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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, October 19, 2007

what babies say

Vacation mode. Vacation means departure from workaday routine. For the likes of me, that means that my usual activities require an extra push of intention in order to get done. That applies as much to things like brushing my teeth as it does to writing posts for this blog.

So: a push of intention this morning. I wanted from the beginning to offer a window into the life and mind of a writer--this writer anyway--and that window stays open only so long as I actually come down here and write. I want to do it; I just need to remind myself.

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading What Babies Say Before They Can Talk by Paul Holinger. (I feel a sense of accomplishment and pleasure whenever I finish reading a book. My coffee-table is like an airport: books still in progress are like aircraft circling, awaiting a landing. Every time I actually finish one I feel like I've brought in another load of passengers safely.) It's a good book, and I found it stimulating and provocative for several reasons.

Holinger has aimed his book at the parents of young children. He has drawn on recent studies of how newborns express emotions (apparently we are all born "hardwired" to express nine distinct emotional "signals": enjoyment, interest, surprise, distress, fear, anger, shame, disgust, and "dissmell"--the reaction to a bad smell) to suggest ways to help one's children grow up in good mental health.

I bought the book as part of my ongoing philosophical investigation into the phenomenon of identity. Inspired partly by the ideas of William James, I'm looking into the idea that our personal identity, our inward sense of integrity and unitary being, consists, essentially, of a set of thoughts. By thoughts I mean what James would call conceptions--mental images that are stable and recognizably the same at different points in time. It seems logical that the basic conceptions, if they show up enough in the mind, are what we give the labels called words.

In James's view, some of these discrete, stable conceptions have a certain quality of "warmth" or "intimacy" that marks them out as belonging to ourself: we recognize them as being part of me. He likens such thoughts to cattle that have been branded, so that, in a stream of cattle passing through a gate, their owner can immediately recognize them as his, even when mixed with other cattle. (Interestingly, the word character originates from just this same process of branding or stamping something with a permanent distinctive mark.)

In mathematical terms, such branded cattle form a set: a collection of discrete members drawn together by a rule of inclusion. I'm calling this set Me: the set of conceptions that I regard as "branded", as belonging to myself. The name "Paul" belongs to Me; the term "English-speaker" belongs to Me--and so on, millions of such conceptions. The entire set of these represents Me: the collection of thoughts that I regard as true statements about myself. The totality of Me is what I consciously regard myself as being.

All right. Thinking along these lines got me interested in learning how babies acquire and express language. How and when do they start speaking? What words do they use first, and why? Could I find traces of how a newborn starts to form a Me set?

I was drawn to Holinger's book because it deals specifically with the communication of babies before they can talk: and so it might hold clues as to how babies think and acquire language.

And it does hold those clues. A baby, when born, is a completely dependent person whose survival depends largely on its ability to communicate its needs, in the hope of having these met by someone. According to the researchers on whom Holinger draws, these needs are expressed in exactly nine discrete ways. These basic, inborn expressions of affect become refined and combined into the full suite of adult emotions. In this view,the basic affects anger and "dissmell" combine to become contempt, for example.

Holinger stresses the importance of helping children learn how to verbalize what they're feeling. In this way they--we--learn to talk about feelings instead of simply acting on them. We develop self-awareness and "tension-regulation". We become able to say "I'm angry" instead of punching someone in the head.

In my terms, this means recognizing feelings as recurring, nameable things, and giving them labels--words. The feelings themselves are not conceptions. Only the thoughts that recognize and label them are. In my view, an unnamed feeling can't be part of Me. But a distilled conception that recognizes a feeling, like "I'm angry", can be. The thought "I'm angry" is not itself an emotion; it's a dispassionate thought that includes anger temporarily in the Me set. If it happens enough, a further thought might arise: "I'm an angry person". That would be an effort to include the feeling of anger permanently in one's own identity--to brand the feeling as belonging to Me. One then identifies with anger.

These are just a few thoughts. There is a great deal more here to think about. For one thing, my Buddhist training had much to say about emotions vs. conceptions, and their natures. One way of looking at emotion is as a raw energy that in itself has no particular flavor or color; it is just dynamic and powerful, or perhaps simply naked dynamism and power. This is one way of looking at the view of Vajrayana Buddhism. When the energy is colored, we experience it as a specific emotion, such as anger or desire. It takes on qualities and attracts concepts that support it and "explain" it and so on. From this point of view, our inward "talking" about our "feeling" can actually distance us from its intrinsic power and purity.

As often happens, I've said more than I expected here, without really going where I thought I wanted to go. So be it! The writer shoots from the hip here, and the bullets go where they go.


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