Tonal Language

My cat just spoke to me. She's a talkative kitty, probably of a breed that cat books describe as "highly vocal." Non-cat people would just say that she meows a lot. To me, it seems like talking. We have conversations. There are complex patterns of tone and timing in her voice which in some instances are beautifully lyrical.

I describe this not to turn this into yet another random guy's website about his cats, but to introduce a question I'm having trouble framing. The thing is, when my cat talks to me, I swear it feels like speech. It's a subtle mental sensation, as though something were tickling my Wernicke's area. Somewhere in my skull, something is interpreting her vocalizations as language.

When speakers of English think of the components of language, they think in terms of consonants and vowels. But tone, the pattern of pitch in speaking, is also an important component of language. In English, tone can convey attitude or emotion, but in many languages, tone is phonemic, that is, a sequence of vowels and consonants spoken with one pattern of tone is an entirely different word than the same sequence with a different pattern.

Here's where I get wacky: What if tone in language now is a vestige of something older? What if our ancestors, long before modern language, had a language made of patterns of tone? Something primitive, hardwired, less flexible than the language instinct we have now? What if we still carry the remnants of its mechanisms in our genes, in our brains?

I know certain patterns of tone in music have an unmistakable effect on me. Certain specific moments in certain songs just get me. Of course, that could just be an emotional association I've formed during my lifetime, a trivial and common artifact of the evolution of one man's psyche. Or it could be an artifact of my culture, an arbitrary association between a set of notes and an emotion which is taught to us by the Western system of music. But it feels deeper.

If there is an ancient tonal language in us, I want to know more about it. It might mean that music and language are two branches of the same tree, and that would have implications about the meaning of music. Are composers unknowingly attempting to write treatises in a forgotten tongue? Are great composers simply those who got it right, reciting to us deep and moving poems in words only our unconscious minds can hear?

And if my unconscious has a language, could I speak to it deliberately, tell it things? Our understanding of the workings of our own minds is cloudy at best, and our relationship to our unconscious troubled. What if I could program my unconscious just by playing the right music? We try to do that now, we play peppy songs to cheer ourselves up, and we know certain songs make us sad, but those efforts are clumsy guesswork.

Neal Stephenson touches on this in Snow Crash, positing that Sumerian is primitive instinctive language that can be used to control people. I guess I'm positing that he was right, but that the answer is a lot farther back in our history.

I must stress that this is all ignorant speculation on my part. Others, with far more knowledge than I, have studied all of these subjects. But I don't know if anyone has framed the question quite this way. Unfortunately, I suspect I'm not qualified to answer it.

It could be that there is a profound truth about the human mind which we, as a civilization, won't grasp until the right circumstances come together. Maybe we have to wait until one day, fifty years from now, when some brilliant neurolinguist composer has a conversation with her cat.


I Don't Know

I prick up my ears whenever the description of a pattern or phenomenon requires the use of the words, "always," "never" or "every." That's an excellent predictor that the effects of the pattern or phenomenon in question will be broad and far-reaching. Maybe that's obvious, but nevertheless I pay attention to it.

An example:

In our educational system, children are asked questions. Ordinarily, in the questioner's mind there is an answer or the form of an answer. If the child's answer matches the one in the questioner's mind, the child receives praise. Otherwise, praise is withheld.

The answer which will elicit praise is never, "I don't know."

What effect does that have on our civilization?

What effect has it had on me?


Memetic Transmission

Imagine a religion which considered memetic transmission its highest priority. It would treat teaching as a highly demanding trade, and might train and select teachers the way current American society does for scientists, or the way it does for lawyers, or doctors (i.e. training is rigorous, selection is competitive, and they might even get paid well). This environment would probably also engender more study of and general attention to the topic of memetic transmission. In memetic transmission I include and emphasize the propagation of memes over generations.

In the long run, this group might be strong. The strategy might be as effective as the memetic/reproductive strategies of the Catholic or Mormon groups.

Come to think of it, reproduction might have to be a part of the system, too. Encourage members to on average at least keep each generation no smaller than the last. You wouldn't want to involuntarily follow the Shakers.

