The Mind’s Eye and the Voice in Our Head December 18, 2014

If you are reading this, it is impossible for you to imagine what it is like to not be able to think.  Your well-developed verbal repertoire assures a rich private verbal life with only yourself as an interested and sympathetic participant.  As a behavior analyst, you know that “the mind’s eye” or this “voice in your head” depends entirely on your verbal history – a position explained in detail in Chapters 2 and 3 in the book, as well as in previous blog posts.

Few regular folks consider the origins and nature of thinking, however, and why would they?  They’ve learned from their verbal community that being able to think is part of being human, and the fact that they casually extend this capability to other species they care about – most often those with hair – suggests that they’re not at all curious about how this capability develops.  If you occasionally find that you’ve used up your daily tolerance for mentalism, however, it’s easy to interfere with this comfortable everyday point of view by throwing out an awkward question or two.

Such as…

If someone has been totally deaf from birth, do they have an inner voice?  Do they think differently than people with normal hearing?  This is a great question, and the answer says a lot about our private verbal behavior.  The answer from those who have always been completely deaf is straightforward.  They don’t hear sounds “in their head” in any way.   Their inner “voice” is instead visual, not surprisingly, sometimes taking the form of ASL signs, pictures, or printed words.  Sounds play no role at all in their thinking.

How could they?  Sounds have acquired no stimulus functions via contingencies because they are not stimuli for people who cannot hear.  Their private verbal behavior – which is most of what we call thinking – is unavoidably constrained by the learning history that their sensory capabilities allow.  They do not learn a verbal repertoire that involves sound, and their thinking does not involve sound either.

This relationship between public and private verbal behavior would also hold for individuals who have been blind from birth.  Although such individuals would seem to have much the same verbal repertoire as a sighted person, it would obviously not include descriptions of visual images, except as described to them by others.  Remember that when you see an object such as your cat, the fact that you see it as your cat involves identifying or labeling it as such, and this is verbal behavior, even if you’re not distinctly aware that this is what you’re doing.  People who lack a learning history involving visual images cannot acquire this skill, although they learn to identify their cat in other ways.  (Describing the visual features of the cat as revealed by other senses or by other people is not the same as actually seeing the cat.)  Becoming aware of stimuli, whether they are public or private, requires a verbal community that can establish the contingencies underlying awareness.  However, this verbal community can’t help when the sight is not possible.

In fact, experiencing events that we have not yet learned to respond to or recognize is quite common.  Preverbal infants do this all the time, for example.  Even though they have not yet learned to respond to the environment verbally, they learn to respond to its features in other ways as necessary.  A baby that has not yet learned to identify a bottle nevertheless learns to manipulate it so they can drink from it.  Even as adults, we often experience stimuli we have not learned to discriminate, although we may eventually acquire this skill.  For instance, we take a music appreciation course in college and learn to selectively hear the oboes in an orchestra and label their sound.  Before that, we still heard the oboes as part of the orchestral sound but lacked the learning history to pick them out.  Similarly, an employee training to work as a quality control inspector in the paint department of an automobile manufacturer must learn to identify subtle flaws in painted surfaces that were there all along but are only discriminated with training.

Yes, thinking is learned behavior

These confident statements about what thinking can be are based on the fundamental assumption that thinking is learned behavior.  The only way this assumption could be false is for thinking to develop without learning.  There is very little in our repertoire that is unlearned, however, and there is no reason to suppose that thinking is in the same category with those behaviors that are intimately tied to elemental features of our biology, such as breathing, eye blinking, and so forth.   It is not apparent that thinking involves any more than a private version of what learned public behavior.  This position does not mean that the behavior of thinking is entirely the same as our public behavior, but there is no basis for explaining how it could be fundamentally different.

Not surprisingly, many people who are not behavior analysts, including cognitively and neurologically oriented researchers, tend to be pretty expansive about the nature and extent of thinking.  The argument that most of what we call thinking involves verbal behavior would be seen as at least naïve, if not ignorant.  Behavior analysts would make the same accusation, however, in observing that others vastly underappreciate the pervasive role of learned verbal behavior in thinking that does not otherwise seem explicitly verbal.  The above explanation of how merely recognizing a sight or sound “in our head’ depends on a verbal repertoire is a good case in point.  Thinking of what your cat looks like is behavior than cannot occur without previously having learned to recognize (label) your cat.

What is it like to not think?

As suggested at the beginning, it’s hard for us to imagine what it is like to not think – that is, to respond to the world without considering it in some way.  We cannot easily put aside our extensive verbal repertoire and know what would remain.  Assuming normal neurological capabilities, but lacking the means for learning the necessary repertoire from a verbal community, we would respond to our experiences no differently than the family pet.  We would respond to events and circumstances but without consideration of past or future, without reflection, without recognition, and without awareness in the everyday sense.  We would just respond.

Whatever would be concomitantly going on in our heads instead is not something we would customarily call thinking.  In fact, as already observed we often behave without thinking, at least for short periods of time.  Consider the times you’ve been unaware of what you’ve been doing for a moment or two or longer.  Chapter 4 uses the example of driving for a few moments – perhaps minutes – without being aware of what we are doing, an uncomfortably familiar experience given the risks.  Nevertheless, we manage to engage in complex behavior that requires continuous responsiveness to the environment.  Now imagine that all of our behavior was like this – that we just responded as our learning history dictated, but without verbal behavior of any sort, private or public.  This is how other species get through life.

No matter how earnestly some might protest this view, the requirement for learning cannot be escaped.  Whatever the neurological complexities, that voice in our head or that visual image in our mind’s eye is operant behavior, and its useful and entertaining contribution to our lives depends on the contingencies established by a verbal community.  Whatever the cognitive dimensions and talents some might attribute to these private events, they must be explicitly explained in terms of a learning history consistent with established operant processes.

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The Mind’s Eye and the Voice in Our Head

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Jim Johnston

Dr. Johnston received his doctorate from the University of Florida in 1970 and held faculty positions at Georgia State University, the University of Florida, and Auburn University. He has published both laboratory and field research with both human and non-human species on a variety of topics. He has longstanding interests in the area of developmental disabilities and founded the Master’s Program in Applied Behavior Analysis in Developmental Disabilities at Auburn University. He has served as editor of The Behavior Analyst and on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, among others. He has served as president of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, as well as for the Florida, Alabama, and Southeastern behavior analysis organizations, and was the first president of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board and the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts.

The Mind’s Eye and the Voice in Our Head December 18, 2014


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