The Unabashed Academic

02 December 2014

Leopold Bloom and the Ontology of Cognitive Dynamics

As a result of some traveling, I didn't have a chance to get to the library and fill up with my usual relaxation reading of trashy mystery novels. I find them diverting and totally non-memorable. That's great! In a few years I can read them again and not remember how they turned out. I often read four or five a week.
I found myself with a lot of work to do with nothing to read to take breaks with. You can only do so many Crosswords puzzles. (Being on sabbatical doesn't mean you don't work – it means you work on the stuff you want to work on!) So I started perusing our collection of more serious novels to find something I had always wanted to read but had missed. Something interesting, but not too engrossing. When I pick up the really good stuff, I often get involved and read for four hours or more, blowing off the work I intended to do. I needed something that I could put down after 20 to 30 minutes of break. So, what's it going to be? Infinite Jest? Or Ulysses?
It was recently the birthday of the woman who published Ulysses, first as a serial, then as a bound book. (The books were confiscated and burned.) I learned about this from The Writer's Almanac the other day, so I decided to try Joyce's masterpiece.
Ulysses certainly seems to meet my requirements. It's interesting, but challenging – and pretty easy to put down. Joyce was one of the first to do a true "stream of consciousness" novel and it's been some time since I read another one. (Virginia Woolf – some years ago.)
Chapter one is about poet and philosopher Stephen Daedalus, who I remember from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The stream of his thoughts are difficult. It feels like half the words are made up, and the other half are ones that I think are real but don't know – many in French, Latin, or German, well above my limited capabilities in those languages. But he's interested in interesting things.
Chapter two switches to a more prosaic character, Leopold Bloom. His thoughts run more to living in the moment and reacting to his context than to musing on deep issues like the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis – one of Daedalus' interests). He thinks about food, interacting with his cat, the people he meets in the street, sex. (Daedalus is interested in sex too but at a more poetic level.)
After two chapters, I've already found a number of things interesting about Ulysses. First, how true the stream of consciousness seems. My own stream of consciousness includes both Daedalus and Bloom kinds of thinking, and when I analyze my own thoughts, they really do the sort of thing that Joyce is transcribing. But second, how false it feels. The thoughts of Daedalus or Bloom both feel (in my response to reading them) choppy, disconnected, scattered. The thoughts in my own head feel (mostly) natural, coherent, flowing, despite looking similar if transcripted. Why the difference?
My suspicion is the key is personal meaning making. The hard part of explaining this is the critical question: "what does 'meaning' mean." It's a bit tricky – besides being self-referential. The definition I like best comes from reading semanticists and cognitive linguistics (Langacker[1], Lakoff, Fauconnier). The idea is that our concepts and thoughts are interpreted in terms of a large web of encyclopedic knowledge about the world we each live in. Meaning is an aura of associations – a subset of our world knowledge that we each activate in the moment to interpret an idea or concept.
This has a lot of implications that help me make sense of the world I see. First, it suggests that the meaning a given individual gives to an utterance, observation, something they hear or read, can depend strongly on context. Our interpretation of the context we are in (framing) controls what of our huge store of encyclopedic knowledge is primed – not necessarily in our conscious mind at the moment, but sort of "first in line" to get activated when a chain of associations is generated to run through our limited working memory.
Let me now turn back to the question of stream of consciousness. Reading a transcript of what might be an accurate rendition of Leopold Bloom's conscious thoughts (OK, LB is a fictional character, but you know what I mean!), Joyce is providing a transcript, but Bloom is not only streaming what the transcript says. He has presumably activated a whole set of associations with each one – and those are often associations I don't have. (This is even worse for me with Stephen Daedalus, since he is a contemplative Catholic and religion plays a huge role in many of his interpretations. There's a lot I'm missing here.) Bloom's chain is constructed with invisible links that his aura of associations make with each term. They provide the glue that sticks the pieces together and makes them feel coherent. When I interpret Joyce's transcript, I do so with my own mental transcript making my own meanings – and my auras of association don't always overlap enough with Bloom's that his stream feels coherent.
One thing this says to me is that "stream of consciousness" as a literary device leaves much to be desired. In his recent book, The Sense of Style, Stephen Pinker has a marvelous chapter that gives beautiful advice about writing clearly for good communication. (I highly recommend Chapter 3 for teachers as well![2]) The key idea is to structure your writing so that readers are given sufficient information to activate their interior contexts to create the intended meaning from your text. In stream of consciousness writing this becomes almost impossible. In Daedalus' stream, it is clear that local politics and theological issues of interest around 1900 significantly inform meaning for him. Hard for me to make this out without a scholarly "Handbook to Ulysses," – and I don't have enough interest in those issues to get one.
I conclude that communicating well with stream of consciousness is exceedingly difficult – particularly if one wants one's work to be perceived as meaningful in later generations. Too much needs to be explicated for your reader to both create the meaning you want and to make the flow of thought seem natural.
Now, those of you who know me know I'm not a literary critic. If you made it this far, you've been patiently waiting for me to get to the point. Here it is, 1000 words in. (Don't do this in a research paper!)
I am both a teacher and an education researcher. A lot of my research is qualitative. My data are often transcripts of videos of interviews, group problem solving, and focus groups. I often have to try to interpret what students are saying. I want to know not just what they say, but to go beyond the transcript and infer what meaning they are making. (I would normally have said "if any", but given the definition of "meaning" above, my students are always "making meaning", just not necessarily the kind of meaning I want them to.) My colleagues and I draw on a variety of tools to infer this – gestures, word choice, tone of voice, etc. – together with our understanding of the context and our everyday communication skills. Of course one must also bring a theoretical perspective on how to interpret what one sees, to transform an observation into a measurement.
