Helen Keller

Last week, I attended a theater performance of Helen Keller.

The main theme of this Helen Keller performance was that words refer.  Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, spent hours and hours trying to associate words with objects.  She would have Helen hold an object, and spell their name into her hand in American Sign Language (ASL).  In her later autobiography, Helen reports having a “breakthrough moment”: sitting by a water fountain, she finally groks that the sign for water means the thing touching her hand.  She then proceeds to run around, learning the same words but “with newfound understanding”.

A few professors hosted a session afterwards to discuss the play with interested members of the audience.  The narrative presented by the actors and the professors, to explain Helen’s moment of insight was (predictably) crude.  Helen “discovered semantics” and “her intellect finally overcame her disability”.

Can cognitive science do better?  Of course.

Can I do better?  A little.  What follows is not as crisp and well-defined as I would like… but I would prefer it not exclusively live in my head.

Let me first appeal to cognitive architecture as a whole.  I’ll leverage a model developed by Carruthers, because I am fond of its generality.

Mental Architecture (1)

I’ll have to leave an exploration of this schematic for another time.  The model is obviously incomplete, but sufficient for our purposes. The four hollow boxes on the left represent the sense of vision (more specifically, they capture the two streams of vision).

As Carruthers is careful to explain, the vision modules aren’t claimed to be the only input to the human mind.  Other sense modalities reside parallel to it, also serving as inputs to belief modules and desire modules.  Regrettably, Carruthers does a poor job at exploring how these different data vectors diverge, and how they interact.

Let me recapitulate what senses are.  How human beings sense is so much more than sight, sound, smell, touch & taste.  The Five Senses idiom stems from Aristotle and is as wrong as his physics.  An updated list:

  • Ophthalmoception (sight)
  • Audioception (hearing)
  • Olfacception (smell)
  • Gustaoception (taste)
  • Tactioception (touch)
  • Thermoception (temperature)
  • Proprioception (kinesthetic)
  • Nociception (pain)
  • Equilibrioception (balance)
  • Interoception (a word-bucket for various forms of internal chemical processes)

(It is currently fashionable to leverage -ception words to denote the physiological transduction aspect of sensation, and leave words like “pain” and “smell” to denote the subjective experiences stemming out of such processes.)

Humans engage with the external world with at least the above senses, all of which seem to have their own, distinct, type of sense organ (analogues of rods/cones in the eye).  Pain and touch are delivered by different cell types, etc.  Finally, it is not particularly controversial to claim that some senses provide more information than others.  In the course of human evolution, sight came to further displace smell, with respect to information bearing capacity.

At an early age, Helen lost both her sight and hearing – our two most familiar vehicles of language.  Her teacher attempted to install language via touch.  The mere process of enumerating the above list only now has inspired me to wonder how effectively language can be imprinted on still-other mediums.  There are no information-theoretic reasons why language cannot become embedded within pin pricks, within temperature, within smell… why then, is it rarely seen “in the wild”?

Even today, the process by which humans acquire language smells a little magical.  The solution has, as yet, eluded our finest minds.  We know this competency is most strongly expressed in early childhood; and that its awesome powers fade, but do not disintegrate, around the five year mark.  This is why learning a language as an adult “feels especially difficult”.  Anyways, the fact that Helen apparently language for the first time, at seven years old, is noteworthy.

I found myself referring to one of Fodor’s works quite a bit, throughout my experience watching the play (even though I haven’t read the book … haha).  I would characterize Fodor’s thesis as: subvocalization is not the loci of mental activity; rather, the mind reasons through its own language.  Let’s call this private language Mentalese.  This competency precedes language, is basal to our species – it is the stuff that enables the mind to refer.  On this model, even deafblind people like Helen have a concept of, say, her mother.  Her mother appears at certain times, feels a certain way; she expresses a range of behavior quite distinct from that of her father.  It is false to claim that Helen cannot form a thought. Although it is difficult for us to conceive of conscious rumination without linguistic subvocalization, that simply does not impair the functioning of working memory entirely.

It seems, then, that Helen can already refer to WATER in Mentalese.  What is the significance, then, of linking this representation to ASL?  I can think of two plausible benefits.

One is that languages (like English, or ASL) is theorized to imbue Mentalese with improved flexibility.  Language comprehension, and language production, modules may afford the subject with expanded powers of simulation and creativity.  This is where my lack of research into weak versions of linguistic relativity comes to bite me…

Another plausible benefit, is that marrying ASL to Mentalese allows other people to streamline the chain of communication.  Instead of translating Mentalese concepts to motor modules to complex behavior, they can instead encode those same concepts into ASL in a more compressed format.  Thus, instead of inferring behavior-triggered displeasure from repeatedly being constrained, Helen can more quickly infer her social milieu via an ASL encoding of “don’t hit people”.  This is where my lack of research into Theory of Mind (ToM), especially its maturation phases during childhood, comes to bite me…

The thrust of the above musings is that Helen’s “breakthrough” was themed her language modules and ToM modules contributing to her mental life in new ways.  This is much less naive than an appeal to “semantics” or to “intelligence outsmarting disability”.   However, the fact that I cannot even construct an compelling alternative theory, to contrast with the above Fodorian vision, speaks to the amateurish nature of these musings.

In addition to language, another theme explored in the play was Helen’s tantrums.  Specifically, her family had a permissive attitude towards this behavior (excusing it due to her condition); whereas her teacher was more willing to enforce social rules (with positive results in the long term).  I don’t yet understand the reasons behind tantrums, and I don’t understand why perpetually giving in seems to yield, on average, less happy children.

My instinct is that tantrums are an evolutionarily old mechanism by which one attempts to improve ones social status.  Perhaps, in children, discovering that you are not at the top of the dominance hierarchy, more effectively inculcates a desire to learn the social nuances of ones environment.  Perhaps the existence of boundaries simply provides more social information (in algorithmic complexity theory, a string of 1s has less information-content than a more balanced distribution).  But these are just musings that have not yet matured into theories…

In conclusion, I am not yet capable of producing a conclusion.  🙂  Fin.

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