Monday, June 22, 2009

Language, Thinking and Creativity

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
Language and Thinking - artist ken allan
A series of posts has recently nudged my interest in language and thinking. George Siemens, in his short post Tool making and language, drew our attention to Edmund Blair Bolles' post, The Idea of Language.

In it, Bolles posited that “the ingredients of speaking and toolmaking are similar. Both require a brain capable of complex imitation and a community that wants to share information. Toolmaking also requires hands capable of shaping tools, while speech requires a throat capable of vocalization.”

Different than chimps

Like the capability of making tools, the ability to use speech is an acquisition most humans own from birth. Peter Turney, in his post Meditation, Language, and Evolution, broaches the idea that meditation “seems to involve stopping or altering the internal monologue that usually fills our consciousness.” He posits that “this constant flow of language, is the main thing that distinguishes us from our nearest living relatives, the chimps.”

Peter thinks of the “human mind metaphorically as a chimp mind with language processing bolted on top.” But in the evolutionary history of humans, there must have been a time when language was a lesser part of our thinking and communicating. Even without language, our ancestors still had to think.

In order to think about complicated or complex ideas, humans today find a need to have the vocabulary of these in order to think about them and relate to one another.
I believe that our ancestors must have been experts at thinking abstractly. They would not have had a ready vocabulary to help them with their thinking.

Think vocab

Higher order thinking skills need vocabulary. But our ancestors, at the evolutionary stage I refer to, would not have had that vocabulary, nor even perhaps the language ability, but they still had to think.

Trying to think without vocabulary is difficult to do. But in a creative artistic pursuit, such as in music, or fine art, or even in poetry when thinking on the lines of J K Baxter’s matrix of a poem – not the words and form
the mind thinks abstractly and is facile in that mode. Language gets in the way of this facile thinking.

Many who are adept at this mode of thinking simply curtail the use of vocabulary. What Peter refers to as ‘language processing’ is simply shut down.
He sees advantages to "moderating the language layer" and suggests that "humans are in the middle of an ongoing evolutionary process; that language has not yet been fully integrated with our chimp cores."

Language may obstruct

I believe that language can get in the way of some modes of abstract thinking. Even the most highly skilled in the use of language have complained about the words getting in the way of what they wanted to express. William Wordsworth did and many poets have met this same impediment. Chicken-and-eggish though it may seem, it is understandable if you ascribe to the idea that words and language actually limit, rather than extend, some if not all forms of creative thinking.

Music extemporisation is a mode of thinking I’m familiar with. It is not unlike meditating. It has a similar calming and relaxing effect that is also prolonged, bringing about a feeling of at-one-ness most often met in playing jazz music, a genre based on extemporisation.

It’s curious that musicians who are site-readers and who are skilled in the notations and language of music, can often find it inordinately difficult to extemporise. I cite an example of this in Yehudi Menuhin, who had to admit that he could not improvise while he was dueting with Stephane Grappelli. That mode of thinking was beyond him, despite his undoubted superb skill with the violin.

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later


V Yonkers said...

If you think of "language" as a symbolic representation of ideas or experiences, then art and music are forms of language. "Reading" or "Writing" is a systematic representation of the idea. However, there is one more aspect of "language" that you did not include: the symbolic representation of ideas and experiences to communicate or co-create (negotiate meaning) with others.

The examples of children that have been isolated from language input demonstrates the social nature of language. Anyone who is multilingual will recognize how "ideas" are different in different languages. I am sure you access words and phrases that are distinctly Scottish to explain ideas that may be "foreign" in New Zealand because they just fit the situation better. There are ideas I express better in French, Spanish, or Dutch (even though my proficiency in the latter is limited). This is based on the negotiation of meaning with my environment and others as I learned the word. The meaning might change (as the word "teaching" has) as I interact with my environment and have different experiences. However, reflection and internal conversations are also important in developing meaning for the language.

Howard said...