For the interpretation of student responses there are two extreme theoretical orientations: knowledge-in-pieces theory (KiP) and theory-theory (θ2). The former views students as having lots of bits of "irreducible" knowledge or "primitives". These are the places where any reasoning chain [3] of
Claimdatawarrant = claimdatawarrant = claim
ends. A primitive is something like "unsupported objects fall" or "push harder and it will move faster". Of course, in physics, we create complex reasoning for these, but in "folk-physics" models of the world, these are things you learned as an infant by watching and testing how the world worked. They form the core of lots of our everyday thinking.
The KiP approach starts by assuming students tend to bring up individual primitives (or resources) and try to get by with that; or that they bring up an easily generated story composed of a few simple primitives (as in Kahnemann's "fast thinking" [4]). KiP researchers then try to analyze more complex patterns of reasoning and build up an understanding of "knowledge structures".
The θ2 approach starts by assuming students have a coherent theory of a phenomenon, and analysis is informed by this assumption. But what we as scientists see as a single coherent phenomenon or set of phenomena may be seen by students as being governed by different coherent (but more local) theories.
These two approaches start from opposite ends and move towards each other. We might imagine a continuum between these two extremes. Some student responses could be more towards one end than the other, but empirical observation might let us determine where on that continuum a particular student's response on a particular subject belongs.
I suggest that the situation is more complex than can be described by a single continuum and that my ramblings on reading Ulysses are relevant to seeing how.
My stream of consciousness story says that in anyone's thoughts there is a continual chain of sequentially associated items popping up and that while these may appear incoherent to an outside observer, to the one experiencing the chain, local meaning creates a sense of coherence in the local flow. But in this picture, the self-perception of coherence is about how thoughts are changing moment to moment, not necessarily about the long-term constant activation of a coherent theory summing up and managing a multi-minute long argument.
One may feel that one's own thoughts are coherent – and they may be – but I suggest that a personal feeling of coherence depends on a derivative (information local to a moment) rather than an integral (information over a long time scale) and may be misleading. This could be why a number of educational theorists I have conversed with feel strongly that one must begin by assuming coherence. It just feels that way from inside!
Of course when we are teaching physics to students, one of our long-term goals is for them to learn to build large-scale coherent arguments, with reasoning that reaches over many minutes, not just a step or two. Often, it looks to me as a teacher that many a novice physics student can't put three steps together without forgetting the first one!
When my research activity turns to analyzing a transcript of a student solving a physics problem, I'm often interested in their fine-grained stream of consciousness and the particular association that drives them in the moment. 
In a problem about Newton's third law (two interacting objects exert equal and opposite forces on each other), have they recalled Newton's second law (a = Fnet/m) or its folk-physics equivalent (an object moves in proportion to the force acting on it) and focused only on the force, ignoring the effect of different masses? In a problem on pressure in a liquid, have they focused on one variable (the depth), failing to be coherent about the implications of their choice of coordinate system on the sign of g? Is their response affected by locally activated epistemological resources, such as "trust my physical intuition" or "the authorities must know what they are talking about"? By affective responses: "This is scary" or "My intuition always disagrees with physics"? There are lots of local questions that are deeply interesting. [5]
That's all very KiP driven. But we do all have long term coherences in our everyday thinking. There are patterns and regularities that last over very long time scales. 
At age four, my daughter was able to sit in one place with a game or coloring book for an hour or more, totally engaged. If I watched closely, she may have been jumping from one idea to the next with what looked like little coherence, but often she was building a story, shifting and changing it, trying one thing then another until it felt right in the moment. And there was a long term frame – the story telling and the very fact that the activity was about story telling being coherent and persistent over a long time scale. My students also have even longer term coherences, over an entire semester regularly activating "My intuition always disagrees with physics and I should ignore it" at the first sign of trouble. My own long-term highly stable coherences include "always start with an equation you can trust."
So what is an appropriate ontology for thinking about our student's thinking? Should we pay more attention to the fact that thinking is often local and driven by short term coherences explicable using a KiP-like analysis? Or to the long-term framing and average patterns that appear and look more like θ2 when you step back and look at a coarser grain size?
Of course my answer is that you have to do both to get a complete picture. A nice example of this kind of "two-scale-doublethink" is provided in many-body quantum physics. I'll explain that in my next post.


[1] R. Langacker, Foundations of Cognitive Grammar (1987).
[2] Unfortunately, his Chapter 4 proceeds to violate most of the precepts in Chapter 3 and is almost incomprehensible. Maybe he intends it to be an "exercise for the reader" to figure out how to fix it. Very "active learning"!
[3] This chain is based on Toulmin's analysis of reasoning. Every claim must be supported by data, and the reason the data supports the claim is a warrant. But every warrant is also a claim, so, like a four-year old, we can continue asking "why" (demanding data and warrants) forever. This chain stops at primitives: Things we know from our everyday experience that we have no reason for. They are "just the way things are."
[4] D. Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 2011).
[5] A. Gupta & A. Elby, Int. J. Sci. Ed. 33:18 (2011) 2463-2488.