“Monkey Mind” is the Wrong Metaphor for Mental Confusion

A five year old sees things as they are. A bird, a tree, filtered only with the first bindings of human sensation and perception and memory. Just five years of language is not enough history to contort the thing.

There was life in the world before people were there to see it. There were people in the world before there was speech to talk about it. The first speech was like an encounter today with someone who speaks a different language: pointing and grunting, pictures and acting. Primary speech is another physical experience in the lifeworld — utterances, vibrations of the tongue in the air.

Spoken words are for communication, correlates of things in the lifeworld. Some words resemble the sound they describe: buzz, murmur, splash; they are examples of onomatopoeia. Most spoken words are unlike their counterparts in the world. Words can be used to speak of things even when they are not present; it is a type of memory. Words can also be used to speak of things that do not exist in the lifeworld. They can used for persuasion. Centuries of human life have piled words upon words. Derivative speech shapes and twists our perceptions. The spoken word is a second binding, a copy of a copy, error upon error, separating people from their experience.

Shoshin is beginner’s mind in Zen Buddhism. Openness, fresh interest, and a lack of preconceptions. A beginner’s mind is not clouded with the noise of the “monkey mind,” a Buddhist metaphor for the clatter of our unceasing and wandering thoughts and language and attention.

How speech developed is unclear. Unlike writing, spoken language is ephemeral, leaving no evidence to study its development. Speech organs evolved first for basic bodily functions such as feeding and breathing. It evolved into language. Monkeys, apes and other animals have evolved sound patterns for social communication. What appears distinct with humans is the use of the tongue to modulate sound. In most mammals the tongue is long and flat and contained within the mouth. In humans, the tongue is short and round and extends down the throat, enabling the articulation of vowels. Given the complexities and error with human speech, “monkey mind” is the wrong metaphor for mental confusion.

A five year old and a Zen Buddhist see things as they are. Philosophers and psychologists understand this kind of observation. Phenomenology is the study of structures in consciousness. Phenomenologists talk about qualia, that is, individual conscious experience. For example, your experience of eating this orange now is subjective. Is it possible to sidestep complex language and share this raw experience? Phenomenologists talk about intersubjectivity, the practical ability to nod and know that we are speaking about the same thing. Within a context, called the homeworld, there is common frame of reference. Can we truly know that my orange and your orange have the same taste? It depends on whether we are really separate from our experience and each other. Are we locked in tin cans, always separate? Or is it only derivative language and its pileup in memory that separates us?

Further reading:




A Bird in the Hand. Knowledge is a Static Binding.

An old thought experiment asks, if a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? The traditional answer is no, there is no sound without a vibration on an ear drum. The answer is easily proven wrong. The experiment presupposes the existence of a tree and a forest. Since these energy patterns exist when no one is around to see them, then the sound of the tree falling exists too.

Human knowledge in the brain is a static binding. The concept of binding is commonly used to refer to the covering that holds the pages of a book; that, or a device used to attach skis to boots. Binding is used here in the first sense, the idea that human experience in the brain is a limited and static capture of things compared to the original, much like a book. The universe is a big place, much bigger than the lifeworld of human experience. Humans are not routinely conscious of phenomena like radio waves, x-rays, and germs. We miss sights and sounds, and smells and tastes that our sense organs cannot detect. There is a threshold at which something becomes noticeable — the softest sound we can hear, or the slightest touch we can feel. Anything less goes unnoticed. Think of all the context that is lost. A bird in the hand is only worth half of one in the bush.

Vision begins with sensation. Light begins a process of transformation as it enters the eye. The cornea focuses the light. The pupil is controlled is by the muscles of the iris to optimize the light, enough for vision without overexposure or damage. The cornea and lens work together to adjust the focal length of the image being formed on the retina at the back of the eye. Photoreceptor cells called cones and rods give an image color and shadow. In the short time it take for an image to form on the retina it has been transformed.

From the retina the image is carried through the optic nerve to the brain for more processing. Perception is the brain’s interpretation of what we sense. For example, the brain attempts to organize sensory information into groups. If multiple dots are seen close together they are grouped into a single bundle for quick processing.

