Saturday, March 12, 2011

Thinking about the emergence of symbolic thought

Something that came to mind while updating the Human Thought document this weekend:

Words as stand-ins for concepts in symbolic thought might be conceived of as the Paleolithic mindware equivalent of graphic user interface icons in modern computing. Rather than entering command lines to launch specific software operations, we now routinely manipulate icons that activate applications or multi-functional programs without having to think about the cascades of dozens of subcommands that then automatically propagate through a data-processing system. Likewise, words allow us to rapidly string together and communicate dozens of concepts in grammatical structures without having to dwell on each of those concepts. Additionally, the syntax itself adds an entirely new layer of implied conceptual meaning. Words carry meanings, and sentences create composite meanings built from the structured combinations of multiple words, whether when used in internal thought or external acts of communications. Thus the evolved sophistication of speech cortices in the human brain may have blurred the acts of thinking and communicating to a degree not seen elsewhere in the natural world.

The impact of the addition of words as complex conveyors of concepts in a visually oriented species likely opened novel avenues of thought, even as it complimented existing visual-based imaginaton and reasoning.


The above is the a mid-stage example of an ongoing stream of synthesis that turns a body of diffuse scientific concepts into story fodder. Essentially it works like this for me:

1) The pattern recognition phase, in which a number of concepts found in various scientific articles and books suddenly resolve into a coherent picture.

2) Write a clear explanation of the phenomenon, like the one above.

3) Wait, and storytelling ideas will blossom from it. For example, the bit at the end about adding words to the thought process of a visually oriented species and opening up new avenues of thought. What can we do with that.

Idea 1) A post-human offshoot species of humanity innovates a new method of symbolic thought even more comprehensive than our current system of thought. It lets them reason about comprehend quantum mechanics, string theory, and the counter-intuitive math that describes higher physics as easily as we think about composing a grocery list or handling routine tasks at work.

Idea 2) An alien species with color-changing camouflage skin that evolved the ability to think and communicate in highly symbolic graphic images as easily as we do with words. This makes both communications and understanding their mentality extremely difficult for humanity. Yet humankind and this species excel in different areas of science or technology because of their differences. Wars result, and later an attempt to overcome the vast gulf between alien psychologies and past suspicions for the benefit of both species.

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