On cognition

Last time I wrote about some of the ways in which we perceive the world, and this got me to thinking about cognition in general. This idea that what we perceive may not have much to do with what reality actually “looks like” is fascinating to me, and not just because of what it might mean about the physical world.1Although that’s pretty trippy too. If our perception of the world doesn’t match reality, what does that mean about our perception of other things? Like, for instance, our own thoughts?

(This line of thinking is likely to get me down into a lot of rat holes, so bear with me as I do what will probably turn out to be quite a lot of research.)

Okay, so first off — I’m writing this post under the assumption that our thoughts are something we can perceive, which presupposes that our thoughts are separate from our “selves.”2After all, if that weren’t the case, then what would be doing the perceiving? (This supposition is rat hole number one, and I lost a couple hours already going down it, so let’s set that aside for now.) Anyway, I’m going to assume that when I say “thoughts,” you guys know what I mean3”The sky is blue,” for instance, is a “thought.” “Here comes the sun.” “It’s alright.” Stuff like that., and that you agree that “thoughts” are different from other things that go on in our brains.4Maybe some other time I’ll dive more deeply into that “what are thoughts made of” rat hole.

Mindfulness meditation stresses this difference between “thoughts” and “whatever it is that’s perceiving these thoughts.” One of the key techniques in mindfulness meditation is “watching your thoughts,” which makes explicit the distinction between a thought and the observer of the thought. Practicing this awareness leads (ideally) to becoming less caught up in one’s thoughts and more focused on living in the moment — which, in turn, leads to greater happiness and less stress.

This is also part of what works about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), an approach to psychotherapy that makes use of the difference between our thoughts (and our feelings and reactions to those thoughts) and reality. CBT proposes that when people are upset — and, specifically, upset for an extended amount of time, as in anxiety or depression — the events themselves are frequently not the things that are upsetting us, but rather the thoughts we have about them (and the meaning we ascribe to these thoughts).

These sea lions are almost certainly in the act of contemplating the nature of cognition.

So here’s where I start off-roading a little bit. If there’s an “observer,” then it’s possible for that observer to perceive different thoughts differently (or for different observers to perceive the same thought in different ways). It’s not all just “Oh look, a thought.”

We call those different perceptions of thoughts “feelings.” Let’s take the thought “I think I correctly answered most, but not all, of the questions on that test.” One person, who usually gets nothing but A’s on her tests, might have that thought and feel depressed about it. Another student might be thrilled with 70%.

And going back to that “user interface” theory of perception, in which our perception of reality isn’t necessarily reflective of truth, but rather just a way to interact with reality that works for us — well, similarly, those feelings we have about our thoughts aren’t necessarily reflective of the actual thought (or reality), but are rather just a way to interact with those thoughts that works for us.

Or, in many cases, does not work at all.

This brings me (finally) to the thing I really wanted to write about in this post: Relational Frame Theory (RFT). RFT is at its core a theory about human language, but since language is so important to us humans (and in particular, is frequently used to express our thoughts), the theory extends itself to human behavior — and to feelings.

(Another rat hole dive, this one into some of the intricacies of linguistics, could happen here. Instead, I’ll just link to Noam Chomsky and let you run with it if you want.)

Anyhoo, RFT says, in brief, that language is learned (and behavior can be understood) in large part through the act of relating things to each other, or performing “relational framing.” This includes inferring bi-directional relationships (e.g. “A lemon is yellow, therefore an example of something that is yellow is a lemon”), inferring combinatorial relationships (e.g. “A cow is bigger than a dog, and a dog is bigger than a mouse, therefore a cow is bigger than a mouse”), and deriving responses based on relationships (e.g. “Dogs scare me, and a collie is a type of dog, therefore, collies scare me”).

This may seem self-evident, but it’s actually a pretty big deal. For one thing, the possibilities are endless — you can relate anything to anything, and you can do it arbitrarily (i.e. without that relationship having ever been made before).5It doesn’t even have to make any sense. This ability to be arbitrary is how we humans can speak and think in constantly changing ways — ways that might have originally started out as nonsensical relationships, but have come to make sense over time. (For example, one might say that “Alice’s house is smarter than Bob’s house” — that sentence wouldn’t have made much sense 50 years ago, but does now.)6Watch out, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” We’ll get meaning out of you yet.

Traditionally, arbitrariness of language is held to be a human-only skill, and may be one of the ways in which we can differentiate human language from that of animals.7”What makes human language special is that there’s no finite limit as to what comes next.” refHowever, things like dolphin names, “whale-ese“, and the “sonic bullets” of prairie dogs demonstrate that there may be complexity to animal language that we haven’t quite sussed out yet. So, does RFT hold the key to what makes humans special?

Maybe. B.F. Skinner proved that non-humans are capable of “operant conditioning” — in other words, changing behavior (like the response of a dog to the sound of a bell) by introducing reinforcements (like food), and this is obviously true of humans as well. But humans can take this one step further, by changing behavior based on relationships. For example, if a human has been conditioned to expect a reward based on the sound of a bell, and is subsequently told that “a siren is the same as a bell,” then that human will also expect a reward if they hear a siren. A dog would not.

Well, sea lions might be able to. So who the heck knows.

So what does “separate” us from animals, exactly? I’m going to have to do a little research…

–maia

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Although that’s pretty trippy too.
2. After all, if that weren’t the case, then what would be doing the perceiving?
3. ”The sky is blue,” for instance, is a “thought.” “Here comes the sun.” “It’s alright.” Stuff like that.
4. Maybe some other time I’ll dive more deeply into that “what are thoughts made of” rat hole.
5. It doesn’t even have to make any sense.
6. Watch out, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” We’ll get meaning out of you yet.
7. ”What makes human language special is that there’s no finite limit as to what comes next.” ref

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *