Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Two Ways of Seeing

There are at least two when it comes to how the brain processes with language. We can see things and we can see qualities of things. So I can see an apple, and I can see redness and roundness. We can see that both are there, but I think at any given instant, we attend to one or the other.

I spot my wife coming across the parking lot, headed toward the car, so I start the engine and prepare to pick her up. Then I see her face, and for an instant, I am struck by not so much that she is Linda, but that she is very happy - smiling broadly, right through her eyes. "Guess who I just ran into," she says. I don't lose the sense of who she is for that moment, but I am focused on how she is feeling - a quality of her expression.

These two ways of seeing, captured in language in nouns and adjectives (for all of you English majors out there), are basic to much of our cognitive problem-solving capability. (I would say they are the only 2 ways, but I don't have a PhD.) In solving problems, in communicating, in making decisions, I deal with both kinds of entities - things (people are included in this category) and their characteristics. Much of what I do when I analyze, synthesize, or evaluate starts with my understanding of what "things" I am working with and what characteristics are relevant to the process involved.

Sixty some years ago, Albert Upton, Professor of English and Director of General Studies at Whittier College in California (he did have a PhD, btw) formulated a model for conscious, purposeful thinking based on the way the mind processes language. He called his book Design for Thinking (now out of print) "A First Book in Semantics." Humble as he must have been (I never met him in person), Upton hesitated to conclude that he completely understood the human neurological processes involved in thinking. But he did find that he could enable college students to grow in their problem-solving abilities by helping them see how their minds could use language as an aid to solving problems. No one, at the time, had anywhere near the knowledge we have today about how the brain actually functions, so Upton was probably wise not to claim too much. But with the most recent neurological research (see my 8/9/09 post "So what might a cognitive lever look like?"), a model of brain functioning is emerging that, curiously, seems to underscore the value of Upton's work.

That whole last paragraph (thing) probably seemed tangential (quality) to what this post (thing) is about. It isn't, although it would be difficult for me to make the case that I've provided my readers with any direct connections. For now, let's just say that the cognition of a "thing" and the perception of a "quality" are two of the types of semantic growth that Dr. Upton identified in his work. Then let's think of this post as structured like those movies and novels that tell two stories at once, weaving back and forth, until the two plot lines converge.


  1. Hi Joe!
    I like very much your writing. It reflects a quality.
    I'd love if you followed my blog.
    I'm already following you.
    Have a great time!

  2. I found your blog through another I follow and when I saw the title of this entry I was excited! As an artist, I've always said the same thing. We see things as we know they exist, and we also see things in perspective, however, we are not always conscious of the latter. I've always said that anyone can draw, they simply need to learn how to see in another way.

    Have you ever noticed that if you ask a child to draw a table, they will draw it with all four legs sticking straight out from he corners? This is because they know a table has four legs. They see it in their head with four legs, they are not actually looking at a table and drawing what they see. Some adults will draw a similar picture of a table. However, if they sit down and look at a table, and draw what they actually see, they may draw one with only three legs because the fourth may be hidden. It doesn't mean that table only has three legs.

    This was a long explanation, but it was another way of illustrating your theory. Thanks for the post!

  3. Yes - there is often a big difference between our mental concept of a thing and the reality of that thing. In another realm entirely (human relations), I think that kind of difference leads to some huge misunderstandings. Appreciate your expansion on that point.