Friday, June 30, 2006

Do We Experience Thought as in Our Heads?

Does it seem to you that your thinking is located, phenomenologically, inside your head? Many people report this, both in casual reflection and when their experience is sampled with a beeper.

But I bet Aristotle -- who famously claimed that the brain was merely an organ to cool the blood -- would not have said that. Nor, I suspect, would ancient Chinese philosophers such as Mencius and Xunzi, who characterized thought as occuring in the xin, the heart. Of course, we don't have strictly phenomenological reports about this, but it seems a strain to suppose they thought thinking occurred in the heart yet was referred in experience to another location.

Here's one possibility: Where thought is phenomenologically located varies with one's cultural context -- perhaps specifically with one's culture's views about the organ of thought. How strange and interesting, if true! What governs the felt location of cognition? Why do some feel it here and others feel it there? Why wouldn't this be physiologically determined, at some fairly low and immutable level? Could I feel my cognition as occuring in my feet or shoulders, or on the other side of the room, or back in my kitchen on the other side of town, if the cultural conditions and my background beliefs were right? (Not the last, surely, you say -- but why not?)

If you know me, you'll know that I think we should also consider a more skeptical possibility: Our opinions about our phenomenology are heavily influenced by background theories, metaphors, and cultural constructs, but the phenomenology itself is consistent over time. (Regarding cultural variation in the reported experience of dreaming, see here and here; regarding echolocation, see here; regarding visual perspective, see here and here.) We're no great shakes at reporting even the most basic, most "obvious" features of our phenomenology -- such as, I'd suggest, where (if anywhere) our conscious thoughts are phenomenologically located.

Now, what evidence can be brought to bear in favor of one of these possibilities over the other?


Justin Tiwald said...

Hi Eric,

Pardon the short disquisition on the locus of thoughts in classical Chinese philosophy. I've done quite a bit of thinking about this over the past couple of years.

Like you, I can't think of any clear phenomenological reports in Mencius or Xunzi about the location of thinking. There are some passages that *might* be read as phenomenological reports. For example, Xunzi suggests in “Encouraging Learning” that the refined person (or “gentleman”) learns by taking in information through the ears and digesting it in the heart, whereas the petty person simply absorbs it through the ears and then sends it directly to the mouth (Watson, p. 20). This might be taken to imply that some cognitive processes really do occur in the head, even if they are rather unsophisticated ones having to do with imitation of what one has heard. Clearly this passage implies that the more sophisticated processes--including the exercise of moral judgment--take place in the heart.

On the other hand, this passage does not purport to be a self-report on Xunzi’s own feelings as a refined person, and if asked he might say that it was more an informed judgment based on his understanding of human psychology, physiology, etc. Also the remark about the petty person might be more driven by the desire for a laugh-line more than any serious theory about the locus of thought. Xunzi says that the distance between the ears and the mouth is too short--just four “cun” (inches?)--for a full-sized adult to really absorb it. It's his version of the joke about things going "in one ear and out the other" but tweaked in such a way as to make fun of sycophants: the ideas go in their ears and come out of their mouths. I personally favor the laugh-line reading of this passage, but there are sinologists (e.g., Harbsmeier) who think it should be taken seriously.

Now let me say a bit about my view more generally. My hypothesis is that classical thinkers like Mencius and Xunzi believed *reasoning* (and some other important things, such as moral feeling) occurs in the heart, whereas *thoughts* can occur elsewhere in the body. Notice, for example, that they consistently describe the sense organs as having desires: the eyes desire beautiful things, the mouth desires good flavors, etc. For the classical thinkers, as for the Stoics, desires had cognitive content. Lust was not simply a matter of feeling a certain way, but also of judging someone else attractive. Mencius and Xunzi contend that learning can have a transformative effect on the desires of the sense organs. In the passage I just mentioned Xunzi suggests that the learning of the refined person is processed in the heart and then “spreads to the four limbs.” This is obviously not conclusive evidence. It is possible that the classical thinkers felt some license to speak metaphorically about the desires that occur in the eyes and ears. But it is striking how many passages seem to suggest that a certain amount of judging and thinking is done by the sense organs themselves.

If we want to get our thoughts organized and make sure they are in keeping with objective facts, however, then the heart is where this is accomplished. Thus all of the discussion about the importance of having an unperturbed heart, an empty heart, or a unified heart.

Finally, another item to add to your list of exceptions (along with Aristotle, Mencius, and Xunzi) and the early Indian thinkers. The Sanskrit word “manas” also means both heart and mind.

Thanks for indulging me!

Brad C said...

Interesting comments Justin.

A more skeptical response:

(1) Why think that thoughts are located anywhere in the body? In order to something to be located in the body, wouldn't it have to have to be a physical object and have what Descartes etc. would call extension? But it seems to be a category mistake to say that some of my thoughts have a greater extension than others or that they all have about equal extenstion. It is not just that their extensions are hard to measure...

(2) Maybe it is a mistake to think of thoughts existing any "where" at all. Why think they have a spatial location? I never had two thoughts, one of which was to the left of another, or higher than another. This seems, again, a category mistake.

(3) Maybe the contrasts are better put in terms of what does the thinking - the heart or the head?

Brad C said...

On the more general issue, I think you are right that our knee-jerk responses to questions like "where are your thoughts located?" are informed by cultural factors.

I think people (present typer included) often just parrot an implicit theory of some sort that they have picked up from one of many sources (teachers, theory implicit in ordinary talk - perhaps when ordinary langauge goes on holiday, etc.) and that these tacit theories (which we accept in some sense) condition our behavior and actual experiences.

I note that this skeptical view about out ordinary opinions about our experiences finds widespread support in the Buddhist tradition. One goal of meditation is to give you insight into the moment to moment details of your experience and to thereby recognize the mischaracterizations embodied in our ordinary ways of thinking about our experiences. This recognition is then a cause for a change in the actual experiences that follow, but that is a complicated story, to say the least.

Richard Y Chappell said...

Another potential data point: don't some forms of meditation involve shifting one's "centre of awareness" (say to above your head, or down to your stomach)? At least, I spoke to someone who reported that, so they might be more inclined to answer "yes" for your question "Could I feel my cognition as occuring in my feet or shoulders...?"

It's interesting stuff, anyway. I'm not sure how to argue for or against your skepticism. But it doesn't strike me as totally bizarre that the felt location of cognition might vary depending on how one thought of one's own cognition. (Maybe just a little bit bizarre.) There would always be neuro-physiological differences underlying these psychological differences, after all...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

What a delightful set of comments! Thanks so much, Justin, Brad, and Richard -- it's enlivening to find such an intelligent set of interlocutors out in cyberspace when I toss out some of my half-baked ideas!

Let me go one at a time.

Justin: I'm inclined to agree with your reading both of the Xunzi passage (as not a serious physiological proposal) and your reading of many classical Chinese philosophers' claims about desires of the ears, eyes, mouth, and limbs (as more physiologically serious). I think the most natural interpretation is that they thought the desires of the ears were felt phenomenologically in the ears, the desires of the eyes were felt phenomenologically in the eyes, and so on (although this is speculative). Since desires of the heart are often mentioned in parallel with these others (esp. in Mencius), that may add some weight to the idea that sophisticated thinking, moral thinking, and rational weighing of inclinations was thought to be or assumed to be experienced in the heart. (And thanks for the tip on the Sanskrit, too. I should learn more Indian philosophy!)

Brad: Yes, it does seem to me a very serious possibility that conscious thought is not ordinarily experienced as spatial at all. It's a nice thought to bring in the old dualist chestnut about thoughts not seeming to have shape and size to support this idea. And if thoughts do not have a phenomenological location, then the most obvious explanation of the fact that people think thoughts have a location would be their theories about where cognition takes place physically.

Brad and Richard, both: I've never had the patience for meditation (though I've tried it a number of times), but I agree that there's an interesting phenomenon there, intimately connnected with our experience and our knowledge of it. I wonder if a skilled meditator, in a certain tradition with certain practices, could learn to project his felt locus of experience outside his body entirely -- a kind of out of body experience, perhaps? (It would then be a separate question whether there'd be any paranormal means of gaining information about objects visible from that location, etc.)

