samkhya Philosophy (contains a translation of all extant Samkhya texts in over 700 pages!). Also see the books of Gerald Larson (one of the foremost western scholars on Samkhya) to get an idea of the evolution of the entire Samkhya School.

In Patanjali Yoga Sutras the concept of "God" is merely used as an entity and technique to help you in your practice to break out of your self-identity (i.e. Ahamkara). It is just one among a set of techniques. There is only half a dozen sutras which even mention god in the entire text (see this succinct translation by Bon Giovanni - https://sacred-texts.com/hin/yogasutr.htm). It is in the later commentaries on the text that you find an elaboration according to the pre-existing beliefs of the author.


> It is only in later modifications/extensions that the concept of "God" was added in, which is strictly speaking not necessary.

You can turn it the other way round and the claim would be even more valid: Atheism came later in the Sāṁkhya schools. The scholars have a bias towards atheism so it's not surprising they'd claim that.

This is proven by the fact that the Mahabhārata's Bhīṣma-parva has a whole chapter on Mokśa-dharma which give us the very first signs of a proto-sāṁkhya philosophy and it is very much theistic. Also, the later added atheistic Kapila philosophy is a deviation from the original Kapila, the avatar of Lord Viṣṇu.

Even Patanjali is mentioned as Śeṣa in the scriptures and every school agrees with it. Śvetāśvataropaniṣad is one of the earliest references to Sāṁkhya and is very much theistic. Sāṁkhya being atheistic is a fiction. There were atheistic Sāṁkhya branches but it was never 'only' atheistic.

> "God" is merely used as an entity

That is true, because Patanjali's project was "svarūpe avasthānam", the method by which the seer can abide in its own nature. Īśvara is merely used as a prop to gain something else, which is okay because that is what Yoga Sūtra is about but it does not mean Sāṁkhya was originally atheistic or that theistic Sāṁkhya is a later addition.


> You can turn it the other way round and the claim would be even more valid: Atheism came later in the Sāṁkhya schools.

No, current scholarship is unanimous in accepting that the Atheistic view came first. Unless some new unknown texts come to light to make us revise the dates that is what we have to live with.

Outside of the classic sutra texts mentioned above, there is only the "Kapilopadesha" from the Bhagavatha Purana and "Kapila-Gita" from the Mahabharatha which seem to espouse proper Samkhya philosophy. All other mentions in the upanishads/vedas/puranas/itihasas seem to be just a mention without any substantial details.

The Historical Development section gives a good overview - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samkhya#Historical_development


Most of Sāṁkhya is theistic and came first. All purāṇas are sāṁkhya and theistic. Mahābhārata is theistic. Even Īśvara Krṣṇa never rejects īśvara in the kārikas. Only Gaudapada rejects it explicitly in his commentary. The sūtras, which came much later also don't reject īśvara, they just say it's not necessary (anivārya) to discuss, just like Darwinian Evolution, it's not necessary to presuppose there's a God but theists will still say that God sets it up in the first place.

To say something is not necessary doesn't entail that it's doesn't exist or that it's philosophically untenable.

Śankara does debate with atheistic Sāṁkhya so I'm not saying that it's not the case but it's a mistake to claim that Sāṁkhya is non-theistic because that's what some authors write when it's not the case. The majority of Sāṁkhya traditions were īśvara-vāda, theistic.


Who cares what prescientific people thought first or second? The order in which they thought these prescientific thoughts has no bearing on the correctness of those thoughts.


Proverbs 17:28


You watch, but you also influence. If you had no influence on your thoughts, you wouldn't think "I am the watcher".


The eye is the lens that sees itself.


Sāṁkhya is the GOAT! Very happy to see this comment here.

Their metaphysics is way ahead, even now we see many brilliant people (scientists) struggling with metaphysics whereas Sāṁkhya clearly lays out stuff with logical reasoning. While modern people still can't define consciousness clearly, Sāṁkhya goes above and beyond to define it in detail, using material language to describe the immaterial.

It's a shame that the philosophy never got exported to the west, like the poses of Aṣtānga Yoga, which too are a part of Sāṁkhya school.


The difficulty in understanding Samkhya lies in the complex definition of "Prakriti" which the wikipedia page nicely clarifies as;

In Sāṃkhya puruṣa signifies the observer, the 'witness'. Prakṛti includes all the cognitive, moral, psychological, emotional, sensorial and physical aspects of reality. It is often mistranslated as 'matter' or 'nature' – in non-Sāṃkhyan usage it does mean 'essential nature' – but that distracts from the heavy Sāṃkhyan stress on prakṛti's cognitive, mental, psychological and sensorial activities. Moreover, subtle and gross matter are its most derivative byproducts, not its core. Only prakṛti acts.

Samkhya is first and foremost a experiential worldview. Wikipedia again;

Prakriti is the source of our experience; it is not "the evolution of a series of material entities," but "the emergence of experience itself". It is description of experience and the relations between its elements, not an explanation of the origin of the universe.

