THINKING ABOUT THINKING

I have no doubt my dogs think. They have a short-term version of planning and will work together to accomplish a goal. Like opening a gate — or dismembering a toy. Surely they would hunt together if they had something to hunt. Dogs are, after all, pack animals.

They communicate. We watch them. They sit silently staring into each other’s eyes. Then they get up, together, and go out to bark, or to the kitchen to remind us they need to eat, now please. I suspect they believe we won’t remember to feed them unless they remind us.

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What forms do their thoughts take? They don’t use words. Even though they understand some words if we use them, I doubt that’s how they form ideas. So they must employ their other senses. How much is visual? Do they also think in sound and scent? It’s obvious they know what they want. They can be remarkably clever and creative in getting it … but how can they plan with no words?

Now and again, I try to “think” without words. I always fail. Inevitably, anything in my head comes with narration, conversation, and a lot of subtext.

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Dolphins and whales talk to each other in some version of language, but words used human-style is apparently species-specific. We can teach other creatures to understand and sometimes even use words, but it’s unnatural for them. Only people need words. It’s not only how we communicate, it’s inherent to our understanding of our world. It’s the way we categorize everything, remember anything.

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Ideas and concepts can’t exist without words. Language has the hooks on which we hang everything, real and conceptual. We are the only species that needs a spoken language and the only one that writes. Along with the opposable thumb, it’s how we rule the earth.

If we were to lose our languages, we would probably lose it all. I don’t think thumbs would save us.

51 thoughts on “THINKING ABOUT THINKING

  1. Interesting thoughts here. I was once in a training class in which we were told that everybody thinks, and remembers, in pictures. That blew the entire training for me, as I think in words, not pictures!

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    • I think that some people do think in pictures but not everyone. I think I do it sometimes but it could also be by association of words and objects. As I type this I’m thinking about the cup of coffee I plan to have shortly and I “see” the percolator in my mind. I think I have become this way more as I get older.

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      • I think you’re right — many people do think in pictures. However, if you do not, it’s difficult to build an entire concept based on picture thought when you can’t follow the line of thought. I also do not usually remember dreams — when I do, it’s in words rather than dreams — perhaps the two go together?

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        • I am amused, very amused when Bonnie and Gibbs exchange quick glances and promptly race outside to co-chair their nightly neighborhood meetings. Bonnie is a political activist. Gibbs heads security.

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    • I actually hear words describing things I see both awake and asleep. I can’t really understand anything without words. Words are the hooks on which I hang everything. When I was trying to learn Hebrew, I had trouble with all technical stuff because in Hebrew, my hooks were missing. I needed genus and species to categorize a bird. I am VERY word-oriented.

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  2. I have a 45 year old autistic son, so have practice in communication systems. My felines, I am convinced, have autistic elements. Out of sight out of mind and paths of 200% logic which are so logical that we are overwhelmed with the logic. I am also sure that cats have discovered, or have it in their systems, how to communicate by telepathy with each other. After lunch I take a golden oldie sleep, and as soon as I lay down on the bed, Tabby arrives. I see her and meow and now she always meows back.Whether this is feline speech I do not know, but definitely a reaction.

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    • I agree. Sometimes it’s eerie how they “know” thing before we do stuff. It could be that we have “tells” that alert them to our moves before we make them and that their senses are so much more acute than ours that they seem to be prescient … but when they communicate with each other … how do they do it? They do it in silence, yet it’s obvious that communication has happened. Anyone with more than one pet has seen this in action.

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  3. We had no language at our origin and that ancient level of mind still lies beneath the surface chatter. Images relate to the older parts of human function and although we instantly translate images into words, I think we also translate words back into images and those instinctive gut reactions are image based.
    I’ve often wondered about communication though… you can’t live with animals and not wonder. Even the fish in their soundless world communicate… their language as complicated as Ani’s or mine, through colour, movement and posture. I have a feeling the other species understand us through our unspoken messages far better than we do ourselves since the advent of language.

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    • Which brings me back to my initial thoughts: what is “thought” to our dogs and cats? They do communicate. It’s obvious. What are they communicating? Images? Scents? Sounds? How? When they sit together, staring into each others’ eyes and they go off to “do something” together, how do they know what they will do? I think if we ever know that, we will know a lot more about ourselves, too

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          • Ani is also at hers… up on the sofa back, guarding the garden and watching the birds. Some she’ll allow, like the robin. Anything bigger than a blackbird and smaller than a kite elicits a reaction. Or if I notice the birds are there, then she’s back ‘on duty’. I wish I understood her logic.

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            • Yup. Same behavior. Gibbs doesn’t do that, but it may be because he’s too big and heavy and the cushions Bonnie uses won’t support him. Gibbs is a full-size Scottie, but Bonnie is a puppy mill rescue and never grew to full size. She’s sort of Scottish Terrier Light. So maybe this is their version of watching television 🙂

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                • Well, I used to have an English Setter; he was a big boy, even for a setter. Tall and so beautiful in motion. He had two modes: full speed ahead and sound asleep. Also probably the sweetest dog on earth. He was white with light brown ticking and spots. Beau Geste, or really, just Beau. Bonnie, on the other hand, is a fat little Scottie 🙂 But I never say the “f” word when she can hear me. We tell her she is perfect the way she is!

