Monday, May 31, 2010

Tagging my mind

Several times I wrote here about or I suggested that our mind is not only in our head. This may sound stupid for isn’t it so that our all our thinking takes place within our brain and that our brain is situated in our head? How can it be then that at least a part of our mind is not in our head but somewhere in the world around us?
A few days ago I met a simple example that clearly illustrates what I mean, which I’ll quote extensively:

Consider the following scenario: You have to remember to buy a case of beer for a party. To jog your memory, you place an empty beer can on your front doormat. When next you leave the house, you trip over the can and recall your mission. You have thus used … a … trick … exploiting some aspect of the real world as a particular substitute for on-board memory. (Andy Clark, Being there, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. etc, 1997; p. 75)

This beer can example is a simple version of something that everybody does: making a note on a piece of paper in order not to forget something we have to do: A shopping list, a note in a diary for an appointment, a list of tasks we have to do. In its simplicity the beer can example shows the essence of what it means that a part of our mind is outside our head. If our mind would be only inside our head, we should have to mark somewhere in our memory that we have to buy beer. But then we have the risk to forget it. Therefore we need something that triggers this marking. If we would make a marking-2 in our memory, again we should have the risk that we forget it. Therefore, we do something else: we make marking-2 outside our head and we make a tag within our head that gets activated as soon as it meets the marking outside our head that belongs to it: the beer can on the mat in our case. We move marking-2 to the outside world, put it on a striking place and replace it in our head by a tag. And so a part of our mind has found its place in the world around us now.
However, this tagging and marking-2 has a significance that is wider than simply being a memory aid. Once we understand it, it makes clear, for instance, why books are such valuable objects: When we destroy a book, we destroy not only a bunch of paper, but we destroy a part of a human mind, a part of what we as humans are.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The smile on my face

One of the current themes in the analytical philosophy is the relation between body and emotions. On the one hand we have the view, like Antonio Damasio’s, that says that emotions are a kind of knowledge and that they are very important in the process of taking decisions. On the other hand we have the view that emotions are thoughtless bodily reflexes that have no relation to our higher cognitive processes (for example Joseph LeDoux; see the recent article by Rick Anthony Furtak, “Emotion, the Bodily, and the Cognitive” in Philosophical Explorations, 2010/1: 51-64). I tend to support the first view, although Furtak shows in his article that the differences between both views are smaller than one might think.
However this may be, that emotions have a somatic feedback is clear in many ways. Emotions can make us drop tears, can make us laugh, both by changing the expression of our face and by making certain sounds, we can turn pale with fear, or we can blush with shame. But does it work also the other way around? Can we cause emotions within us by moving our muscles in the right way? Experiments have shown that we certainly can. When we make a smile on our face we tend to feel as if we are smiling and it is more likely that we feel amused by a joke or a cartoon. When we make a sad facial expression we tend to feel sad. When we straighten our back we tend to feel pride and when we look to the ground we tend to feel humble. And so on. How this mechanism works is not yet clear. It might be so that a physical expression really causes an emotional expression in a direct way. It is also possible, however, that the physical expression is associated with the emotional expression: We tend to feel cheerful when we make a smile on our face, because we often make a smile on our face when we feel cheerful. Just like that a piece of music may make us think of the first time that we heard it.
Trainers in interpersonal communication and other trainers make use of this relation. They advice to adapt your bodily expression to the right situation. Then you do not only make a better impression on the other people present, you feel yourself also better adapted to the situation and you feel like you are supposed to behave. One can call this manipulation but since I discovered this relation I make use of it to manipulate myself, too, so not in the relation to other people but really towards myself. I simply try to deceive myself by way of speaking. So when I am at the end of a long bike ride with still too many kilometres to go because I feel tired, I simply straighten my back, lift my head, look around and make a smile. It gives me again the right attitude and feeling to go on with a decent speed. I do not want to say that I am less tired then, but at least it feels so.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Body and soul in the garden

Philosophizing is like travelling in your mind. It is often full of unexpected experiences and often you do not know where it will bring you. And travelling can be a bit like philosophizing and bring you new experiences that make you think. Anyway, so it was for me last week. When my wife and I left for the Pyrenees, we did not expect that our actual roundtrip would end near the border with Belgium in the little town of Béthune near Lille. But so it happened. We had just arrived in the mountains in Southern France or the weather became so bad that we decided to turn back and to go where it was better and at least where it was dry. Thus we arrived in Central France, in the Loire region with its famous castles. After having visited Blois we went to the nearby Château de Chaumont. We had been there already a few years ago, but every year it organizes a garden festival with a new theme on its domain. This year’s theme was quite philosophical, body and soul, and I was curious how garden designers would interpret it. It is true, the distinction body-soul is not exactly the same as the distinction body-mind, one of my favourite fields of interest, but isn’t it so that already in the old days of Plato and Aristotle these concepts were seen as more or less the same?
The gardens were beautiful and interesting and what was striking for me was that the interpretation of the theme was very different from how a philosopher with an interest in analytical philosophy like me would have done it. This doesn’t mean, of course, that they were unphilosophical or nonphilosophical. They simply gave a different view. So no Cartesian gardens that tried to stress that body and soul are separate entities, or, criticizing Descartes, that they are just one, however such ideas might be expressed in a garden. What I saw were mainly gardens that stressed how gardens make you relax, how they influence your feelings and so your body. What was also striking was that most designers interpreted the body-soul relation this way, while there are lots of other ways for seeing the theme, of course, without thinking of a Cartesian or anti-Cartesian interpretation: a theological one, for example, where the soul is a divine essence seated in an earthly frame. To difficult to express in a garden design? Would I be able to that? And so I had a lot to think on my way to Chartres and then to Béthune, my last stop before going home.