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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Thinking Emotionally

In all my past posts on thinking, did I imply that there is a big gap between homo sapiens and all the other hominids? Or that thinking is peculiar to modern humans? Or that premodern humans (e.g. 40k years ago) and all other animals do not use symbols in thinking? Did I seem to say anywhere that language is only found in modern humans and probably is due to a naturally selected language gene?

And did I give you the impression that emotion is separate from thinking? Like, there is an emotional part of the brain (e.g. limbic system) and a rational part of the brain (e.g. prefrontal cortex)? Or that left brain, right brain stuff--one for being logical, the other artsy? And that humans become more rational by transcending their emotions? Or at least keeping them subordinated?

Well if I did, then I was wrong. I want to stand corrected.

And Stanley Greenspan and Stuart Shanker, The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved from Our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans, provides that correction. They add a lot to my thinking about thinking. And in fact push me beyond to thinking about thinking about thinking or what I shall call T3  (T x T x T) or even Tn. But I'll come back to that.

One author is a long time neurologist and child psychologist, the other a philosopher of language and anthropologist with studies in anthropoid apes; and both are students of evolutionary psychology. The model they advance (f/e or the functional/emotional theory) to correct earlier deterministic, mechanistic models for understanding symbolic thinking and language has two main theses: 1) development through culturally influenced child rearing within society explains symbolic thinking more than genetics; and 2) affect or emotion provides the central thrust in the development of symbolic thinking, language, and human intelligence. The developmental model complements the observations and theory of Jean Piaget but provides further explanation by demonstrating the affect aspect or the integration of emotions into the construct of symbols and the symbolic world. 

"The heart of this f/e approach to language development is that language skills emerge from a series of affective transformations that enable an infant, first, to self- regulate and take an interest in the world; and then, through a series of additional transformations, participate in complex social problem-solving interactions; engage in joint attention; perceive subtle social and communicative patterns; ‘read’ other people’s intentions; imitate increasingly sophisticated actions; develop a sense of ‘self’; and construct symbols." (Greenspan and Shanker, 2010)

They identify sixteen stages in normal or desired human development, six through infancy, three in later childhood, three in adolescence, four through middle to old age. They apply the f/e model of development to childhood and in fact all human behavior, to evolutionary theory, to the formation of groups, to history, and to international relations and a global future of humanity. They accommodate many diverse cultures with different affective signals leading to different symbols, languages, rituals, meanings, modes of being in the world (i.e. content) while affirming the unity and universality of human affective and rational development (i.e. structure).

In the process of development from infant to adult and from clan to civil society, symbolic constructs (ideas) are products of emotional signaling through bodily gestures in a social setting--starting with caregivers, proceeding to persons in authority, and significant others. The basic emotions that are being signaled are pleasure (e.g., feeling safe and comfortable) linked with smiling and holding and expressed in affection and attachment; and pain (e.g. feeling threatened and uncomfortable) linked to fear and withdrawal and expressed in fight or flight. These emotions become more complex and nuanced into a wider range as development progresses.

How these proceed into the advanced stages of development of skills and capacities, can be influenced by genetics or by organic disorders, but are largely influenced by caregiving and by succeeding social interaction in a cultural milieu. From emotional signaling comes a sense of self and others with varying degrees of security and insecurity. Emotional thinking with a secure sense of self and others leads to empathy and willingness to take the risk of others; while an insecure sense of self sees others as possible threats to be feared. The integration of emotions into words and symbols can lead to either inclusive, grey-area thinking over against all-or-nothing, polarized thinking. One opens more to critical, strategic thinking; the other to reactive, true-belief thinking.

The conclusions I draw from their theory that relate to my thinking about thinking include:

1. We neglect the emotional or affective dimension of human development at great risk of unintended and bad consequences. Therefore the body and bodily gesture are integral to human evolution.

2. Logical, multiple-cause, empathic, critical, and strategic thinking does not overcome or pass beyond emotions but consciously integrates emotion and affect into it. The sense of words or symbols derives primarily from the emotions with which they are associated.

3. In human development there is a growing separation or, better, distinction between idea and action (e.g. reaction without reflection), self and others (e.g. empathy with others as other selves), symbolic construction and reality (e.g. evidence and social assessment).

4. A developing sense of self, individually and communally, with internal standards and shared security is concomitant with a progressive organic model that allows for diversity and change with integrity as opposed to a polarized, fragmented, mechanistic approach.

5. Polarized, all-or-nothing, unintegrated, non-reflective, illogical, anti-social thinking is a result and sign of arrested or regressed development. The ability to accept and yet pass beyond preliminary meanings of concepts and to link concepts towards knowledge of the world requires a secure sense of the self and of belonging to social groups.

6. Human development is contingent on group development and the shaping of culture. Continuing human evolution will depend on how we come to terms with our new multi-cultural global community.

In the light of this development theory, I can't help but comment on George Lakoff's theory of framing language and one's symbolic world in respect to right wing and left wing political discourse. His notion is that liberals demonstrate a perspective from a "nourishing mother," while conservatives from a "strict parent." And there may be something to that theory in reflecting on the development model of human language and behavior. But its seems a bit oversimplified to me since both proponents of liberalism and conservatism can be caught in true-belief, ideological, all or nothing thinking. Progress and regress are historically woven together within families, communities, parties, and nations.

Nevertheless, developmental theory which stresses the role of caregiving and social interaction in culture is a corrective to a deterministic evolutionary model that makes genes and memes naturally selected beyond the capacities and choices of humankind. It demonstrates that we need not make a choice between personal choice (liberty) and socio-political choice (freedom) or between creative individuality and social responsibility.  Indeed it demonstrates that we achieve personal happiness as we pursue public happiness, that the limitations of others, cultures, and the worlds we inhabit are conditions for liberty and freedom, that personal innovation and creativity requires responsibility to others in our smallest to largest groupings.

It also shows that our individual choices do count, e.g. how we raise and educate our children, the political discourse we choose, the groups to whom we relate. But it also shows that we cannot achieve change and freedom alone or immediately. To change the culture of child rearing, political discourse, and global responsibility, we need each other.

Homo sapiens and the ability to think symbolically has risen to homo sapiens sapiens and the ability to think about thinking. That's T x T or T2. And these later works which are interdisciplinary experiments considering new models for thinking about thinking in a global multi-cultural context and what thinking about thinking says about continuing or the next stages of human evolution (homo sapiens sapiens sapientis) are, I think, instances of T3. This of course leads us to speculate that we may be caught in a mirror facing mirror infinite loop or Tn, meaning that we will never achieve the ultimate truth. While that may be frustrating to some, it is exhilarating to me. It indicates that we are achieving transcendence.


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