After visual and perceptual processes, the brain encodes information into memories. Short-term memories are translated into long-term memory in the hippocampus. Visual and auditory and other sensory information are combined into a single episodes of memory. The smell of the forest evokes a visual memory of a glade. The memory is personalized.

The eye operates like a camera. It is better in some ways. The lens in the human eye can focus quicker than a camera. But it still operates like a camera, producing a reduced image compared to the original. The retina is like film. Accuracy varies with lighting and resolution depends on the film format or number of pixels. The brain is more efficient than a camera at a price. The brain selectively stores data that it considers important, leaving the rest to be filled in by inference. Any image in the brain is a limited and static capture at a point in time. It is a binding, a copy with error. To a degree, every memory is wrong, an illusion, a lie. Truth is not in the brain — it is out there in the world. A bird in the hand is only worth half of one in the bush.

Zen Practitioners and Visual Artists have Better Visual Perception than Most

I attended a free “consciousness-raising” workshop. The speaker, a woman named Slavica, performed a test to gauge our “level of consciousness.” She asked who among the group, without turning their heads, remembered the colour of the wall behind us? She informed us that a person of “very high consciousness” would be able to remember every visual detail they witnessed. If there was such a person in the room, she would bow to them and step aside to allow him or her to speak instead. I did not remember the colour, nor did anyone else. She did not indicate whether she was capable of this visual memory feat.

In fact, all people have limited visual memory. The human visual system only supports a small area of high resolution processing. The fovea is for sharp central vision, and is important in activities where visual detail is important, such as reading and driving. When the eyes scan a scene they do not take in every detail. The eye jumps to highlights, depending on what the viewer considers important. Changes outside the focus of attention are not noticed. Our visual memory seems real but it is an analog at best.

We have limits on our visual memory for efficiency, not because of our “low level of consciousness,” whatever that means. The brain stores just a rough outline of a scene and then uses knowledge of the world to fill in the detail.* If I can remember the peaks and valleys of a landscape I can fill in the rest with the laws of physics or simple interpolation.

We can store more information if we consider it important. Zen practitioners and visual artists have better visual perception than most people, not because they are more enlightened; it is their job to attend to visual detail. You may have a rich and accurate image of your lover’s face. Not everything is important to remember in detail, including the colour of the back wall. Clever trick, Slavica.

*Update 2017-10-04. Two types of evidence: 1) Andy Clark, Natural Born Cyborgs, reviews card tricks and studies that show the limits of visual memory. 2) David Marr, Vision, explains how the primal sketch on the retina gets built by the mind into a 2.5D sketch and then a 3D model.

Update 2017-10-05. Cognitive Bias Codex. An index of all our cognitive biases.

Lifeworld. Bigger than Big Data.

The lifeworld is energy and sensation before the minds gets at it. Everyday phenomena, real, continuous, whole, not analyzed. Closely held or embodied, warmed in the hands of self and others, not distanced or chilled by an objective eye. Quality not quantity. Sights and smells and sounds, words too, plain description but not language games. Factual and true in feeling not thought.

Bigger than big data, the lifeworld must be broken to be stored. Take a rock and put it in a box, part of a collection, it is pretty much the same, except for its world; it is out of place. The thing must be broken. Cut something away, make it smaller, now it can be put to bed. Make an analog, like the original, but not. A map. Much better to see and measure and carry.

An image is an analog of the world, that’s easy. But pictures in the brain are less than you think. An artist or Zen master, maybe, but you only see the outline. The rest your brain fills in with math, interpolation. Of what is a book an analog? Big letters in the world? Letters are an analog of speech, speech an analog of things in motion in the world. The book is a broken world.

Digital or Print, Fast or Slow, Reading is Fingery

The word, digital, comes from Latin, digitalis, referring to fingers and toes. Today, digital refers to technology that uses numerical digits to store or display data. Digital computers still depend on fingers for input and interaction; toes not so much. How the fingers get used depends on the type of reading. Borrowing from Heidegger, reading can be “ready-to-hand” or “present-at-hand.”

Ready-to-hand is the more common type of reading, assimilating information as quickly as possible. We scan online in high mental gear, whizzing from one link to the next, slowly down only briefly when we find something interesting. Ready-to-hand reading uses fingers to click and scroll. We want information at the speed of thought but it only goes as fast our fingers. We invent touch screens to move faster. We imagine even better technologies, screens generated on the fly with our fingers, like in the movie, Minority Report. Voice technologies only help so much. Until computers can read our minds they will continue to be “fingery” machines, managing digital data with the digits of our hands.

