Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving


January 8th, 2007

As I’m going about formulating a frame for my dissertation research, it becomes clearer that it matters where I draw the line between what will be “in” the project and what must remain “outside” of it. I always knew this, but the difference now, perhaps, is a better sense (?) of what is do-able, particularly in terms of promising an outcome. I don’t mean predicting a particular or specific result, because I do not know, now, the answers to my research problem. I do mean guaranteeing with some assurance that the problem is significant and the results of rigorous examination will be worthwhile and beneficial to the narrow field of language and interpretation studies as well as to (I hope) a broader social science. But I cannot say how the leap from the subfield of interpretation to larger fields will occur. Probably there are several possibilities. I don’t want to foreclose some by too close an interest in others. I cannot see any of them; I only intuit that the connections will become evident.
That penultimate goal must wait. I have been learning a different kind of trust the past few years and I must continue to exercise it. My mind is quick on a few things (sometimes too much so), medium with most, and just plain slow with others. Within my consciousness, a vague sense of understanding floats around definitive knowledge for a long time before it suddenly congeals into sharp coherency. Formulating the kernel of research into the institutionalization of interpretation and language processes has been like this: I’ve written nearly a dozen papers seeking clarity, all of them “promising” but insufficient. Then, last week, while taking notes of a lecture by my (!) cultural codes instructor, a foundational structure leapt into view. I apprehended what my intuition has been telling me lo-these-past three years.
My interest in epistemology (how we come to know what we know), cognition (more precisely, neuroscience), and perception (haphazardly categorized as “phenomenology”) suggests to me that understanding the productive effects of discourses might influence particular, relational communication choices. I’m going to have to wean myself away from the popular science literature elucidating what specializations have come to accept as knowledge. I resist, for just awhile longer. For now I relish the odd sensation of perceiving new synapses making new connections. There have been several specific time periods throughout doctoral coursework when I’ve experienced understanding snapping into view &emdash; ”Aha! &emdash; in a cascading sequence of minor revelations. ”No wonder,” I sometimes think, “some of my colleagues think I’m such a dweeb!” 🙂

I’ve begun to read second nature: brain science and human knowledge by Gerald M. Edelman (critical review). He offers the assumption, right off the bat, that we do understand how consciousness is based in brain action. With this premise as foundation, Edelman argues “we can address the nature of consciousness itself” (ix) through “a line of thought leading to … brain-based epistemology” (2), a branch of neural darwinism. Edelman places the origin of this line of thinking with a philosopher, Willard van Orman Quine (never heard of him before), and situates himself as following the footsteps of William James (of whom I have heard), “who pointed out that consciousness is a process whose function is knowing” [Footnote 4] (p. 3).
I’m curious where Edelman juxtaposes thinking in this equation. The model I’m working with situates thinking somewhere in-between consciousness and knowing. The two reasons I can articulate right now are the arguments Gladwell makes about rapid cognition going wrong: he calls it temporary mind-blindness, citing the NY police killing of Amadou Diallo as his prime example. People still know things in situations when their judgment is impaired, faulty, or otherwise questionable, but the resources of consciousness that they are able to bring to the operation of knowing in such moments are severely reduced. Gladwell’s recommendation is to control the environment in order to control rapid cognition. He also cites the value of experience.
“…the gift of training and expertise &emdash; the ability to extract an enormous amount of meaningful information from the very thinnest slice of experience . . . . Every moment &emdash; every blink &emdash; is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction” (241). The point Gladwell seeks to drive home is that “our unconscious thinking is, in one critical respect, no different from our conscious thinking: in both, we are able to develop our rapid decision making with training and experience” (237).
Interpreters must thin-slice all the time. That’s our job: to determine meaning in the blink of an eye and then to fix it for others.
The problem is that the more pressure and less time one has for rapid cognition, the more likely one is to make errors. Quoting psychologist Keith Payne: “When we make a split-second decision, we are really vulnerable to being guided by our stereotypes and prejudices, even ones we may not necessarily endorse or believe” (emphasis added, 233). In these moments, our thinking mind is overruled or impaired by something else. What?
I’m taking a leap here &emdash; but I’m wondering about the enteric brain. Someone in the Communication Department &emdash; either Perry or David &emdash; gave me a copy of a Harper’s article some time ago. Yesterday I read it. “Debbie Does Salad: The Food Network at the frontiers of pornography” by Frederick Kaufman (interviewed by Peter Morris). It parallels (convincingly) the pleasure of viewers of cooking shows and pornography: both produce a visceral “wow” in another, second brain, “a brain in the gut” (October 2005:59). Sphincters, baby, that’s what it comes down to, “enteric attraction,” a bunch of autonomic openings and closings that either feel good or feel bad. Kaufman quotes a 1907 classic: “The abdominal brain can live without the cranial brain…[but] the cranial brain can not live without the abdominal brain” (The Abdominal and Pelvic Brain).
Here’s how I’m putting all this together. Once we become conscious of the enteric brain, meaning once we know “sphincter power” drives the wow factor, our tastes, and our biases, then we can start to think about whether or not (when, how, why) we want our decisions to be dictated by the gut. I would even go so far as to speculate that this is the tangible horizon of humanity’s evolution as a species. Language (and all those other symbols we wield) might be an entry point for illuminating this choice, even for detailing when and how interactions rife with gut-level reactions can be mediated. Not by rationality per se, but to the combination of intuition/rapid cognition and thoughtful consideration Gladwell articulates, so that we can begin to deliberately move our societies away from the perpetuation of destructive decision-making cycles (I’m thinking in particular of violence to persons and our planet) and toward new modes of creativity and alternative forms of aggressive expression that preserve life and its continuing possibility.
[random fyi: Mind, Language, and Epistemology: Toward a Language Socialization Paradigm for SLA]

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Categories: group dynamics, Interpreting, Media, phenomenology
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