And finally on your last point, Richard: I agree that it's not totally bizarre to think that the phenomenologically experienced location of conscious thought might vary depending on one's culture or presuppositions (presumably underwritten by neurophysiological changes of various sorts). On this issue (and many issues) I'm a skeptic in sense of not feeling I know and thinking it will be very difficult to find out! But maybe there are ways to make progress, to cast some light on the issue. Starting with a discussion of cultural variation (as we are doing here) is one place to start; but it's a long way from the finish....

Clark Goble said...

It is fairly easy, although it take effort, to move where one's phenomenological center is from the head to other places. So for instance in some martial arts moving it down to below ones navel (a kind of balance point for the actions one does - sometimes given mystical significance by the less skeptical). It can be useful although I think the fact ones eyes are in ones head makes it far more natural to locate thought there instinctively.

But I think this is just all somewhat artificial. Given that most of our senses are on our head it makes sense to have our center as there and I'm sure that's why we naturally develop that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,
Great post. I've thought about this question a lot. I feel like one of the reasons I experience myself and my thoughts in my head is not just my theory of mind (i.e., that the brain's where it's at) but also because our head is behind our eyes and between our ears--I'd like to know what it's like for anyone who experiences, say visual imagery (or even vision!), in the heart or spleen or anywhere other than behind the eyes.

When I teach phil mind issues (usually when we are reading Descartes on the non-spatial essence of thinking) I always ask my students where (if anywhere) they experience themselves and/or their thinking. Most say in the head (or "behind the eyes"), and I raise your question of whether this report (or the phenomenology) may be influenced by our culture's theories and whether Aristotle or the Chinese or other culture's experience and/or would report it differently. I once actually researched whether anyone had written a paper on this question--didn't find anything.

I don't have much to add by way of answers but the question is fascinating. I do wonder, though (relevant to Brad's Cartesian points) what Descartes' phenomenology was and how to make sense of experiencing thinking without a body (or any physical/spatial existence or senses). I understand that individual thoughts don't have spatial boundaries, etc., but to me at least, they certainly don't feel disembodied, non-spatial, etc. I can't imagine experiencing my thoughts on the other side of the room (or world), much less experiencing them as occuring literally nowhere, even during meditation.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Eddy! Very interesting that you looked into this and couldn't find anything written on it. Maybe it's time. If only I could find an ancient Chinese collaborator...! ;)

I agree with your point about the eyes and ears. Here's a possibility: Auditory and visual perception are easier to think of as in the head than in the chest (though maybe we can also think of them as in the world, per "transparency" views?); emotional experience is easier to think of as in the chest. Maybe cultures where "thinking" is more allied with perception will be more apt to locate thought in the head and those where thinking is more allied with emotion will be more apt to locate it in the chest? Just wild speculation....

Christof Legler said...

I think that after this very interesting and thoughtful discussion the question we should rather ask is "why do we have such difficulties to locate a perception of our mind?” Interestingly philosophers first look into the books to answer a question rather then to perform a bit of empiricism. As a biologist I would like to speculate about this question in a more neuropsychological way. Couldn’t it be that we experience our mind in the head because most of the time we are occupied of the audio-visual input from where we get the major part of impotent information about the world around us? I think for this reason we think in pictures. The basis of imagination is images and they form our thoughts. When we watch to these inner images we move the eyes, like in the REM while we are dreaming. This leads strongly to the perception that the images are located right behind the eyes. It’s the same case with audition but more defuse. Words aren’t represented in our mind as clearly as images are. But when I think off someone shouting !FREEZE! I rather hear it with my "inner ear", right behind my ears and not behind my eyes. This can be transferred to other sensory input. We can call our attention to all parts of our body and outside of it and even into imagination. For example when I imagine my food feels very sore and swollen I don’t have an image of this sensation behind my eyes but my first impression takes place in my food. The next thought might be a more abstract idea of my food as sore and swollen. And this abstract idea again is an image. I clame that even very abstract words and ideas are connected to some kind of combined and diffuse images.
I would like to know whether blind people that are blind from birth imagine subjects like a tea cup behind their eyes or some where in their hands where they experience the cup? And further where does this person perceive his mind and thoughts?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Christof -- yes, I'm inclined to agree that the location of sensory surfaces is probably related; but that wouldn't account very well, by itself, for the differences between people's reports, either within or between cultures. And why on just inside the ears, just behind the eyes, rather than, say, right in them, or just in front of them?