A laptop just does not work for holiday novels. Many still read print books for pleasure, while many others prefer e-readers. The manufacturers are learning the haptics of reading, the study of communication through touch. An e-reader is more fingery than a laptop. It is tapered to feel like a paperback. The hand begins a reading by opening a cover and finishes by closing it again. The pages turn with a touch. This kind of reading is still “ready-to-hand,” fast summer reading, not demanding slow or labored thought.

Present-at-hand reading is not so common, the slow analytical read of a complex text, or the rich processing of a beautiful book of art. If ready-to-hand is the routine use of a hammer for nailing, then present-at-hand is what happens when the hammer breaks. It is the boundary at which print books begin to fail as vessels of knowledge, e-books and laptops all the more so. Mental presence is required. Deep reading demands our fingers too. Humans evolved the thumb, the opposable digit that allows us to grasp and behold a book. We judge its weight with our hand. We flip pages constantly, back to the tables and forward to the index. The print book gives instant parallel access to any point in the text, our finger serving as a bookmark. We brush the pages with a finger, estimating how much work remains, book or chapter. 

Present-at-hand reading is physical work, enlisting the brain and the body. To this day, students prefer a print book for reading academic texts. The reader who attempts a complex text on an e-reader feels phantom pain. The fingers long for the absent pages. Digital or print, fast or slow, reading is fingery.

Analog and Digital are Not Opposites

The word, analog, is commonly used to describe a system that predates digital computers. I blink each time I hear it because I know it is not right. Formal definitions in computer science are better. They contrast analog and digital by how they store data, continuously or discretely. The terms are treated as opposites. I still blink. If the formal definition is correct, the dyad should be digital and continuous. I will explain how analog and digital are not exactly opposites.

In analog telephone lines, the fluctuations of the voice correspond to the electric vibrations in the wires. The essential waveform is preserved. In a digital voice system, the voice transmission is encoded into bytes for transmission, and later decoded back into sound. All digital computers do the same. Electricity flows through switches, representing data in binary digits, one or zero, called bits. So far so good, but as above, the dyad should be digital and continuous.

An analog clock measures time by the continuous motion of one or more hands. In a digital clock, an electric charge is passed through a crystal, causing a sound whose frequency is converted into counts of seconds and minutes and so. The digital aspect is seen in the display of number of hours, 1-12 or 24. The base 12 or 24 system is as digital as binary. But then, then hands of an analog clock also point to the same digits. The clock is both analog and digital.

Today, analog is used as adjective, but originally it was a noun, a comparison of one thing to another. For example, a pump is an analog of the heart. An analog is a literary device with properties. One property is proportion, a correspondence in size or quality between one thing and another. An analog can be exactly proportional to the original. If I mark the length of my finger on a ruler, the marked ruler is a one-to-one analog for the length of my finger. I can use the ruler as a record of my finger length at a particular age and compare the size again in the future.

More often, the proportionality is at a scale. A map is an analog for a real world geography, reduced in scale for analysis and portability. This bring out a second property of analogy, incompleteness. Analogy is a comparison such as a metaphor or simile, which are substitutes. My love is not literally a red red rose. A map is not literally the land. Even if I map the world with a high resolution satellite camera I cannot record every detail. This fact is what makes the map useful. By omitting detail the map becomes something I can see at a glance, measure with a compass, and carry in my pocket. But what happens when I zoom in with a magnifying glass? It depends on how the map was printed. I may see dots. A color map has a range of dots. A black and white map has two types, black or not — binary digits, bits, digital. Even a hand-drawn and painted map is not continuous like the real world. The resolution of analog is always digital.

The third property of the analog is its purpose, to explain a new or complex idea with a familiar one. We use analogy to help explain and understand. It is the same purpose for a digital representation. The bits must ultimately correspond to something meaningful in the world. Bits mean nothing without a mapping to numbers and characters and real world phenomena. A ruler represents my finger. A clock represents time. Ones and zeros decode back into voice, and images, and music.

