The Human Condition:

Between Perception and Reaction – January 8, 2017

Grinning dog

We have a small dog, a terrier-mix rescue named Sally, who has separation anxieties. If we leave the apartment for even a few minutes, she will be up on her hind legs, waggling her whole body, and smiling1—not to mention pawing and licking—when we return. If we leave for a couple of hours, the greeting process is longer and more energetic.

Since this is California and it never gets really cold—not by East Coast standards—and because my feet often get hot, I usually wear sandals2 without socks when we go out. After years of wear, my sandals are a bit loose and tend to slap against my heels as I walk down the hallway to our apartment door. But even before I’m halfway there, I can hear Sally dancing and whining on the other side of the door.

All this got me thinking. She hears the sound of the sandals slapping. She knows from experience that this sound heralds the joyous experience of her “big guy” returning home and ending her loneliness. So … familiar aural stimulus equals predictable emotional response. At some level, a human being might have a similar reaction. You hear the jingle of keys in the hallway, you know your wife is home.

But a human being—at least during the first or second time of receiving this stimulus—would interpose words between perception and reaction. The human brain would automatically ask, “What’s that sound?” The mind would then sort through comparisons in memory and come up with not only a mental image of jingling keys but also a word, “Keys.” And from that follows the thought, in words or perhaps just in images and sense memory, “My wife.” We humans are such verbal creatures—made so by an environment that showers us with spoken and written words; with captioned images in our books, magazines, and even our advertising;3 with vital information spelled out on warning signs and labels;4 and with demands that we respond aloud or in writing to specific questions—that supplementing our thoughts with words is second nature to anyone over the age of six.5

I know Sally understands some spoken words. At the appropriate time in the evening I might say casually to my wife, “Do you want me to take the dog?”—meaning but not bothering to add, “out for a walk?” Sally will immediately lift her head and begin dancing. She knows “take” and “dog” are associated with the worship-words “out” and “walk.” Our previous dogs could even understand what we meant when we spelled, “T-A-K-E,” and I’m sure Sally will graduate to interpreting spelled-out words one day soon.

But spoken words and spellings are still just learned stimuli in the dog’s brain, like the sound of flopping sandals and jingling keys. Or rather, I’m almost sure of that. The dog may associate them with memories of the humans coming home or taking them outside, and these memories may be connected with visual imagery and, probably, scent cues for the imminent and enjoyable experience of sniffing the bushes. But I don’t think that the dog, when it wants to go and relieve itself, supplies the word “out” or “walk” from its own recalled memory, as a human would. When a human feels a full bladder, he or she will often think and even say, “Gotta find a bathroom”—even if no one is nearby to receive this timely information.

Supplying words as an intermediary step between stimulus and reaction enriches and modifies the human experience. For a dog, it may be enough to hear [jingle] and think [returning-human-happy-happy]. For a human, the mental insertion of the word “keys” can lead to other thoughts. A husband may remember that his wife had left her keys on the counter that morning, and so someone jingling keys in the hallway must be the occupant of the apartment across the way returning home, not the wife—or it could be a stranger trying the lock on the door. When confronted with visual, aural, or tactile cues for which the brain has no learned referent, the dog will either ignore the stimulus or become confused. The human will sample and compare past cues and fit names as well as images to them. The process will insert knowledge acquired from past training, through reading as well as from direct experience, to identify the cue and decide whether it is a cause for reassurance or a threat.

This verbal dimension of human thought allows us to categorize and compress information. The word “key” encompasses may meanings: the toothed metal probe used for aligning the tumblers in a lock; the coded list of references on a map; the text used as a starting point for solving a cipher; the charm or plaque used to identify a fraternity or sorority; as well as visual images of my household keys, my car key, my wife’s keys, the huge iron keys used in medieval locks, and the diamond-studded charms sold at Tiffany & Company. Having all these meanings associated with one word, the human brain is a field of rich connections. We are not limited to simple, singular mental connections like [familiar-jingle] equals [return-happy].

