Monday, January 23, 2012

Why soliloquies?

I am taking this psychology course called "Experimental Analysis of Behavior". (Interesting to note that I haven't found any Indians in the class - maybe Indians are too "brainy" to study something like... um.. well... the "science of the mind" :P) Anyhow, it is an awesome class because we discuss a lot of interesting questions and there is so much to debate about (ya, totally my kind of thing and I'm LOVING it!). Add to that an amazing professor who is very sensible and makes the class so much fun etc etc... Anyway, what usually happens is we discuss some questions in class and often they are too deep for me to think about in an hour and a half with someone else voicing his thoughts about them as well. So I thought I should think about them later again, and maybe write my thoughts down- and that's how I ended up writing this post. Hoping I have enough time to do this, I intend to discuss some questions from my class and put down my thoughts on them and maybe let you wrestle with them yourselves too....
Disclaimer: A lot of the theories/concepts mentioned here are just based on my own readings of these topics and may not be the latest scientific view on the matter. In fact, if you know of new scientific evidence against any of this, do let me know in the comments section. 
Also please view this article as a purely biological/objective discussion of the topics and do not read any religious/other belief-oriented interpretations in it.

So, one of the things we were discussing in the first class was "What is behavior" Sounds simple enough, but when you think about it- you end up with questions like- Is questioning behavior? And is thinking behavior? Apparently, they both are, and so, any pattern of actions, covert or overt can be considered to be behavior (and maybe I will let you wonder whether that is valid or not, and why so).
But what is more interesting is- How come we came to have covert actions in that first place?? And here, I don't mean actions like secretly looking at your neighbor's answers or stealing his pen. By covert actions, I mean actions that cannot be observed, like thinking and deciding and.. ya, you obviously guessed it ... soliloquies.
Let us think of just the last- a soliloquy. How did it happen that man, of all animals developed a tendency to talk to himself and that too, as a part of thinking... (Clearly, I am assuming here that the crows cawing outside your window are not really saying "To be or not to be" in crow language! :P) In fact, how did it happen that man alone began to think and theorize and debate and philosophize and ask questions from "How to cook food" and "How to build homes" to "Why am I here" and "Who brought me here"  and "Is there a God"? How did it happen that man alone started to make these grand theories about a master creator and complex rituals to please him? And mathematical models of economic theories of an abstract theoretical concept called "money"?  (Click Read more for more...)

Coming back to soliloquies, what would have prompted a man to think out loud to himself when he was alone? Maybe it was an extension of talking to other people? But then, did man begin to think first or talk first?? Biology seems to indicate that communication could have developed even before thinking, since even simple animals communicate but we assume that most don't think. So did he talk to himself first and then used it as a process to enhance his thinking?? But then again, no animal seems to ever talk to itself. Maybe, thinking and consciousness (recognizing that you are an entity yourself) would be needed to develop that kind of an action. In that case, did thinking man suddenly realize he could make his thinking a lot more effective by using the tool of communication??

And more importantly, what led man to "think" in the first place? If his body was anyway programmed to live to find food and run away from danger, what was the need to think? Of course, thinking in terms of problem-solving and tool-fashioning might have been useful. But how did that result in man thinking "I am a man" or "This is a bird" or "Why am I a man" or "Why is the sky blue". The "how" in the thought process is quite understandable- it helps man develop better tools and better lives. But.. why did primitive man need to ask a "why"? Was it just a strange genetic mutation that somehow got carried forward in generations and got embedded in human society? Was thinking just an accident? Or was the "why" a natural extension of the "how"? And the "Aham Brahmasmi" an extension of the "why"?

More interestingly, has thinking helped man a lot? Here, by thinking, I mean, thinking about himself and the cause of his existence and the nature of the world. I know one could argue that most science was a product of the basic questions that man asked about himself- and calculus and quantum mechanics are just the final products of man's basic wonder about why the sun rises and what makes the universe. But then again, has consciousness helped man? Has the theory of philosophy and the search for a purpose in life helped us at all? I sometimes really feel - if only I didn't think and know, I could have just been safely ignorant. One would not worry about sorrow and pain and disease and poverty, good and evil, right and wrong, and virtue and vice, if one did not have consciousness. And maybe, we would have lived nature's way and remained - "safe in non-understanding"!! I don't know if that's valid... Maybe not... Anyway, we can only hope science will have answers for why we think and how it helps in the future... But then again, maybe we should have just left those questions alone...

By the way, throughout this post I have assumed that animals don't think etc. While nobody knows yet of crows or dogs or monkeys building mathematical models, the debate is still on about whether animals really think or not... When a mouse runs away from a cat, does it just run as a mechanical response (like moving your finger immediately when burnt) or does it think whether running is the best thing to do under the given circumstances? Does it know that a "cat" is standing and "itself" (the mouse) has to run to avoid it? Does it "know" that it is fighting for "survival"?? So far, research has been unable to answer these questions.. But it is nice to ponder about them.. And maybe the next time you shoo a crow from your window sill, you will wonder if it knows "you" are shooing "it".... :)


  1. I dont know if the crow knows when I am shooing it, but surely it knows a danger striking it, that is all it needs to know from where I see, so isnt this a thought process or just a response to stilmuli, so random that no thinking would be involved?

  2. @Smrithi: Sorry, I didn't see this comment for a long time. It is generally assumed that a crow knows what to do when u shoo it, in some sense, automatically. i.e. it does not think, 'This girl is waving her hands. She will probably throw something at me. Let me fly away'.
    So, yes, it is assumed to be an automatic (not quite random) response to the stimulus.
    This is an assumption, of course. As I mentioned in the last para, maybe we might eventually discover crows also think. But so far, the question is just unproven and debatable.


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