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Tallis in Wonderland

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Just A Little Tune I Found In My Mouth

Raymond Tallis muses on music, memory and memes.

“What’s that you’re singing, darling?” a mother sitting opposite me on the train asks her little daughter. “Just a little tune I found in my mouth,” she replies. This charming answer reminds me of how often we discover ourselves humming, thinking, recollecting, picturing things that we had not exactly chosen to hum, think, recollect or picture. Here – in the full daylight of consciousness – we seem to be the site of events that happen without our permission.

Often this automaticity is to our benefit. Thinkers and artists who by their efforts of thought and imagination have done so much to shape, transform and enrich our world, frequently report how, after weeks of intense and fruitless effort to solve a problem, they find the solution coming to them unbidden. The mathematical genius Henri Poincar é described how his attempts to understand the obscure entities called Fuchsian functions had ground to a halt until, engaged on unrelated business, he stepped onto a bus, whereupon “the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to pave the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry.” (The Foundations of Science, 1908). And the magnificent opening to The Ring Cycle – the 36 bar prelude representing the mighty Rhine itself – suddenly flooded through a weary Wagner as he was taking a nap. We seem to be incompletely in charge of events in the very heart of our agency – even at the highest level.

For some this is an affront to self-respect. The great French poet Paul Valéry asserted that he would rather write a mediocre poem in full consciousness than be involuntarily inspired to write a work of genius. And one can see why he felt this: how can one take credit for automatic writing? More generally, if uninvited happenings dominate the inner sanctum of the conscious self, how can we imagine that we are free? Yes, we can wake out of this little tune we find in our mouth, identify it, decide to continue with it, and even follow the train of events that led to its taking up residence in our awareness. But this does not entirely dissipate the uneasy feeling that one is in the grip of unchosen processes.

In his masterpiece Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes compares the succession of thoughts (which succession he believed reflected the train of experiences which awakened ‘motions’ in the senses) to the way in which “water on a table is drawn which way any one part of it is guided by the finger.” The idea that ideas – recollections, images, tunes and so forth – occur to us by a process of association which seems to drive itself, has been one of the leading ideas of philosophical and scientific psychology. The manner in which events cohere in the outside world – in virtue of being co-occurrent or similar in content – is, it is argued, reflected in the manner in which these events are connected in our memories and the other capacities we draw upon when we think. The mechanisms of association ensure that the coherence of the external material world is retained, its intelligible structure stitched together in our minds. This replication of the relationship between events in our memories of them seems to be the basis of our making sense of the world, which is a pre-condition of our being able to function in it. Classification, recognition, and so on, seem to depend on this remembered relationship. Empiricist philosophers, for whom the mind was built up out of its experiences – Locke, Hume, James Mill, to name a few obvious examples – pointed the way towards this contemporary ‘associationist’ psychology which in part underpins the notion that neural connectedness is the basis of the structure of the mind. As the aphorism goes, nerves that fire together (as a result of co-occurrent stimulation) wire together.

According to associationist psychology, ideas imitate the order of impressions, just as Hobbes maintained. Unfortunately, associationism makes mental activity look like mental passivity. The poet-philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was once so besotted by the associationist psychologist David Hartley that he named his firstborn son after him, came to realise this. A famous passage in his Biographia Literaria argues that associationist psychology would make normal mental functioning indistinguishable from delirium. Our whole life “would be divided between the despotism of outward impressions and that of senseless and passive memory.” Coleridge was influenced here by Kant and others who had emphasised the structure of the mind and its activity in shaping and ordering the experiences that gave it its content. This need for imposed structure to prevent the mind being a mere ‘experience-heap’ lay behind the ideas of the earliest phrenologists, such as Gall and Spurzheim. They allocated different parts of the brain to different functions, and thought that by this means the brain imposes order on the mental residues of sense experience. These ideas are still alive in contemporary neo-phrenology, which divides the mind into evolved modules that also have specific locations in the brain.