Dorian Rolston said...

Three additional things we might consider.

Neurophysiology. I don't know if anyone else notices this, but when I become aware of my thoughts - at least, those in the form of words - I simultaneously become aware of a slight activation of my speech muscles. It feels like very subtle engagement somewhere around the back of the mouth or top of the throat, possibly involving the tongue and roof of the mouth as well. It's as if thinking in words is coordinated with a very subtle miming of speech. If thinking in images could be shown as coincidental with some activation of muscles involved with vision, this might suggest a neurophysiological basis for the phenomenological sense of thoughts occuring in the skull.

Origin vs. Occurence. Is our phenomenological sense of thoughts occuring in the skull a matter of where thoughts originate as well? When I try to put my mind to something - recall precisely whether I turned off the coffee machine this morning, say - I engage muscles around my head: I furrow my brow, curl my lip, flex my jaw, protrude my chin and even tilt my entire head to the side. This seems to reflect a basic conception that i) I do (or can, at least) will my thoughts into existence by engaging my head and face, and by extension that ii) the origin of my thoughts is in this same area.

Adding to this point, one interesting thing I have learned from my own (very, very limited) meditation practice is that thoughts seem to originate without any of my willing at all. In fact, they seem to occur much like random sparks - flickerings of familiar images, snipits of conversations, and other mental events much not so obviously related to my past experience. And as soon as one of these sparks catches - literally catches my attention - a path of mental activity unfolds from there, and as a meditator it is my job to then recognize this and disengage.

A final thought: If no spatial location, then no temporal location? If the ambiguity of the spatial location of thoughts can be made so apparent, might the same reasoning apply to the temporal location of thoughts? Essentially, how do we know that one thought follows after another? Under ordinary circumstances, we know one thing follows from another at least in part by using inference; e.g., the paper burned after being tossed in the fire namely because the resultant extra smoke and ash and absence of paper suggest this to be the case. But the mind provides no background against which we may judge the temporal sequence of events - or does it? If there is no real space in which thinking occurs, and no material on which thought may bear its mark, then there is only thinking...Like a bird darting accross the sky and then gone, what fact is then left for us to infer a sequence? Thoughts do not give off any residue other than themselves - there is no ash or smoke.

Very much enjoying this! I just found myself pondering this early this morning, and was excited to see others doing the same. Thanks for the posts everyone.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Very interesting questions and reflections, Dorian! Thanks for your comment. I think all these questions are almost entirely up in the air. Consciousness studies is still in its infancy (which is perhaps part of what makes it exciting).

Anonymous said...

This is a big bump, but when I found this article, I was reminded of EASE, which is an inventory for self-disorders, which are associated with schizophrenia spectrum conditions. This checklist was developed in 2005 in Norway and was developed from hearing the anomalous self-experiences of patients with schizophrenia. 2 studies show that the self-disorders are characteristic of the schizophrenia spectrum, being much more common in disorders such as schizophrenia and schizotypal (personality) disorder than in people with other disorders, including those with pscyhotic features, such as bipolar disorder and delusional disorder. Here is the checklist:

One of the items in the checklist is the "spatialization of experience", item 1.8. This focuses specifically on experiencing thoughts as if they had the properties that external objects had, location, size, movement, etc. There are some examples from schizophrenic patients given under the item. This is considered to be common in schizophrenia and in people who are vulnerable to schizophrenia.

To the poster who mentioned the absurdity of thinking two thoughts, with one to the "left" of the other, this experience does actually occur in some people (q.v. item 1.3 "thought pressure").

How this compares to what was being talked about in this post is not clear to me, and it would be interesting to discuss.