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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Thinking Without Words

I'm trying to think like a chimp, without the hope of words. What happens?

First, I must acknoweldge that I can't. I can't erase all words from my thinking. I can imagine a scene, a photo, a person, but I cannot strip from my scene all sense of language--language understood as verbal. I can walk the paths of my garden; I can pass through the break in the stone wall and enter the woods, but my flowers and my trees have their names carved on them, and my movements are described in terms.

Second I perceive that everything available to a pre-verbal primate is still available to me, under the words. The pictures are vivid. I could find my way through the paths by various signs that are not verbal if I did not have words. I could feel the longing for the warm sunny spot where I enjoyed my morning. And I could find it without words. Would I be thinking in pictures: Yes, but not syntactically. And not only in pictures, because I have more than eyes. I have encoded the the path in odors. As long as I feel the urge of desire to find the sunny spot of long grass, I don't have to remember why I am moving in this direction. I am saying "yes" or "no" at every step, at every stump, at every smell. I may have encoded this memory a year ago and never thought of it since, and I my memory may be more clouded than I realize. But I say, without words, without "saying" "here" and "not hear." I feel the corresponding rightness when I see the mark on the path; it is a sign because it conjures the nod of feeling.

I don't know "tree" and I don't know "stone" and I don't know "cold" or "muddy" as words. But I nonetheless have them as concepts. I know all these tall hard grey musties are the same. I even know some are more suitable for climbing, more comfortable for sitting, for finding food in. I know the path to the wamn sunny grasses passes a stone like this and a tree like that.

Thus I survive without words, via memories coded in feelings evoked through sudden associations. I don't know because I cannot conjure at will, when I am not beside the termites that I can strip a branch and drop it in the hole and pull it out full of food. But I know when I am there. And in my dreams I repeat, I code, my branch and my termites and, lying between my warm mate and my warm child, my warm sunny spot in the tall grass.

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