Friday, December 14, 2007

Consciousness and Rationality Without Language?

A comment on Wednesday's post reminded me of a delightful old case study by Andre Roch Lecours and Yves Joanette (1980) which seems to be largely unknown in the literature.

"Brother John" was a French monk who suffered severe, almost complete, aphasia (that is, incapacity with language) of both outer speech and, by his report, inner speech as well during epileptic episodes. Yet during these episodes he remained quite capable of rational thought and behavior. Here is Lecours and Joanette's description of one extended episode of severe global aphasia in Brother John:

While he was traveling by train from Italy to Switzerland, Brother John once found himself at the height of a paroxysmal dysphasia soon upon reaching the small town of his destination. He had never been in this town before but he probably had considered in his mind, before the spell began (or became severe), the fact he was to disembark at the next stop of the train. At all events, he recognized the fact he had arrived when the time came. He consequently gathered his suitcases and got off the train and out of the railway station, the latter after properly presenting his transportation titles to an attending agent. He then looked for and identified a hotel, mostly or entirely on non-linguistic clues since alexia was still severe, entered and recognized the registration desk, showed the attendant his medic-alert bracelet only to be dismayed and dismissed by a gesture meaning "no-room" and a facial mimic that perhaps meant "I-do-not-want-trouble-in-my-establishment." Brother John repeated the operation in search of a second hotel, found one and its registration desk, showed his bracelet again, and, relieved at recognizing through nods and gestures that there were both room and sympathy this time, he gave the receptionist (a "fat lady") his passport, indicating the page where she was to find the information necessary for completing his entry file. He then reacted affirmatively to her "do-you-want-to-rest-in-bed-now" mimical question. He was led to his room and given his key; he probably tipped as expected and went to bed. He did not rest long, however: feeling miserable ["It helps to sleep but sometimes I cannot because I am too nervous and jittery" (free translation)], then hungry, he went down to the hotel's lobby and found the restaurant by himself. He sat at the table and, when presented with the menu, he pointed at a line he could not read but expected to be out of the hors-d'oeuvres and desserts sections. He hoped he had chosen something he liked and felt sorry when the waiter came back with a dish of fish, that is, something he particularly dislikes. He nonetheless ate a bit ("potatoes and other vegetables"), drank a bottle of "mineral water," then went back by himself to his room, properly used his key to unlock his bedroom door, lay down, and slept his aphasia away. He woke up hours later, okay speechwise but feeling "foolish" and apologetic. He went to see the fat lady and explained in detail; apparently, she was compassionate (p. 13-14).
If Lecours and Joanette's understanding of Brother John is correct, there was no, or almost no, inner or outer speech production or recognition through the entire episode. Brother John was presumbably not "thinking in words" -- or if he was, "thinking in words" must mean something very different from what I'd have thought it to mean.

Of course we shouldn't put much weight on a single anecdote transmitted second-hand....


Anonymous said...

Hey Eric, very interesting anecdote!

I'm inclined to agree with 'the moral' of it, given the examples where our thinking is for things for which we lack worlds, or where the thinking involves not language but rotating e.g. things in the mind (like on some IQ tests).

It seems to me that the inner speech is not somehow constitutive of the thinking and consciousness, but it is similar to the effects we have after playing computer games for long time. Just in this case it is consequence of the 'language games' which we grew up, and which we 'play' constantly.

I wrote about this, with few examples here.

And thanks for the link on the blogroll! It made me happy given how much I like your blog :)

Anonymous said...

Hmm, after writing previous post I tried to use some new feature of blogger in writing of comments, and instead of my name, the part of the url of my blog ended up in the comment. Sorry about that.

Anonymous said...

As you know, it is often thought that during seizures (and somnambulism) people are phenomenally unconscious. A rival view is that they simply fail to encode experiences during seizures, so that they don't recall them afterwards. On this view, there is some degree of p-consciousness; perhaps as much as there is a-consciousness. Do you think this case report gives any support to this latter view?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That's a nifty analogy, Tanasije! I recommend readers go check out your post linked above. It's an appealing idea I'll have to think about more. Thanks!

Interesting question, Neil. I don't know much about epilepsy in general, but since memory doesn't appear to have been impaired, it probably doesn't fit very well with the kind of cases in which people would normally argue that there is no consciousness. So how, methodologically, to work that issue out? Tricky! Maybe we need a solid theory of consciousness first...?

onclepsycho said...

I've just received a wonderful book about a phenomenon that might be the converse of what Lecours and Joanette described in their patient: Sleep-talking, or somniloquy. That guy Arthur Arkin spent most of his career studying this in his lab. Articulate speech without awareness vs awareness without articulate speech, I'm not sure it's a clearcut dissociation but I'm sure the book will fascinate you if you don't have it: Arkin AM (1981) Sleep talking: psychology and psychophysiology. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That does sound interesting. Thanks for the tip, onclepsycho!

Anonymous said...

This question makes me wonder about the animal's possibility to be rational and self concious. I think they all are underestimated, but thats me. Any thoughts on this subject?

Anonymous said...

By the way, this is a terrific site! helt genialt!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind words, Emnorway. I agree that language-oriented philosophers and psychologists probably overestimate the gap between human and animal cognition. But one can go too far the other direction, also!

Anonymous said...

When trying to explain to other people I decision I make, I sometimes use the “internal voice” metaphor:

“So, I went to the shop on the 5th Street and I was about to buy the item, when something told me ‘you better not do this purchase’”

There was no internal voice, really. But it seems easier to describe the decision in these terms.

Intuitively, I feel that thinking is fully non-verbal, with some “voice module” in the brain being connected to the “thought processor” and doing an almost full-time translation. I am not sure why that is. There may be no “why”, just a random output of the evolution game.

Also, there are reports from people doing meditation (yoga) and also from those who take psychedelic drugs, indicating that it is possible to think without words during certain altered states. I assume this kind of anecdotal evidence might be harder to accept though.