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What do human beings do when they communicate?

  1. Sep 2, 2009 #1


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    Strangely enough, given that this is something we all do all the time, the nature of human communication seems not to be at all well understood. Here’s my take on this –

    Other animals “communicate” in a certain sense – that is, they make noises or other signals that affect each other’s behavior. In the same sense, we could say plants “communicate” with insects. But what humans do with each other is clearly something different from that – though certainly it does involve making noises that affect behavior.

    Computers “communicate” with each other, in another sense – they copy data from one machine’s storage-unit to another’s. And there’s an aspect of human communication that’s clearly like this. We tell each other things, mainly through language, which is a very highly evolved and remarkably flexible means of encoding all sorts of information. But again there’s a very basic difference, because when humans communicate, data certainly is not just being copied from one person’s brain and imprinted on another’s. There is no physical or biological means by which this can be done.

    I think what actually happens when we communicate is profoundly complex. It depends on the fact that each of us has our own internal, imaginary world we’ve been developing all our lives – our “conscious mind” – a world no one else will ever experience. But a very important aspect of this imagined world is that it contains many other people, whom we imagine have minds of their own.

    Of course like ourselves, these other people really exist. But the point I’m making is that we also imagine them, and imagine ourselves, and the world in which we all live together. So when we talk with each other, the noises we make carry all sorts of meanings in terms of our respective inner worlds, and in terms of how we imagine each other’s worlds.

    Among other things, people use communication to give each other information, and their communication obviously affects how they behave. But these descriptions don’t get at what’s fundamental to communication – and it may be that we don’t yet have adequate ways of conceptualizing it.

    For example, to describe this process of mutual imagining as “symbolic” communication seems to me to miss the point. Sure, we’ve evolved symbols of many kinds, and doubtless this is very important in the evolution of human communication. It may be that the emergence of language played a role in our evolution comparable with the emergence of DNA in biological evolution. But this could only happen on the basis of a communicative connection that’s somehow established between people, despite the fact that we have no actual experience of each other’s minds.

    So I think what’s essential to human communication must already be at work in us by the time we’re born – in effect, we grow up inside it. Our genetic programming makes us sensitive to facial expressions and tones of voice from early infancy. Long before we become “conscious” in a human sense, we get tuned into the environment of emotional communication among the people around us. We’re preprogrammed to evolve a specific emotional language with our moms in particular. What gets “said” in this pre-verbal language is all about primary physiological needs, but also about a need for connection itself.

    If you’ve had a baby, you know how vital it is for you as the parent to understand what’s going on with him or her. It’s really scary when a kid cries, and you have no way of finding out why. So we parents are preprogrammed too, to try to communicate with our babies, working to develop an understanding connection with them, long before they really show any sign of coherent consciousness.

    In short, what seems to have evolved in the human species is a kind of emotional bridge that connects us with each other in a unique way – we naturally expect communication to evolve, as we grow up and learn to talk. It’s built into us from the start to imagine other people as beings like ourselves, with their own internal worlds of meaning. In fact, it’s only as we learn to talk and understand what other people say to us, that we begin building our own imaginary worlds, in our minds – in effect, by talking to ourselves.

    An interesting aspect of this idea is that it explains why communication seems so simple, conceptually – why we confuse it with mere data-transmission, for example – even though it must be by far the most complex thing we do. Even though learning to communicate, both emotionally and intellectually, is profoundly challenging, and can remain a major challenge for us all our lives. The thing is, we come to consciousness in the first place within a medium of communicative connection with other people, that tends to seem transparent .

    The nature of the connection itself tends to remain invisible, in much the same sense that light is invisible. That is, even though in a sense light is all we ever see, what we see isn’t light, but the things it lights up, around us. In a similar way, what we’re usually conscious of is what gets communicated between us – not the complicated interplay of mutual imagining that supports this kind of connection.

    One reason this interests me is the question it raises about how this kind of communicative connection evolved. I’m hoping to post some thoughts on that below, when I get a chance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 2, 2009 #2


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    You seem to be recapitulating the reasoning that led many to the "theory of mind" stance.


    I myself am a social constructionist and Vygotskean on these matters, so find ToM too concerned with looking for genetic components, cortical areas, mirror neurons, etc. The novel hardware hypothesis.

    The quick answer is of course humans are highly social creatures with a large brain that does the usual social stuff better.

    But human language is a semiotic step-up in the way DNA was earlier. What happened is that the brain is a hierarchical device and language applies a serial, digital constraint on its output. And as always, crisp constraints produce crisp new freedoms. The old social level of communcation was freed to be a symbolic and evolving one.
  4. Sep 3, 2009 #3


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    Yes, I had “theory of mind” in mind – I hate that designation, though, since “theory” to me implies something conscious, and even intellectually self-conscious, while what’s being investigated here is anything but that. The investigations are interesting, though, and at least make a start at analyzing the complexities involved in how we imagine each other.

    And I agree that “the novel hardware hypothesis” doesn’t get to the key issues with human evolution. It seems to me that our brain-hardware is 99.9% inherited from our primate ancestors, and the basis for the vast difference in capacities between us and them has to do with the evolution of the software that runs on our brains. The differences between us and the primates in neural hardware are genetic adaptations to the software requirements, I believe.