If a group of people treated as a virtue the understanding of and ability to craft a strong human mind, that group might become powerful. I think maybe that was what the Catholic church was doing with Jesuits and the like, but it's interesting that they segregated the memetic strategy from the genetic strategy. I think the Mormons may be doing a similar thing, at least with respect to business and political acumen, and in their case the genetic and memetic strategies are meshed. It seems to be working for the Mormons.

Hmm, the system I'm imagining stresses the open and inquisitive mind, and clear and rigorous thought. Perhaps such a system would be unstable; by its very nature people would wander away from it. Maybe that's why dogma-based systems are so common. But if one could find a way to keep an open-thought system from dissolving, it would probably be able to evolve and adapt more readily, and produce more new, useful ideas than a closed, dogma-based system.


The Llama Axis

A friend of mine recently asked, on a mailing list that a lot of our circle of friends are on, if anyone knew of a good "historical analysis of common factors that have led to or been present during periods of peace." The phrasing of his question suggested to me that it might have been colored by certain books we've all been reading recently.

Using scientific-sounding analysis to justify comfortably tidy answers to extremely broad questions is hip right now.

Justifiably so; applying thought that is at once rigorous and outside-the-box to important questions is how many important advancements in human understanding are accomplished. It's an activity that we, as a civilization, need to be in the habit of doing. I like those books.

I do worry, though, that they're resulting in a popular notion of the nature of scholarship which is incomplete. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the work that needs to be done to increase human knowledge isn't the big-picture stuff. It has to be done by legions of people toiling away in the trenches answering the tedious little questions that are clearly defined by the current paradigm in their field. The volume of knowledge generated this way dwarfs the few gems of big-picture thinking, and you can't do the big-picture thinking without it.

The situation has evolved such that there are two different structures providing the resources to support these two different types of scholarship. The latter type is governed by grant committees, peer review, and the kind of petty politics that pervades academia. This results in titles like, "An econometric analysis of covariance between Croatian military expenditures and llama herd size in non-Spanish-speaking South Andean villages 1992-1996".

The former type is governed by what large publishing houses think will sell well at Barnes and Noble superstores. This results in titles like, "The Llama Axis: Why People Die".

I suspect that the question my friend was looking to answer would fall into the big-picture category. Meaning that sifting through the mountains of academic papers out there might not avail him, and he might have to wait until Malcolm Gladwell or Jared Diamond decides to tackle it.



If epiphanies took as much time and effort as learning and experience, we'd hear about them far less frequently than we do.


Right In Front Of Me

Gotta focus. No focus yet. It sure would help if I could focus.


Nope, still no focus.

Maybe I need to pay Tony Robbins(TM) to put me into a Peak State(TM):

http://www.lynxfeather.net/nest/humor/2002/alteredstates.html (Man, I love Dave Barry).

Maybe I should be like Tony Robbins(TM) and become successful by teaching people to become successful by giving them the example of myself, who became successful by teaching people to become successful. (Seriously. Tony Robbins(TM), Robert Kiyosaki and other success gurus consistently use themselves as examples. There's a chicken-and-egg problem here that I can't quite put my finger on.)

Maybe I should be like Dave Barry and write funny and/or interesting stuff and get people to pay me for it.

Maybe I should do like my grandparents suggested and invent [insert any of a number of inventions which my grandparents thought would solve some problem they happened to be conversing about; I got too many of those suggestions to remember more than the vague idea that I should invent something].

I know there's an answer, here among all this gosh darn junk I've been loading into my head lately. (I've been reading up on anything that feels like it might lie along the path to my destiny, things like complexity theory and artificial intelligence and econophysics. I spend entirely too much time at Wikipedia. Yes, I take anything I find there with a grain of salt.) It's right in front of me, I know it.

That's a theme we're presented with often in our culture. Many of our stories are parables where the resolution includes something like, "That's it! If we don't plug in the Doomsday Machine in the first place, then Doctor Danger can't destroy the Earth! The answer was right in front of us the whole time!" Well, fine, I get it. I'll take that lesson to heart. I understand that it's probably right in front of me.

And yet, sadly, knowing it's right in front of me doesn't automatically render me able to see it.