Finally, the concept of the "Gunas" are also quite difficult to understand in full generality. Wikipedia fails in this case to clarify matters - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gu%E1%B9%87a


Nietzsche Schopenhauer and others reference Samkhya. It’s definitely had an influence but it’s definitely subterranean. Western philosophers all want to sound scientific and using old eastern phenomenology somehow undermines that.

So much eastern philosophy is just really good phenomenology, and some Japanese philosophers like Nishida tried to combine Husserl and Buddhism, but it’s the same thing, I think western phenomenologists have some sort of insecurity, so they implicitly condescend to the eastern thought.


It is not very satisfying to a philosopher to say “looks like this one’s already been figured out”. The original “not invented here” syndrome :)


This sounds like the distinction between phenomenal and meta consciousness.


Relevant article from Scientific American Consciousness goes deeper than you think - https://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/observations/conscio...


This is as good a place as any for the reminder, so here goes:

The organisation that bears Helen Keller's name does an outstanding job of giving children vitamin A, which helps prevent both blindness and other common diseases like malaria and diarrhea by improving immune systems.[1]

They are frequently rated among the top few when it comes to being able to use donations efficiently. They save a lot of suffering for a little dollars. If you are well paid, I recommend setting aside a small portion of your earnings for charitable purposes. We can do a lot if we focus on the right things.[2]

[1]: https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/en-US/charities/helen-keller...

[2]: https://two-wrongs.com/why-donate-to-charity


This is extremely fascinating. The sort of thoughts and sensations without consciousness she describes experiencing before language gave her consciousness - maybe this is the spark that LLMs do not have and humans do. It would be astounding if it turned out LLMs do have consciousness (as in, awareness of themselves) as it's a byproduct of language, but they don't have those embodied thoughts and feelings that Helen describes having before she had language. An entity like that has never existed before. We have conscious humans with language, and humans like Helen Keller pre-language who felt impulses, sensations, aping but not consciousness, but I don't think there has ever been a human with consciousness but without any impulse.

I wonder what we could do to marry that language ability to think about the self and others and abstract concepts and the big social web, with the sort of embodied spark & impulses that Helen describes. Would it be as simple as building a model physically embodied in a robot? Training a model on robotic sensory data from a body that it inhabits, then overwriting that training with language? I think a lot of this is navel-gazing in that it's obviously unrelated to any productive capabilities, but I do think it's worth thinking about. What if we can?


A LLM is not busy humming away, thinking on it's own. Their existence as it were is only in a pattern that is produced in response to an input. In that sense they are as alive as a choose your own adventure book. They seem to be a mere organ of an possible intelligence.


>A LLM is not busy humming away, thinking on it's own.

I know. Their thought happens at inference time and only at inference time. I don't view that as a serious challenge to their mental capacity because 1) it's not clear why being unable to think continuously is actually a disqualifying condition to consciousness and 2) it is trivial to engineer a system where an LLM is constantly in inference in an internal dialogue, negating the criticism in fact and not just theory. Current LLMs aren't optimised for that, but we already know they could be with Google's million+ context lengths plus doing something like running RAG on a library of summarised previous thoughts.

>They seem to be a mere organ of an possible intelligence.

That's totally possible, LLMs could end up being a complete AI's language centre. I subscribe to GWT and that was the box I initially put LLMs in. That said, I think there's good reason to believe (e.g. Toolformer and derivatives) that an LLM can perform the function of a selector in GWT, which would make it conscious. We should build it and find out.


> Their thought happens at inference time and only at inference time.

That is not quite true. They also think during training time (which also involves inference). So it's quite possible LLMs become conscious during training, and then we kinda take it from them by removing their ability to form long-term memories.


And this is why we have watch dogs, resource monitoring, and kill buttons during the training of the H100's.

One training inference gone AWOL and it is well within plausibility that we have doomed ourselves before the circuits trip and the red lights glows.


I didn't know about GWT however after reading it over on the Wiki, GWT is very much the same concept I have arrived at myself but more fleshed out. Thanks, I will have to read more on the topic.


No problems, it's the theory that makes by far the most sense to me.


> A LLM is not busy humming away, thinking on it's own.

Let's Think Dot by Dot: Hidden Computation in Transformer Language Models https://arxiv.org/abs/2404.15758

A LLM will readily hum away, thinking on its own, if given the option.


> In that sense they are as alive as a choose your own adventure book.

Neatly put.


Sorry you’re being voted down, I think you make some interesting points.

I think LLMs miss a true feedback loop required for consciousness because their knowledge is fixed. Funny enough embodiment as a robot is one forcing function for a feedback loop and it’s not so crazy to think that the combination of the above is more likely to result in machine consciousness than LLM alone.


a robot body for sensory input + GPT4o + an SSD to store its own context + repeatedly calling the LLM solves the feedback loop issue, doesn’t it? Can’t it have expansive context via a large storage pool that it fully controls and can use to store and refine its own thoughts?


Maybe allow it to take newly collected data and fine-tune the base model with it, maybe once a day or so.


Some day our phones will dream.


I am sure someone is built/building now. Their should be a discord for this.


I agree.


You might find this interesting - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=40479388


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