Kia Ora Ken!
You've got me thinking again!
I've played and taught both Classical and Jazz and find them to be primarily different modes or methods of learning, maybe a little similar to written and oral traditions in language use. Proficiency in any of the above requires extensive pattern recognition with lots of physical and mental automaticity from seeing and playing a scale to complex stuff, like the ability to monitor your own sounds in relation to various parts of the ensemble's, so that you can think at a higher level (e.g. OMG - slap the backbeat harder, the violins are not keeping up with the trumpets.)

I have found that some conscious processes can also get in the way of playing and I often encourage students to step out and trust what they already know subconsciously, but don't yet realize. In a personal example, I was in an ensemble my first year in college and most of the other players were above my level. We played a jazz piece in Db and I hadn't had much experience in 5 flat patterns. The director pointed for me to solo and I was freaked. Every once in a while I recognized where we were in the piece and I would outline that chord, otherwise I just banged stuff out, wincing every time I heard something that didn't quite fit. I sheepishly lookup up at the end, expecting to see disgust in the faces of the other players. Instead everyone was nodding approval. In jazz (in my view) there are no wrong notes (for the most part) only wrong ways to use them. I had played my best solo by trusting my ear and my hands to recognize subconsciously what needed to come next.
I've thought often about how a higher mental processes (like belief in a dream or vision) might control lower process (like emotional engagement). I've thought of them as conscious and non-conscious, but it also seems to be rather more complicated than that, no?

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā korua Virginia, korua e Howard

My feeling is that there is a wealth of commonality in what we are all saying here - with some differences of course. I'd be extremely worried if there wasn't and, frankly, disappointed. :)

Thanks Virginia for introducing the symbolic representation of ideas in communicating. You are right that it is an important contribution, for it seems to lie at the heart of language. But the thinking that goes on in the mind, often without an attempt to communicate with another, can also be abstract and does not necessarily involve a (language) monologue. It's the monologue that I feel can limit thought, being strapped to vocab.

Howard, you alluded to this idea when you said, "that some conscious processes can also get in the way of playing (music) and I often encourage students to step out and trust what they already know subconsciously". I brought in the example of improvising in music for two reasons. One, that it was an example of creativity and thinking abstractly and the other, simply because I'd some experience in this mode of thinking.

I found that music was often easier to 'fall into' at times when other thinking was difficult. Like meditation, it has a calming effect - but it is also easier to adopt that mode of thinking. I used to use music as a break from studying the sciences. Though there were some undoubted areas of cross-over in these two disciplines, the mode of thinking I chose to adopt in music was abstract and relaxing.

I was classically trained on violin. Latterly I played, without music a lot of the time, in swing and jazz and Celtic extemporisations around the strict theme of Celtic music without being tied to the dots-on-wires. I identify with you about there being only wrong ways to use notes.

I also agree with what you say about the complexity of conscious versus non-conscious. That is a vast area for study and discussion.

Catchya later

Dan Erwin said...

On the one hand, the so-called fallacy of centrality posits that the better the information system, the less sensitive it is to novel events. For example, musicians tend to make decisions based upon their niche. East coast conservatory grads are completely at a loss to deal with vocal sounds outside their well-respected technologies. E.g. Bulgarian chorale work is cast into the darkness because of it's "primitiveness." As a bass-baritone, it strikes me that the West has a lot to learn from the Eastern European ability to create sounds not only different from, but also with a far deeper range. But we dare not--(it's too novel to study.)

Although language may obstruct, in my role as business coach, I've learned what Karl Weick, organizational specialist, has emphasized: rich vocabularies give options for construing the meaning of action and are more likely to reveal opportunities in what some see as threats.

When I work at corporations with little interpersonal/organizational behavior language, I'm struck by the negative impact this places upon performance. As a result, I have to teach the vocabulary at the same time that I'm intervening in the process to improve the performance.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai Dan!