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                  • Ah… so you know Ani’s character well 😉 Her modes are similar to your Beau’s. And her size. ‘Small’ she isn’t 🙂
                    She may also be getting a tad broad in the beam as middle age approaches.

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                    • Is she all or part Gordon? I love setters. Probably my all time favorite dogs, but compact works out better for us these days. My ortho guy suggested I stick with dogs who were not stronger than me, though I think Gibbs may have super powers.

                      Beau also had “Gandhi” mode. If he didn’t want to do whatever you wanted him to do, he would go completely limp. You could pick up a paw and it would just fall, phlump. One night it was cold and icy and there was a fire on the hearth. He refused to get up to go out. We had to roll him onto a blanket and haul him physically out the door, where he finally decided he should get up and walk on his own. It took two of us to do it and that was when we were young! The new English setters I’ve seen are much smaller than Beau who was a big, rangy boy.

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                    • Her Mum is an English Setter, Dad is a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. Between the two , she has the elegance of setterhood and the stubbornness… and the strength of the retriever to back it with.
                      I grew up with Irish Setters, show type… I knew what I was getting into here, but we always live in hope… 🙂

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                    • The trainer we had with Beau referred to them as “iron-headed.” They are bred to work on their own without a human to tell them what to do. Beau — when I could let him loose — would range a really LONG distances from me. Every once in a while, he’d pop out of the woods, wave a paw so I’d know he was okay, then disappear again. I was told dogs who are bred to be independent are — independent. They are less interested in pleasing people and more focused on getting the job (or whatever they perceive as the job) done. Beau was sweet, gentle, and VERY independent.

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                    • Ani tends not to let me out of sight…but then, she can see a long way. On the other hand, she’ll take herself for walks any time she can get out. I have to be watchful of that.

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                    • I had to be very careful of Beau’s ranging tendencies. He was big, fast, and had that NOSE, which he would follow anywhere the scent was interesting. And a lot of stuff was interesting. We didn’t live in the country, either. There were a lot of roads and a lot of traffic. I eventually moved him to live with friends in the country. They had a girl English and she and Beau were a joyous couple. And it was a lot less dangerous than a NYC suburb. Out here, it wouldn’t be a problem, but I’m past big dogs. And terriers think they are huge 🙂

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                    • We have busy roads around here too …and she has no road sense when she catches a scent. It worries me, though she has only got out a couple of times, thank goodness. It is easier in the new place…I can make sure the doors give me a fair chance and lock the back gate.
                      Yes, Terriers are huge…in heart at least 🙂

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    • I’m not sure I can think without words. I shoot without words, but I can’t assess the picture without them. Seeing is one thing, but I suspect for me to make any sense out of what I see past the pure visual beauty, I need words. I don’t think it’s unique, either.

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    • I think in words too. If I “see” something, my brain is always busily adding the narration and description. I’m pretty sure I’m lost without words. Maybe some people aren’t, but my whole mental file cabinet uses a word search!

      This new filter offers some great options for pictures. Very artistic. Some are a big gaudy for my taste, but all the line art and painterly variations will be useful. And it is fun not just taking pictures, but playing with them.

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  4. Smell is big with dogs, too. I’m not sure about ideas and concepts existing without words. I think that concepts and ideas existed before language as we know it. I think this because my friend Lois’ son is severely disabled linguistically and mentally but somehow we communicate really well together. I don’t know how we do it. I think it’s partly because he is necessarily kinesthetic and I’m naturally that way. I’ve been messing with my dogs lately, too, on this language thing. Using their head gestures and eye contact to say things to them, like “Do you want out?” It is actually working. Some breeds are very vocal — like my huskies, and Molly once actually said, “Hello” when I came in the front door. There are some scientists who believe that humans learned speech from wolves. Anyway, it’s fun to explore the question.

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    • I wonder how you can think in smells. I do not think my brain can do that, but who knows? Many secrets left to unwrap in our brains (or lack thereof). I’ve always been convinced that our dogs communicate silently and wordlessly. I’ve watched them do it. I think anyone who has owned multiple dogs has seen it. Hand gestures have been effective with dogs forever. That’s how shepherds working far from their dogs communicate — entirely with gestures. And anyone who has ever seen a border collie stare down a sheep … well … eye contact isn’t just for flirting!

      Dogs get more “verbal” when people encourage them. Apparently only dogs that live people smile. We learn from one another. I want to learn to sleep anywhere, anytime. My dogs can. I just need them to explain how they do it.

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      • Sleep anywhere and LOVE their lives. Most of them. Dusty has problems with that, but Mindy, my god. She is just happy and she makes everyone around her happy, even my shy and fearful neighbor, maybe especially. Dogs are magic. I love them, but you knew that. ❤

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        • I think if Garry had to make a choice, it would be the dogs. I can hardly blame him. I was thinking about it the other day and realized I have always loved animals, even when I was very little. I think I read every book ever written about dogs and horses — which is a lot of books. I always thought having a horse was a lot better than having a man. And having dogs AND horses? Heaven.

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