While those parables clearly present the idea that answers are often right in front us, they don't provide a generalized method for actually overcoming whatever mental block is preventing us from perceiving them. Such a method sure would be handy.

So it occurs to me, in my own quest, if I do actually figure out the answer, then I can immediately discard it and get rich teaching people the Right In Front Of Me Method(TM) that I used to find it.


This recursion theme... The thing about success gurus using their own success as success gurus as an example. I like it. Something's coming to me...

It's like Escher's picture of hands drawing each other.

It's like GNU standing for GNU's Not Unix.

It's like when Douglas Adams wrote the second episode of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. All the ways he could think of to get his heroes out of their certain-death predicament were too improbable. While he was struggling with this, he watched a TV show on martial arts which talked about how this tiny martial arts master could use his opponent's larger size against him. He decided to use this technique to solve his problem, to fight improbability with improbability, and thus was born the Improbability Drive which saved his heroes and became one of the funniest elements of Adams's universe.

Perhaps this is the secret which could lead me to the discovery of the answer. I know there's an answer to my troubles right in front of me, but I need a method to enable me to see an answer which is right in front of me. Of course, such a method would be immensely useful, and, if I had that method, the method itself could, in fact, be my sought-for answer. This is an important realization, because it means that I know what the answer is. And if I know what the answer is, I must know the method, in order to have gotten it (and also because the answer is the method, and I know the answer). So I've done it!

Now all I need to do is trademark the Right In Front Of Me Method(TM), print some glossy brochures, host a few seminars, and I can get rich and retire young.

Well, that's a relief. I'm glad that all this hard thinking has paid off.

(I'm not sure all of my examples are actually recursive. It's like that Alanis Morissette song, "Ironic", which, some people argue, is, ironically, not ironic. If so, I apologize.)


The Salt Trick

When I went to the dentist last week, it was time for X-rays. I braced myself; I've gotten pretty good at controlling my gag reflex mentally. Luckily I wasn't suffering any congestion that day and I could breathe through my nose. For the first two films I breathed steadily and didn't gag too badly. On the third one, I started gagging, and the hygienist came and took out the film. I took a few deep breaths, got my mind right, and said I was ready to try again. But instead of putting it back, she said something about salt, told me she'd be right back, and left the room. I sat there, embarrassed. She came back with one of those little packets of salt, and told me to stick out my tongue. She sprinkled a few grains of salt on my tongue, and then put the film back in. It was like it wasn't there. No gagging. My uvula was completely unperturbed at the presence of this scratchy plastic contraption jammed behind my back teeth. We finished the X-rays without a hitch.

My mind reeled. There's a trick to not gagging on dental X-rays, and this is the first I've heard of it? I've been working for nearly three decades to learn the mental trick, to develop that mind-over-matter talent that will make my dental experience comfortable and pleasant for both me and my dentist. Early on, it was awful. In my childhood, I spat out bite wings, I wore out the patience of hygienists, I even once barfed on an orthodontist. I was ashamed. So I learned about breathing through my nose. I learned to relax. I learned to concentrate on something else. And after all my searching for this elusive Zen enlightenment thing, it turns out the trick is salt.

I can't help but wonder...

All my life I've been struggling to get by. I can't seem to get my act together. It takes tremendous effort to force myself to do all the little things the world demands of me. I get exhausted just pushing past my procrastination and work-avoidance habits to get even the most menial tasks done. It's embarrassing. It's discouraging. My life is good, but I'm frustrated with the way I'm living it.

I've tried to find some way to trigger some mental state where I get my work done without having to struggle against myself. I've tried to come up with a new life paradigm which leverages my talents such that I don't have to struggle. I've searched for the magic bullet that will obviate the need to work at a day job at all. I often have this feeling that getting my act together will be the psychological equivalent of wiggling my ears; all I have to do is learn to flex the right mental muscle, and it'll all come together. So I constantly seek to improve the workings of my mind.

Part of me wonders if there's a Salt Trick that no one has told me about.

And yet, I mustn't ignore the far bigger question. Is life just a trip to the dentist? If there is some easy and painless way to get through it, do I gain anything by going that way?

Even if I find the Salt Trick... do I use it?