Thank you for bringing this aspect to the site.

I agree with you about the power of "rich vocabularies (to) give options for construing the meaning of action". As a teacher, blogger and one-time scientist, I am forever aware of the power of language. In particular, the need for a learner to acquire the vocabulary of the subject is paramount to understanding the concepts contained there and gaining the skills that it supports. As you say, you "have to teach the vocabulary at the same time that (you are) intervening in the process to improve the performance".

These constructs are so important to learning and are what make communication the intricate vehicle that it is. They are like the soil and undergrowth of the niche that a musician resides in.

It's the cognitive action that's conducted without language that engages my attention here. I see two distinct modes of thought - one that is language (vocab) based and one that acts without the intervention of vocabulary. I'd be interested in learning your opinion about this aspect in business performance.

Catchya later

Unknown said...

I put a version of this comment on the thread in my own blog in response to Ken, but it probably belongs here as well. You may find my approach is more practical in nature and less academic/theoretical than other writings here. Not sure if I am violating some blogger code by posting twice. (Twice in the blogosphere, yet only once in Middle-earth.)

Anyway, my take on all this (as a performer/theorist/composer on extended hiatus) is that language can be either a limiting or an extending factor to musical expression. It depends whether you're trying to delve deeper into your existing capabilities via the subconscious mind ("Wow, I can improvise a melody to that!") or to expand your available range via the conscious mind ("Let me see if I can play that in a 'sardonic' way").

Language can obstruct our efforts to get in touch with the subconscious (outside of psychotherapy) but greatly expands our ability to synthesize new information and discover new ways of doing things. If you're not using verbal labels when making music, you are probably limited to, but delving deeper into, the musical language you already know. However, if you are applying verbal language to the process of musical creation you are probably expanding your musical vocabulary or learning a new musical language.

Another aspect of all this is when you want to communicate to another musician about something musical. Sometimes you can just sing or play what you are thinking of and that will be worth a thousand words. But then you are merely asking someone to mimic you. Greater authenticity occurs when you find the right words to convey or suggest the result you want, and the player figures out their own individual means to achieve the goal.

For example, some conductors or teachers will sing what they hear in their mind, and ask that the musicians get as close to that as they can; others tell the musicians exactly how to execute the music to achieve the result they want, while still others give their musicians a more abstract goal to shoot for ("fluffy clouds"). In the right hands, all can be effective, although I'd imagine the abstract approach is the most satisfying and expanding for skilled musicians.

Another consideration is that language is much slower than musical thought, so there is rarely enough time to verbalize an idea in the midst of music making. Where language comes into play is during the composition process or when practicing or analyzing a performance. When not making music in real-time, the bouncing around among different brain regions can really produce some interesting results. But in the heat of the moment, as the music is passing by, it is best to leave the verbal centers out of the process.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai Jonathan!

I so appreciate your ‘code-breaking’ to copy a comment to my post (I don’t really believe it’s code-breaking). I think you have confirmed what I was saying here, that sometimes “language can get in the way of some modes of abstract thinking” or at least can be left aside (since it's too slow as you say) when that mode of creativity is used.

Though I am a musician and I know a bit or two of music theory (I have been known to commit some of my compositions to paper!) I was quite unsure of the experiences and knowledge of those who were more proficient and knowledgeable in this than I am.

You said, Greater authenticity occurs when you find the right words to convey or suggest the result you want, and the player figures out their own individual means to achieve the goal. I guess interpretation is another aspect to communicating ideas. This, of course, puts a different complexion on any musical creation conveyed from one person to another.

I always wonder about the fidelity of the communication when this happens - one man's reel is another man's polka. I was sharply reminded of this some years ago when I was given a piece written in tablature for guitar, having spent many years leading up to that time playing fiddle and guitar from staff.

Thank you for explaining so eloquently your point of view here. I really appreciate the time you took to come and visit Middle-earth.

Catchya later