hacking away at the pedestal
(with a pit stop at Total Information Awareness)
Freud traces the history of scientific revolutions as one of successive blows to “the naïve self-love of men.” In one blow, Copernicus disabused humanity of its belief in the centrality of the earth in the grand cosmic scheme. In a second blow, Darwin knocked humanity from the pedestal of its belief in the divine creation of humans as privileged beings who rank far above animals and plants.
But Freud reserves the coup de grace dealt to “human megalomania” for “the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind.”
Freud’s reference to the “megalomanic” view of human consciousness brings to my mind that most sinister creation of the post-9/11 Bush administration: the Total Information Awareness Program (TIA), brainchild of John Poindexter and Brian Hicks, devoted to ferreting out information on the identity, location, and plans of terrorists. There is an aura of unreality to the hubris of their creepy fantasy of omniscience, which would be appropriate to the surveillance ministry of a totalitarian regime in a science fiction dystopia—say, 1984. “Total information awareness” also seems to me an apt, if hyperbolic, way to describe the folk-psychological tendency to attribute to consciousness greater powers of awareness, concentration, objectivity, and memory than are warranted by this relatively focused and limited aspect of cognition.
In a more historical vein, Enlightenment thinkers extolled human consciousness as a supremely rational “master in its own house.” The belief in the power and scope of consciousness must have erected an enormous pedestal for it—a butte might better describe it—because after decades of hacking away at it, scientists are still discovering ways in which our over-inflated assessment of consciousness is based on illusions. It’s humbling to read about the experiments that demonstrate the conscious mind’s limitations: working memory is more limited, awareness of perception is more selective, memory is more fallible and susceptible to distortion, and sensory perception is a more creative process than previously thought. These illusions remind me of the sobering truism that consciousness is only the tip of the iceberg of cognition.
And that iceberg beneath the surface, with its vast storehouse of information and its inner workings, remains for the most part tantalizingly out of reach. The experience of hypnogogic dreams sometimes gives me the feeling that I’m dipping into a part of its vastness and getting a glimpse of its machinations. But mostly I’m unaware of the means by which I’m constantly being fed bits and pieces from my unconscious mind by countless little creatures of the deeps.
The tip-of-the-tongue syndrome
A mental phenomenon that we all know as the “tip-of-the-tongue” feeling can give us insight into the mysterious relationship between the unconscious and conscious mind. In a typical tip-of-the-tongue moment, we are unable to retrieve information that we are sure that we could remember if only we had access to it. But the link seems to be faulty, and we struggle. Perhaps we remember that the word we’re trying to remember begins with a “b,” and we might try different syllables beginning with that letter to see if we can trigger our memory. This kind of experience reveals to researchers some fundamental lessons about the way the brain is organized:
One of the key lessons of tip-of-the-tongue research
is that the human brain is a cluttered place. Our
knowledge is filed away in a somewhat slapdash
fashion, so that names are stored separately from
faces and the sound of a word and the meaning of a
word are kept in distinct locations. Sometimes when
we forget something, the memory is not so much
lost as misplaced.
The messy reality of the mind contradicts the
conventional metaphor of memory, which assumes
that the brain is like a vast and well-organized file
cabinet. According to this theory, we’re able to
locate the necessary memory because it has been
sorted according to some logical system. But this
metaphor is misleading. The brain isn’t an immaculate
file cabinet – it’s more like an untidy desk covered
with piles of paper. (Lehrer)
If my memory is anything like my own office desk, I’m in deep trouble. But conducting experiments into the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon can give us a glimpse into the way in which memory is actually stored—not neatly categorized but fragmented and scattered. In fact,
the brain doesn’t have firsthand access to its own
memories. Instead, it makes guesses based upon
the other information that it can recall. For instance,
if we can remember the first letter of someone’s
name, then the conscious brain assumes that we
must also know his or her name, even if we can’t
recall it right away. This helps explain why people
are much more likely to experience a tip-of-the-
tongue state when they can recall more information
about the word or name they can’t actually
In the study that Lehrer refers to, conducted by Lise Abrams, a person trying to recall the word “bandanna” can be successfully prompted with a word like “banish” because the latter word “activate[s] the same network of brain cells devoted to the sound” of the former. According to Abrams, tip-of-the-tongue experiences occur because the semantic connection is strong, but the phonological connection (the sound of the word) is weak. We have the feeling that we know what the word means, but we cannot speak the word.
And here’s where things get even more interesting: successful prompts need not be so direct. For example,
Abrams has shown that showing people a picture
of a motorcycle can help them remember the word
“biopsy.” Because the idea of a motorcycle is
connected in the brain to the word “bike,”
which shares a first syllable with “biopsy,” the
seemingly irrelevant cue becomes an effective hint.
Even when the subjects, asked to name the object in the picture, said “motorcycle” instead of “bike,” the tip-of-the-tongue problem of remembering “biopsy” was more frequently resolved than when a picture of, say, a helicopter was shown. So apparently, the proximity of “motorcycle” and “bike” in the brain can trigger the associative chain from “bike” to “biopsy,” even though one would be hard pressed to come up with an obvious associative link between “motorcycle” and “biopsy.”
Lyn Hejinian’s “incompletely reciprocal” lexicon
This kind of information flow reminds me of Lyn Hejinian’s remarks in “The Rejection of Closure” about lexical disjunction:
Even words in storage, in the dictionary, seem
frenetic with activity, as each individual entry
attracts to itself other words as definition, example,
and amplification. Thus, to open the dictionary at
random, mastoid attracts nipplelike, temporal, bone,
ear, and behind. Turning to temporal we find that
the definition includes time, space, life, world,
transitory, and near the temples, but, significantly,
not mastoid. There is no entry for nipplelike, but
the definition for nipple brings over protuberance,
breast, udder, the female, milk, discharge,
mouthpiece, and nursing bottle, and not mastoid,
nor temporal, nor time, bone, ear, space, or world.
It is relevant that the exchanges are incompletely
Although the analogy between Hejinian’s lexical disjunction and memory’s associative process isn’t precise, the idea in common is the sidereal associations that produce a circuitous path: the two degrees of separation between “mastoid” and “transitory,” and between “motorcycle and “biopsy,” result in two words with wildly different meanings but nontheless with a filament of associations connecting them. And it is possible for a chain of very selective indirect associations to lead us to the word that was on the tip of our tongue.
Tomorrow, Part II:
“I hate my birthday!”—Or, what do elegies by New York school poets have in common with the story of an Italian anarchist?
Abrams, Lise. “Tip-of-the-Tongue States Yield Language Insights.” American Scientist. May/June 2008.
Lehrer, Jonah. “What’s that name?” The Boston Globe. 1 Jun 2008.