Decoding depends partly on the continuous physical form in which the data was stored. Take language. In some ideal language we could map all the forms of a word to a single lemma. We could also strip out all punctuation and spacing. In real language each form carries unique differences in meaning that must be preserved in digital storage. Punctuation and spacing also meaning. All digital systems that store text also store these real world features. Digital systems require analog data.

Analog and digital are not precise opposites. Analog has an older literary meaning that still applies, comparison. My discussion of the properties of proportion and completeness showed that the analog always resolves to the digital. Also, the purpose of analog is just as applicable to the digital. None of this analysis will make a whit of difference to the operation of analog or digital systems. The analysis cannot be used to claim that analog technology is superior to digital. The main benefit is that I might stop blinking the next time someone misuses the terms analog and digital.

Five Reasons why Readers have Stopped Writing their Names in Books

Have you written your name in a book? My first books have my name written in a child’s print, later in cursive. Working in the family print shop, I created a rubber stamp with my name and address. I stopped when I left home; my address changed too often. Bookplates — or ex libris, Latin, “from the books of …” — are decorative labels pasted in the front cover of a book, filled in with the name of the owner. I printed bookplates with a letterpress. Writing one’s name in a book is a practice dating back to the twelfth century. People would write their name, profession, residence, the book’s price, the giver if it was a gift, the date it was obtained, and even how long it took to read. Some readers will underline passages or add marginalia, comments or pictures in the margins. Others think it sacrilegious to write in books or will only write in pencil.

Why do readers write in books? And why have they stopped? I can think of five reasons:

Abundance. Books used to be scarce. They were an asset in a collection. If you loaned a book out you expected to get it back. Books are abundant today. They still have a price, and can be expensive, but most everyone has access to books. When I lend a book, I do not expect to see it again. Even so, I lend books. There are plenty more. 

Fashion. Bookplates are beautiful, emblazoned with a coat of arms, but heraldry was a medieval military fashion and passed with it. People still find heraldry and bookplates fascinating, collecting them in the way people collect stamps or coins. It is now just a specialist hobby.

E-book Ownership. The concept of book ownership has changed. If you purchase a print book, it is yours for as long as you like and you can do what you like with it. Today, when you buy an e-book you are only purchasing a license to access the book’s contents. You do not own the book. You may not copy it. You may not sell or give it to anyone. If you do not own it, why write your name in it?

E-books are Read-Only. Even if you owned an e-book you could not write in it. Better e-readers allow you to highlight passages and export quotes and notes, but you cannot write notes in the text or make copies. It comes down to digital abundance and licensing. Digital content can be copied and modified so easily, publishers artificially limit the native digital capabilities of e-books to ensure sales.

Reading is Continuous. Reading has traditionally been a private event, something done quietly and alone. We would set aside time dedicated to reading, and when we were finished a book it felt like a personal accomplishment. It seemed natural to complete the event by writing our name in the book. Reading has changed with technology — it is now both open and continuous. We read more books than ever. We talk about books more than ever on social reading websites. We read e-books and they read us back, tracking the titles we purchase, our reading pace, and even the passages we like best. Publishers know just what we want. The line between writers and readers is blurred. We chat with authors as we the read their books. We give feedback for their next book, and publish alternate “fan” versions. Reading is no longer limited to books. We read constantly on computer screens and mobile devices. The notion of distinct reading events is gone. Reading is continuous.

How Silent Reading Invented the Soul

Most people read silently. Many schools have Sustained Silent Reading programs which encourage students to read freely, frequently, and silently. Silent reading is common, and highly valued for its cultivation of our inner lives.

Most of history followed an oral tradition. Knowledge, law and stories were communicated out loud, with speech and song. Chatting with my brother-in-law and Bible scholar, AJ DeGelder (BA MDiv) I was reminded of the oral tradition of the Old Testament. The Bible’s creation myth begins with sound, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” AJ continued:

You can see the oral tradition in the Old Testament by the way the stories are shared For example you can see a Jewish family, in your mind, sitting around a campfire in the middle of a desert. The father has the children clinging to the edge of their seats as the father tells them how this skinny little runt of a boy, called David, goes out to fight the giant Goliath. David brings the giant down with a slingshot. Takes the giant’s sword and cuts off his head and then runs and buries it in his tent. You can almost hear the children asking, “Why did he bury the sword in his tent, Dad?” “Tomorrow night I will tell you why,” says the father. This was the oral tradition passed on from father to children.”