However, the uneasy feeling that our lives are driven by processes over which we have no control, so that we are somehow passive recipients even of our mental activity, remains. The little tune we find in our mouth could stand just as well for our thoughts, decisions, plans, and so on. The work of Freud on dreams, on slips of the tongue, on emotions that we find are the end-product of largely unconscious associations, has given credence to this notion of the passive mind; and so has the more rigorous science of physiological psychology. This in turn was hugely influenced by the findings of Pavlov, for whom repeated associations shaped conditioned reflexes, which he saw as the building blocks of behaviour.

This sense of the passivity of the mind has recently been systematised in the theory of memes, so-called ‘units of cultural transmission’ supposedly analogous to genes, but which occupy the mind like viruses. When Richard Dawkins first introduced the idea, he gave tunes we find ourselves humming as an example. According to Daniel Dennett, the entire mind is made of memes, which replicate themselves without regard to the welfare of the persons whose minds they occupy, seeking only their own advantage, just as the selfish gene does. This similarity will not worry materialists: of course the causal processes that shape the material world also operate on that bit of the material world that is the brain, in which the world is supposed to find its microcosmic replica.

It is time to remind ourselves what is in front of our noses: that there is a difference between being in a state of delirium and engaging in a sustained bout of thought or even concentrating on going about one’s ordinary business. Or between daydreaming and paying attention. There are degrees of passivity and activity in mentation – between, for example, humming a tune one has found in one’s mouth, noticing that one is doing it, then trying to recall its name, to remember it more clearly, to think of other pieces by the same composer, to reproduce the circumstances under which one heard it, and so on. And the examples I have given of the passivity which sometimes favours creativity depend on the activity which precedes and succeeds it: the preparation that goes into making the prepared mind, and the deliberate work that follows the moment of inspiration – beginning with the recognition that the seemingly passively-received gift of the solution to the previously intractable problem is a solution, and can be connected with the other work one has done.

At any given moment we have a intricate agenda of small-scale and larger-scale activities relating to the various complex things we are up to – say, going to the shops to buy a present – which displays a coherence quite unlike that of a passive association of ideas. To each activity there corresponds multiple trains of thought – indeed multiple narratives that are ‘regulated’ by some ‘design’, as Hobbes pointed out a paragraph or so later in Leviathan. Under such (entirely normal) circumstances, we are not merely the site of memories that are associated with one another and with the present moment in a manner that lies outside of our will: we actively remember. Indeed, we often deliberately utilise associative mechanisms to help us remember something. It is because we are aware of and can use associative mechanisms, rather than merely being their conscious playthings, that we can rack our brains: we mentally position ourselves such that associations deliver the fact we need. And when we are racking our brains, we actively distance ourselves from any trains of thought that are irrelevant: we resist daydreaming and other modes of quiet delirium. What is more, we do this while we are regulating other trains of thought. We act consciously and deliberately in accordance with previously formulated ends, often in the face of, or time-sharing with, other previously formulated ends – for example, as we walk to the shops, receiving the phone call we have been awaiting; checking out the price of a house we have seen; keeping an eye on the time; actively reminding ourselves of other tasks we have to complete in the near or middle future; comporting ourselves in a manner that will present ourselves in a certain way to other people, and so on. In short, we actively cohere mentally in a way entirely different from that of an impersonal association of ideas, in a manner that is customised to the explicitly understood needs of our life, in the face of a multitude of distractions. This is how we sustain the intricate lacework of narratives that is a normal day. The fact that we are sometimes surprised, even unnerved, to find a little tune in our mouth, is precisely because we are accustomed to finding other things that have arrived there courtesy of our deliberate efforts – either immediately, or at some time, before.

And this is particularly true when we are being creative. The reason the non-Euclidean nature of Fuchsian functions does not come to me when I step onto a bus is that I haven’t spent ten years thinking hard about them. Such cognitive luck favours the prepared mind: the free gifts of consciousness, if relevant and useful, have to be earned. We still, generally, have our thoughts rather than being had by them. They are part of a life we actively lead and which could not be led without our continuous exercise of volition.

The dialectic of the relation between doing and happening, between deliberate activity and mechanism, is complex and mysterious, but we should not conclude from this that doings are just happenings. After all, even those unprompted little tunes we find in our mouths can prompt us to think hard about the contents of our mouths and prompt thoughts such as the ones in this article.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2009

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His book The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Round Your Head is published by Atlantic.


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