    Language is the most obvious aspect of the software today, along with the whole structure of knowledge and practice based on language. But what’s most interesting to me is thinking about pre-linguistic communication and how it evolved. The key point is that “software” is not built into us (genetically) when we’re born, but has to be literally “installed” in our brains through interaction with other humans, who already have it. So the process of software-evolution is essentially distinct from the genetic process.

    Basically, this is software for paying attention to things, on purpose. Our neural hardware already has built into it incredibly sophisticated technologies that automatically focus our attention on the aspects of our environment most relevant to species survival. What the software adds is a quite distinct capability to direct our attention internally – not only to what’s actually there around us, in real time, but also to things we’ve seen earlier and to things we may see in future.

    So the software lets us build an “internal world” in our minds, that extends in space and in time far beyond what we immediately experience. I would say, the basic difference between us and other animals is that they live essentially “in the here and now”, while we live in a highly articulated “reality” with a wide geography, a long past history and elaborate possibilities for the future.

    Of course I don’t mean that other animals have no memory or anticipation – on the contrary – as you’ve pointed out eloquently in other threads – the brain-hardware we inherit from them is all about anticipating the immediate future based on processing past experience. But this is obviously different from the world-construction and analysis that goes on in the human brain.

    Now from the beginning, this software must have had two distinct functions. Like every long-term evolutionary development, it has to be adaptive in some way. Among other things, this means that our internal world-building software has evolved to reflect the real world “out there” to a reasonable extent. But the second function is even more basic – the software has to get itself reproduced, from one brain to another, in order to survive.

    The functionality of building mental representations of the world (“theories”) is relatively well understood – it’s mainly what philosophy has focused on. The other functionality – the self-reproduction of the software we run on our brains – has received little attention, until recently. “Theory of mind” is a step in this direction.

    But use of the word “theory” implies that this is just an extension of the representational function – (I picture the infant sitting in its office at university, pondering the intellectual problem of its mother’s mind.) It seems almost to bypass the profound need we humans feel to have something to say to each other, to be seen and understood, to learn to how to connect with others by understanding them. This need must have roots much deeper than language, since it's basic to getting our mental software transferred from one generation to the next.
  5. Sep 3, 2009 #4


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    If this is a question you are interested in, I would say you have basically the correct approach and that this is a well researched area. Vygotsky and Mead would be two of the best historic cites. And it was my own original area of interest.

    Perhaps PM me if you want a full set of references to the literature.

    In brief, I would agree that anglo-saxon academic community is very resistant to a sociocultural approach to human mind. The very success of anglo-saxon culture being founded on the myth of the "self-actualising" man. But the answers exist for those willing to look.
  6. Sep 4, 2009 #5


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    Yes, that may well be... But I'm thinking we all have a much easier time focusing on the “world-constructing,” representational function of the mind than the communications function, which seems to me to be the key to our evolutionary process.

    To sum up the above – I think the software we run on our brains has evolved to fulfill two very distinct types of function:

    It’s a technology for paying attention to things in the world – learning to represent an imagined reality we can share with other people; AND

    It’s a technology for paying attention to each other – building and maintaining the web of relationships through which we imagine each other.

    I.e. our minds evolve to support both “it-relationships” and “you-relationships”.

    Representational issues are explicit from the beginning – when we learn to talk, as kids, we mainly learn to talk about the object-world we inhabit. Grown-ups point to things and tell us what they’re called. At the same time, we’re learning how to negotiate within the nexus of communication – but we get relatively little explicit information about how to do that. And what we learn -- e.g. how to be polite, how to make friends, how not to make a fool of yourself when you try to communicate -- tends to come with an emotional charge. Even when we grow up, there’s not a lot of explicit information out there about how this business of communication works between us, and it can be very awkward even to bring it up... I think because issues of communication have much deeper emotional roots than issues about objective reality.

    I relate this to the issues we’ve discussed in the physics forums – it’s much easier for us to take an objective standpoint and represent the universe “from outside”, as if we weren’t involved in it – as if there were some absolute, overall context for what happens in the world, independent of anyone’s particular viewpoint. That standpoint works very well, but only for certain aspects of what’s going on here.

    If the nature and structure of communication isn’t something you can see “from outside”, then to the extent we objectify this kind of process, we lose sight of what’s most fundamental in it. Ultimately communication comes down to one-on-one interaction in the specific context of this moment – whether we’re talking about communication in a specifically human sense, or physical information-exchange. My sense is that imagining the world from this standpoint – i.e. the standpoint of our “real time” existence inside this world-web of communicative interaction – is a profound challenge.
  7. Sep 4, 2009 #6


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    Definitely language had this dual directional effect. It heightened the self-world dichotomy, the distinction between the subjective and objective realms. A greater me-ness results also in a greater other-ness. And the other is both other minds as well as other objects. Both “it-relationships” and “you-relationships”.

    So the essential dichotomy - axis of symmetry breaking - was me-world. Then world dichotomised into mind-matter. Though of course the world seemed a very animate place to early cultures (trees, winds, seas, all had minds, were divine). Then a sharper separation into mind-matter made more recently.
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