The modern religious Jew is a person of the book. Daniel Saunders is a young Jewish man in the novel, The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, set in Brooklyn New York in the 1940s. Danny’s father, a respected Rebbe, only speaks to him during their regular religious readings. Danny is being brought up in silence. The reader learns how Reb Saunders worried that his son’s intelligence was outstripping his compassion for others. To teach Danny the meaning of pain, he shut him out emotionally by silence. It seems a cruel method, but the story illustrates how silence can be used deliberately to cultivate inner qualities, such as compassion.

The New Testament is bookish. Set aside that Jesus never wrote a word, Christianity was developed by Christ’s disciples and followers. The codex was on the rise at the time. The codex is a collection of pages, bound and covered, a book. The book was adopted by Christians for the Bible (Manguel, A History of Reading). Compared to scrolls, the book was easier to carry and hide in a time of religious persecution, and easier to read alone in silence.

Aurelius Ambrosius is the first silent reader on record. Ambrosius, aka Saint Ambrose (c. 340-347) was an archbishop of Milan. In his Confessions, Augustine observed that Ambrose read in silence. The practice was relatively rare. Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald. Lucie-Smith says that Ambrose was the first of a great tradition, using silent reading and looking within for salvation.

It took centuries for silent reading to be adopted widely. Ferenstein explains how the Catholic church encouraged it. The Christian Bible popularized the idea that morality was not just about evil deeds, but also included the intent to cause harm. Monks segregated themselves from society to battle inner demons free from the distractions of civilization. In 1215 the church mandated confessions for the masses, extending the concept of internal morality to much of Europe. The Gutenberg press was invented in the fifteenth century, and by the eighteenth century, personal reading was common.

The book is central to the rise of Christianity, to the practice of silent reading, and to the idea of an inner life. Silent reading can be credited with the very invention of soul. It facilitated private religion, the creation of an inner truth. The New Testament says it outright. “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the spirit of the living God, not on tables of stone but on tables of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3, NRSV).

In religion the soul is special, the immortal essence of a person. The soul is universal, transcending time and space. It survives death. If silent reading invented the soul, its universality is called into question. Was there a time when people did not have souls? Also, if the soul transcends earthly life its truth should be singular. In practice, silent reading created trouble for Christians, generating multiple interpretations of the Bible and stoking a fight against heresy. Martin Luther, the original Protestant, observed how silent reading caused anxiety for Christians and preferred the old practice of reading the Bible aloud in groups. In the 21st century, the codex is declining in favor of digital technology. People still read silently but not so privately. Reading online is a a social experience, tearing down traditions of privacy. One has to wonder how notions of inner life and soul will change with it.

Speech has Presence. A Speaker Stands Before You, Insisting on Your Attention.

“All sound is inherently powerful. If a hunter kills a lion he can see it, touch it, feel it and smell it. But if he hears a lion he must act, fast, because the sound of the lion signals its presence and its power” (Ong, Orality and Literacy).

Books were built for the hand and the eye. Books are boxes of knowledge that can be shared by hand across a distance. Books are read with the eyes, silently.

The scroll was built for the mouth and ear. Scrolls did not have spacing or punctuation; the ear would disentangle what the eye read and the mouth spoke aloud (Manguel, A History of Reading).

Culture was mostly shaped by sound, by the mouth and the ear, by speech. One might think that oral culture could not engineer complex works, yet the Iliad and the Odyssey were oral creations.

“We all learn to read by listening word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase to those reading to us” (Prose, Reading Like a Writer). We mouth words when we learn them. We imagine the voice of the author or a character in a book. Adults still sound out difficult words. All reading and writing is transformed in the brain back to the original sounds. Reading and listening are the same process (Carver, Reading Rate; Dehaene, Reading in the Brain).

Speech has presence. A speaker stands before you, insisting on your attention, projecting emotion, demanding your response. Today’s voice technologies are conversational like speech but they are still disconnected, separated by computer technology based on text. I can ignore a computer’s voice prompt. It can ignore me.