November 14, 2023

Eyes and Ears, Stories and Words

 Paul of Tarsus once noted that some Corinthian believers longed to see signs and wonders while others longed to hear wisdom through oratory. Ostensibly, Paul's allegations describe two distinct factions: one being a sub-group of predominantly Jewish Corinthians who liked Peter because he spoke in tongues and healed people, and the other being a sub-group of Greek Corinthinans who liked Apollos because of his scriptural knowledge and rhetorical prowess. Still today, as we all painfully know, some Christians seek miracles while others prefer preaching. To both groups, Paul said that no human mind had conceived the rewards of inclining one's heart towards God.

 Feel free to stop reading at this point and incline yourself thusly. The rest of this piece is going to explore the "eyes" and "ears" distinction a bit further. However, instead of miracles and preaching, I'd like you to consider that stories can leave behind, in your mind, both words and images.

 If you're sticking around, please bear with me now for a paragraph or two on cognitive technicalities.

 In the information processing model of cognitive psychology, scientists distinguish auditory input from visual input in a number of ways. The classic model of "working memory" includes a "phonological loop" (in which songs can 'get stuck' and through which you quickly memorize names or phone numbers) and a "visuo-spatial sketchpad" (where you visualize images, albeit faint, fuzzy, fragmented, and/or distorted images). In this theoretical model, both of these two components feed into the "episodic buffer" where a third component (a theoretical "chief executive") coordinates bits and pieces of previously encoded sights and sounds (a.k.a. "trace memories") and reconstructs as much as possible your memory of the previously lived situation. In this way, psychologists have accounted for separate input (eyes and ears) and separate encoding (images and sounds), but processing and manipulation of information takes various pathways as our future selves continue to store up, re-code, and reconstruct various permutations of combined audio-visual memories.

 One curious phenomenon in all this is that WORDS can become informational content in both categories. Historically, most common experiments for memory have involved a collection of words, either in list form or on flash cards. In these studies, participants will usually rehearse the words in some way: seeing them, speaking them, hearing them. The phonological loop can preserve a few seconds of rehearsal and the visuo-spatial sketchpad can preserve a few sketchy images of the word list and/or flash cards. This flexibility illustrates precisely why words are so useful as rhetorical tools and  so powerful as conceptual placeholders; it is not merely that words serve as tags for ideas in our minds but that words persist across various "modalities" of sight, sound, and speech. You can even copy a word list repeatedly through writing. Although we should rightly forget about educational theories that some students prefer one modality over all others, the research on learning is at least clear that reviewing the same content in multiple forms does provide an advantage. 

 This modal advantage also puts words above images in at least one respect: you cannot rehearse mental images through recitation or graphic transcription. You cannot speak pictures. You cannot write pictures. In the case of visual input from unique lived experience then we must admit you cannot even look at such a mental image more than once. Moreover, words provide empirical evidence for laboratory researchers. The established field of cognitive linguistics is widely renowned while the budding field of studies on "event memory" is still struggling to get past reading comprehension. Incidentally, one modestly promising development is the comparison of body-camera footage to self-reporting summaries of personal activity (e.g., walking to the campus library, finding a book, and returning to the psych lab).

 Now, here comes the difficult bit. Something occurred to me today which bothers me greatly.

 If proficiency depends on repeated practice, our brains have less opportunity to become adept at manipulating visual memories. Even illiterate people learn many different ways of processing verbal information. We all get lots of practice at thinking about words. But images? Although we can strengthen visual memories through repeated viewings of the same photos, same artwork, or the same movie scenes, it seems perhaps that only avid readers receive the opportunity to become adept in the skill of constructing situation models while receiving narrative discourse. Further, it seems that perhaps only avid readers from childhood have a chance to put in the proverbial 10,000 hours of practice required to become experts at visualizing a narrated situation. To speculate even further, it may be specifically that we do not develop this talent to its fullest without being an avid reader from childhood of fiction, specifically. 

 In reality, of course, almost every human person has some imagination ability, but on that scale we could say everybody has some degree of physical ability as well. Some can run. Some cannot even walk. In my musings above, I am talking about the difference between walking around and becoming an athlete. Some readers naturally build worlds while receiving a discourse. Other readers mainly wait for the speaker to get to a point, and such readers will otherwise struggle when pressed to prioritize their imaginative function. Such readers may even stare in disbelief when one suggests that imaginative function should be a default process when receiving narrative content for general purposes. Particularly savvy operators know that stories are often just vehicles for agendas. They feel justified in looking down at those of us who take stories too seriously.

 I now present today's disturbing thought, albeit prefaced with a disclaimer.

 It has been said, rather rudely, that sometimes unintelligent persons prefer authoritarian leaders because parrotting such leaders spares trusting dimwits from having to think for themselves. To whatever extent this is sometimes the case I would like to offer as much sympathy for the individuals in question and condemnation for the leaders who abuse their simple trust. In contrast to this sad situation, and the unhelpful mockery and stereotyping of it, I have a more refined hypothesis to suggest.

 Specifically, I am wondering today whether some adult persons who are indeed rather intelligent may sometimes develop a cognitive predisposition for processing verbal discourse as predominantly if not strictly semantic information. In other words, I wonder if we might be able to demonstrate that some adult brains have a measurable deficiency in forming mental models of situations being narrated (and/or described) by verbal discourse. If so, then it would seem natural to suppose that such adult persons would be more likely to rely on labels and categories in explaining their views, while adhering rather  dogmatically to stock phrases and boilerplate sound bites. 

 If so, it would seem somewhat futile to urge such people to engage their imagination while reading. One can neither easily nor adeptly perform skills which require muscles atrophied through lack of use.

 Getting back to Paul and the Corinthians, I must remind myself that first century Christians as a group were largely ignorant, almost wholly uneducated, and not often blessed with even modest intelligence. To such people, the tentmaker form Tarsus proclaimed optimistically that inclining themselves towards the divine was a worthy activity, one that held promise of rewards that go beyond any kind of familiar human experience.

 For the sake of my projects, however, I feel more daunted than ever. It is one thing to urge narratological reconstruction when speaking to those who have been acculturated to avoid thinking imaginatively about the words of the New Testament. It is another thing to promote this procedure when speaking to those (and yes, I mean professional scholars) who may be cognitively disinclined to engage in this kind of imaginative thinking.

 Shall I, then, simply continue... Anon?

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton