The Secret History of Thoughts by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel from Invisibilia | NPR.org
In "The Secret History of Thoughts," co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller ask the question, "Are my thoughts related to my inner wishes, do they reveal who I really am?" The answer can have profound consequences for your life. Hear the story of a man gripped by violent thoughts, and explore how various psychologists make sense of his experience. Also, meet a man trapped inside his head for 13 years with thoughts as his only companion.

What an awesome little podcast Invisibilia is! Can’t wait to catch the rest of the episodes. Interesting to hear the quick overview of the three schools of thought on thought.

I had been hearing commercials for this off and on from other podcasts for almost a year; glad I finally downloaded to listen.

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A Problem with Transcripts

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen dozens of news outlets publish multi-paragraph excerpts of speeches from Donald Trump and have been appalled that I was unable to read them in any coherent way. I could not honestly follow or discern any coherent thought or argument in the majority of them. I was a bit shocked because in listening to him, he often sounds like he has some kind of point, though he seems to be spouting variations on one of ten one-liners he’s been using for over a year now. There’s apparently a flaw in our primal reptilian brains that seems to be tricking us into thinking that there’s some sort of substance in his speech when there honestly is none. I’m going to have to spend some time reading more on linguistics and cognitive neuroscience. Maybe Stephen Pinker knows of an answer?

The situation got worse this week as I turned to news sources for fact-checking of the recent presidential debate. While it’s nice to have web-based annotation tools like Genius[1] and Hypothes.is[2] to mark up these debates, it becomes another thing altogether to understand the meaning of what’s being said in order to actually attempt to annotate it. I’ve included some links so that readers can attempt the exercise for themselves.

Recent transcripts (some with highlights/annotations):

Doubletalk and Doublespeech

It’s been a while since Americans were broadly exposed to actual doubletalk. For the most part our national experience with it has been a passing curiosity highlighted by comedians.

dou·ble-talk
ˈdəblˌtôk/
n. (NORTH AMERICAN)
a deliberately unintelligible form of speech in which inappropriate, invented or nonsense syllables are combined with actual words. This type of speech is commonly used to give the appearance of knowledge and thereby confuse, amuse, or entertain the speaker’s audience.
another term for doublespeak
see also n. doubletalk [3]

Since the days of vaudeville (and likely before), comedians have used doubletalk to great effect on stage, in film, and on television. Some comedians who have historically used the technique as part of their acts include Al Kelly, Cliff Nazarro, Danny Kaye, Gary Owens, Irwin Corey, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Stanley Unwin, and Reggie Watts. I’m including some short video clips below as examples.

A well-known, but foreshortened, form of it was used by Dana Carvey in his Saturday Night Live performances caricaturizing George H.W. Bush by using a few standard catch phrases with pablum in between: “Not gonna do it…”, “Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture”, and “Thousand Points of Light…”. These snippets in combination with some creative hand gestures (pointing, lacing fingers together), along with a voice melding of Mr. Rogers and John Wayne were the simple constructs that largely transformed a diminutive comedian convincingly into a president.

Doubletalk also has a more “educated” sibling known as technobabble. Engineers are sure to recall a famous (and still very humorous) example of both doubletalk and technobabble in the famed description of the Turboencabulator.[4] (See also, the short videos below.)

Doubletalk comedy examples

Al Kelly on Ernie Kovaks

Sid Caesar


Technobabble examples

Turboencabulator

Rockwell Turbo Encabulator Version 2

Politicobabble

And of course doubletalk and technobabble have closely related cousins named doublespeak and politicobabble. These are far more dangerous than the others because they move over the line of comedy into seriousness and are used by people who make decisions effecting hundreds of thousands to millions, if not billions, of people on the planet. I’m sure an archeo-linguist might be able to discern where exactly politicobabble emerged and managed to evolve into a non-comedic form of speech which people manage to take far more seriously than its close ancestors. One surely suspects some heavy influence from George Orwell’s corpus of work:

The term “doublespeak” probably has its roots in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four.[5] Although the term is not used in the book, it is a close relative of one of the book’s central concepts, “doublethink”. Another variant, “doubletalk”, also referring to deliberately ambiguous speech, did exist at the time Orwell wrote his book, but the usage of “doublespeak” as well as of “doubletalk” in the sense emphasizing ambiguity clearly postdates the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Parallels have also been drawn between doublespeak and Orwell’s classic essay Politics and the English Language [6] , which discusses the distortion of language for political purposes.

in Wikipedia.com [7]

 

While politicobabble is nothing new, I did find a very elucidating passage from the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election cycle which seems to be a major part of the Trump campaign playbook:

Repetition of a meaningless mantra is supposed to empty the mind, clearing the way for meditation on more profound matters. This campaign has achieved the first part. I’m not sure about the second.

Candidates are now told to pick a theme, and keep repeating it-until polls show it’s not working, at which point the theme vanishes and another takes its place.

The mantra-style repetition of the theme of the week, however, leaves the impression that Teen Talk Barbie has acquired some life-size Campaign Talk Ken dolls. Pull the string and you get: ‘Congress is tough,’ ‘worst economic performance since the Depression,’ or ‘a giant sucking sound south of the border.’

A number of words and phrases, once used to express meaningful concepts, are becoming as useful as ‘ommm’ in the political discourse. Still, these words and phrases have meanings, just not the ones the dictionary originally intended.

Joanne Jacobs
in A Handy Guide To Politico-babble in the Chicago Tribune on

 

In the continuation of the article, Jacobs goes on to give a variety of examples of the term as well as a “translation” guide for some of the common politicobabble words from that particular election. I’ll leave it to the capable hands of others (perhaps in the comments, below?) to come up with the translation guide for our current political climate.

The interesting evolutionary change I’ll note for the current election cycle is that Trump hasn’t delved into any depth on any of his themes to offend anyone significantly enough. This has allowed him to stay with the dozen or so themes he started out using and therefore hasn’t needed to change them as in campaigns of old.

Filling in the Blanks

These forms of pseudo-speech area all meant to fool us into thinking that something of substance is being discussed and that a conversation is happening, when in fact, nothing is really being communicated at all. Most of the intended meaning and reaction to such speech seems to stem from the demeanor of the speaker as well as, in some part, to the reaction of the surrounding interlocutor and audience. In reading Donald Trump transcripts, an entirely different meaning (or lack thereof) is more quickly realized as the surrounding elements which prop up the narrative have been completely stripped away. In a transcript version, gone is the hypnotizing element of the crowd which is vehemently sure that the emperor is truly wearing clothes.

In many of these transcripts, in fact, I find so little is being said that the listener is actually being forced to piece together the larger story in their head. Being forced to fill in the blanks in this way leaves too much of the communication up to the listener who isn’t necessarily engaged at a high level. Without more detail or context to understand what is being communicated, the listener is far more likely to fill in the blanks to fit a story that doesn’t create any cognitive dissonance for themselves — in part because Trump is usually smiling and welcoming towards his adoring audiences.

One will surely recall that Trump even wanted Secretary Clinton to be happy during the debate when he said, “Now, in all fairness to Secretary Clinton — yes, is that OK? Good. I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.” (This question also doubles as an example of a standard psychological sales tactic of attempting to get the purchaser to start by saying ‘yes’ as a means to keep them saying yes while moving them towards making a purchase.)

His method of communicating by leaving large holes in his meaning reminds me of the way our brain smooths out information as indicated in this old internet meme [9]:

I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rseearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Scuh a cdonition is arpppoiatrely cllaed typoglycemia.

 

I’m also reminded of the biases and heuristics research carried out in part (and the remainder cited) by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow [10] in which he discusses the mechanics of how system 1 and system 2 work in our brains. Is Trump taking advantage of the deficits of language processing in our brains in something akin to system 1 biases to win large blocks of votes? Is he creating a virtual real-time Choose-Your-Own-Adventure to subvert the laziness of the electorate? Kahneman would suggest the the combination of what Trump does say and what he doesn’t leaves it up to every individual listener to create their own story. Their system 1 is going to default to the easiest and most palatable one available to them: a happy story that fits their own worldview and is likely to encourage them to support Trump.

Ten Word Answers

As an information theorist, I know all too well that there must be a ‘linguistic Shannon limit’ to the amount of semantic meaning one can compress into a single word. [11] One is ultimately forced to attempt to form sentences to convey more meaning. But usually the less politicians say, the less trouble they can get into — a lesson hard won through generations of political fighting.

I’m reminded of a scene from The West Wing television series. In season 4, episode 6 which aired on October 30, 2002 on NBC, Game On had a poignant moment (video clip below) which is germane to our subject: [12]

Moderator: Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is the centrepiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?
Governor Ritchie, R-FL: You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.
Moderator: Mr. President, your rebuttal.
President Bartlet: There it is…
That’s the 10 word answer my staff’s been looking for for 2 weeks. There it is.
10 word answers can kill you in political campaigns — they’re the tip of the sword.
Here’s my question: What are the next 10 words of your answer?
“Your taxes are too high?” So are mine…
Give me the next 10 words: How are we going to do it?
Give me 10 after that — I’ll drop out of the race right now.
Every once in a while — every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that there aren’t very many un-nuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for 10 words.
I’m the President of the United States, not the president of the people who agree with me. And by the way, if the left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.

As someone who studies information theory and complexity theory and even delves into sub-topics like complexity and economics, I can agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. Though again, here I can also see the massive gaps between system 1 and 2 that force us to want to simplify things down to such a base level that we don’t have to do the work to puzzle them out.

(And yes, that is Jennifer Anniston’s father playing the moderator.)

One can’t but wonder why Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to have ever gone past the first ten words? Is it because he isn’t capable? interested? Or does he instinctively know better? It would seem that he’s been doing business by using the uncertainty inherent in his speech for decades, but always operating by using what he meant (or thought he wanted to mean) than what the other party heard and thought they understood. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Idiocracy or Something Worse?

In our increasingly specialized world, people eventually have to give in and quit doing some tasks that everyone used to do for themselves. Yesterday I saw a lifeworn woman in her 70s pushing a wheeled wire basket with a 5 gallon container of water from the store to her home. As she shuffled along, I contemplated Thracian people from fourth century BCE doing the same thing except they likely carried amphorae possibly with a yoke and without the benefit of the $10 manufactured custom shopping cart. 20,000 years before that people were still carrying their own water, but possibly without even the benefit of earthenware containers. Things in human history have changed very slowly for the most part, but as we continually sub-specialize further and further, we need to remember that we can’t give up one of the primary functions that makes us human: the ability to think deeply and analytically for ourselves.

I suspect that far too many people are too wrapped up in their own lives and problems to listen to more than the ten word answers our politicians are advertising to us. We need to remember to ask for the next ten words and the ten after that.

Otherwise there are two extreme possible outcomes:

We’re either at the beginning of what Mike Judge would term Idiocracy[13]

Or we’re headed to what Michiko Kakutani is “subtweeting” about in her recent review In ‘Hitler’ an Ascent from ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue [14] of Volker Ulrich’s new book Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939[15] 

Here, one is tempted to quote George Santayana’s famous line (from The Life of Reason, 1905), “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, I far prefer the following as more apropos to our present national situation:

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (), a British statesman, historian, writer and artist,
in House of Commons, 2 May 1935, after the Stresa Conference, in which Britain, France and Italy agreed—futilely—to maintain the independence of Austria.

 

tl;dr

If Cliff Navarro comes back to run for president, I hope no one falls for his joke just because he wasn’t laughing as he acted it out. If his instructions for fixing the wagon (America) are any indication, the voters who are listening and making the repairs will be in severe pain.

Cliff Navarro

Footnotes

[1]
“Genius | Song Lyrics & Knowledge,” Genius, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://genius.com. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[2]
“Hypothesis | The Internet, peer reviewed. | Hypothesis,” hypothes.is, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://hypothes.is/. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[3]
“Double-talk – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-talk. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[4]
“Turboencabulator – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turboencabulator. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[5]
G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four, 1st ed. London: Harvill Secker & Warburg, 1949.
[6]
G. Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Horizon, vol. 13, no. 76, pp. 252–265, Apr. 1946 [Online]. Available: http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/
[7]
“Doublespeak – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 29-Sep-2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doublespeak. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[8]
J. Jacobs, “A Handy Guide To Politico-babble,” Chicago Tribune, 31-Oct-1992. [Online]. Available: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-10-31/news/9204080638_1_family-values-trickle-bill-clinton. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[9]
M. Davis, “cmabridge | Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit,” mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk, 2012. [Online]. Available: https://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/people/matt.davis/cmabridge/. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[10]
D. Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan, 2011.
[11]
C. Shanon E., “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 379–423, Jul. 1948. [Source]
[12]
A. Sorkin, J. Wells, and T. Schlamme , “Game On,” The West Wing, NBC, 30-Oct-2002.
[13]
M. Judge, Idiocracy. Twentieth Century Fox, 2006.
[14]
M. Katutani, “In ‘Hitler’ an Ascent from ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue,” New York Times, p. 1, 27-Sep-2016 [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/28/books/hitler-ascent-volker-ullrich.html?_r=0. [Accessed: 28-Sep-2016] [Source]
[15]
V. Ullrich, Adolf Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, 1st ed. Knopf Publishing Group, 2016.
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🔖 Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior by Robin Dunbar (Oxford University Press) marked as want to read.
Official release date: November 1, 2016
09/14/16: downloaded a review copy via NetGalley

human-evolution-our-brains-and-behavior-by-robin-dunbar-11-01-16

Description
The story of human evolution has fascinated us like no other: we seem to have an insatiable curiosity about who we are and where we have come from. Yet studying the “stones and bones” skirts around what is perhaps the realest, and most relatable, story of human evolution – the social and cognitive changes that gave rise to modern humans.

In Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior, Robin Dunbar appeals to the human aspects of every reader, as subjects of mating, friendship, and community are discussed from an evolutionary psychology perspective. With a table of contents ranging from prehistoric times to modern days, Human Evolution focuses on an aspect of evolution that has typically been overshadowed by the archaeological record: the biological, neurological, and genetic changes that occurred with each “transition” in the evolutionary narrative. Dunbar’s interdisciplinary approach – inspired by his background as both an anthropologist and accomplished psychologist – brings the reader into all aspects of the evolutionary process, which he describes as the “jigsaw puzzle” of evolution that he and the reader will help solve. In doing so, the book carefully maps out each stage of the evolutionary process, from anatomical changes such as bipedalism and increase in brain size, to cognitive and behavioral changes, such as the ability to cook, laugh, and use language to form communities through religion and story-telling. Most importantly and interestingly, Dunbar hypothesizes the order in which these evolutionary changes occurred-conclusions that are reached with the “time budget model” theory that Dunbar himself coined. As definitive as the “stones and bones” are for the hard dates of archaeological evidence, this book explores far more complex psychological questions that require a degree of intellectual speculation: What does it really mean to be human (as opposed to being an ape), and how did we come to be that way?

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As it was published, I had read Kevin Hartnett’s article and interview with Christoph Adami The Information Theory of Life in Quanta Magazine. I recently revisited it and read through the commentary and stumbled upon an interesting quote relating to the history of information in biology:

Polymath Adami has ‘looked at so many fields of science’ and has correctly indicated the underlying importance of information theory, to which he has made important contributions. However, perhaps because the interview was concerned with the origin of life and was edited and condensed, many readers may get the impression that IT is only a few decades old. However, information ideas in biology can be traced back to at least 19th century sources. In the 1870s Ewald Hering in Prague and Samuel Butler in London laid the foundations. Butler’s work was later taken up by Richard Semon in Munich, whose writings inspired the young Erwin Schrodinger in the early decades of the 20th century. The emergence of his text – “What is Life” – from Dublin in the 1940s, inspired those who gave us DNA structure and the associated information concepts in “the classic period” of molecular biology. For more please see: Forsdyke, D. R. (2015) History of Psychiatry 26 (3), 270-287.

Donald Forsdyke, bioinformatician and theoretical biologist
in response to The Information Theory of Life in Quanta Magazine on

These two historical references predate Claude Shannon’s mathematical formalization of information in A Mathematical Theory of Communication (The Bell System Technical Journal, 1948) and even Erwin Schrödinger‘s lecture (1943) and subsequent book What is Life (1944).

For those interested in reading more on this historical tidbit, I’ve dug up a copy of the primary Forsdyke reference which first appeared on arXiv (prior to its ultimate publication in History of Psychiatry [.pdf]):

🔖 [1406.1391] ‘A Vehicle of Symbols and Nothing More.’ George Romanes, Theory of Mind, Information, and Samuel Butler by Donald R. Forsdyke  [1]
Submitted on 4 Jun 2014 (v1), last revised 13 Nov 2014 (this version, v2)

Abstract: Today’s ‘theory of mind’ (ToM) concept is rooted in the distinction of nineteenth century philosopher William Clifford between ‘objects’ that can be directly perceived, and ‘ejects,’ such as the mind of another person, which are inferred from one’s subjective knowledge of one’s own mind. A founder, with Charles Darwin, of the discipline of comparative psychology, George Romanes considered the minds of animals as ejects, an idea that could be generalized to ‘society as eject’ and, ultimately, ‘the world as an eject’ – mind in the universe. Yet, Romanes and Clifford only vaguely connected mind with the abstraction we call ‘information,’ which needs ‘a vehicle of symbols’ – a material transporting medium. However, Samuel Butler was able to address, in informational terms depleted of theological trappings, both organic evolution and mind in the universe. This view harmonizes with insights arising from modern DNA research, the relative immortality of ‘selfish’ genes, and some startling recent developments in brain research.

Comments: Accepted for publication in History of Psychiatry. 31 pages including 3 footnotes. Based on a lecture given at Santa Clara University, February 28th 2014, at a Bannan Institute Symposium on ‘Science and Seeking: Rethinking the God Question in the Lab, Cosmos, and Classroom.’

The original arXiv article also referenced two lectures which are appended below:

[Original Draft of this was written on December 14, 2015.]

References

[1]
D. Forsdyke R., “‘A vehicle of symbols and nothing more’. George Romanes, theory of mind, information, and Samuel Butler,” History of Psychiatry, vol. 26, no. 3, Aug. 2015 [Online]. Available: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0957154X14562755
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I just ordered a copy of Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies by Cesar Hidalgo. Although it seems more focused on economics, the base theory seems to fit right into some similar thoughts I’ve long held about biology.

Why Information Grows: The Evolutiion of Order from Atoms to Economies by Cesar Hidalgo
Why Information Grows: The Evolutiion of Order from Atoms to Economies by Cesar Hidalgo

 

From the book description:

“What is economic growth? And why, historically, has it occurred in only a few places? Previous efforts to answer these questions have focused on institutions, geography, finances, and psychology. But according to MIT’s antidisciplinarian César Hidalgo, understanding the nature of economic growth demands transcending the social sciences and including the natural sciences of information, networks, and complexity. To understand the growth of economies, Hidalgo argues, we first need to understand the growth of order.

At first glance, the universe seems hostile to order. Thermodynamics dictates that over time, order–or information–will disappear. Whispers vanish in the wind just like the beauty of swirling cigarette smoke collapses into disorderly clouds. But thermodynamics also has loopholes that promote the growth of information in pockets. Our cities are pockets where information grows, but they are not all the same. For every Silicon Valley, Tokyo, and Paris, there are dozens of places with economies that accomplish little more than pulling rocks off the ground. So, why does the US economy outstrip Brazil’s, and Brazil’s that of Chad? Why did the technology corridor along Boston’s Route 128 languish while Silicon Valley blossomed? In each case, the key is how people, firms, and the networks they form make use of information.

Seen from Hidalgo’s vantage, economies become distributed computers, made of networks of people, and the problem of economic development becomes the problem of making these computers more powerful. By uncovering the mechanisms that enable the growth of information in nature and society, Why Information Grows lays bear the origins of physical order and economic growth. Situated at the nexus of information theory, physics, sociology, and economics, this book propounds a new theory of how economies can do, not just more, but more interesting things.”

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