These word associations give power to particularly human activities like storytelling and poetry. A word captures a number of visual—or aural, tactile, and other sense—images that cascade through the mind of the listener. The storyteller uses these images to put listeners or readers inside the scene and make them part of the action. And the wonder of it—from my point of view as a novelist—is that the associations I make with a particular word can be trusted—most of the time, for most of the population—to arise in the minds of those who read my stories. Of course, there are differences. The word “clown” for most people has happy, funny, or outlandish associations, calling to mind red bulb noses, orange string wigs, squirting boutonnieres, and long, floppy red shoes. But for people with a morbid fear of clowns, the word gives rise to images of creepy things with leers and teeth.

I try to imagine a human being, a true Homo sapiens in mind and body, but who lived in a time—which would be the majority of our line’s history on Earth, sixty or seventy thousand years or more—before the invention of writing and our hyper-literate civilization. Words, their meanings, and the grammar and syntax of language would then have been a private thing within the tribe or even isolated within the extended family: rock, path, pot, stick, and a dozen inflections for words describing weather, game, edible roots and berries, and the ways to hunt and gather them. The tenses to describe action in the past or future would have been simple, with little need for the pluperfect or the subjunctive. I try to imagine a hunter-gatherer expressing “By this time tomorrow, if it doesn’t happen to rain, I will have tracked and shot the deer I saw yesterday.” The Greek and Sanskrit aorist indicative mood, denoting simple action without reference to completeness, incompleteness, duration, repetition, or any particular position in time past or present—“I hunt. I fish. I pick berries.”—would reign supreme.

And yet, within a few hundred years after learning to cut cuneiform wedges into wet clay, or scratch angular letters on potsherds, the Sumerians were inventing and reciting the epic struggles of Gilgamesh, and the Greeks were telling a convoluted story of old wounds and grudges as the gods and mortals vied for supremacy at Troy. And today we read translations of these stories into modern English and marvel at the power and beauty of each word’s imagery and its associations.

In the human mind, the word itself has become the stimulus to a reaction. We do not need visual, aural, or other sense cues and perceptions from the outside world to spark an intellectual or emotional reaction. We draw the images, ideas, and emotions from inside our own heads, reacting to nothing more than black squiggles arranged on a white page or screen. We all live inside our heads. Our brains and their pathways have no direct contact with the outside world except through chemical nutrients, drugs, and poisons. So we each make up the world inside our minds from sensations fed from our eyes and ears, the taste and smell receptors in our mouths and noses, and sensors all over our skin. For the human of ten or twenty thousand years ago, that world entered the directly mind from all these senses. For a modern, literate human, the world can also enter from a single source: the eye and its trick of interpreting those squiggles inside the visual cortex.

And for me, that trick is a continuing source of wonder and mystery.

1. I never noticed this with our other dogs, but Sally smiles by lifting her upper lip over her front teeth. I always thought this was a dog’s warning, prelude to growling and snapping. But from the way her eyes squint and her body gyrates, she is clearly happy. I think this is something she learned from watching humans smile.

2. The Keen sandals have good toe protection, unlike Birkenstocks or flip-flops. Because of the way the sides wrap up and connect over the instep, a wargaming friend who is deep into Roman history calls them “calyxes,” or boots, the Latin name for the legionary’s hobnailed sandals. And like the calyx, Keens even have sturdy, gripping soles with deep lugs.

3. I learned in the book-publishing business that, while a picture may be worth a thousand words, modern readers often have trouble understanding or giving full value to a picture without a caption to read alongside it. In a book about mountain climbing, for example, if you reproduce a photo of a beautiful, snow-covered peak, the reader will look around for a caption that tells the name of the mountain, elevation at the summit, and whether or when the author has scaled it. Even a picture of a beautiful woman holding a perfume bottle with the maker’s name clearly shown on the label will give that name again in bold type under the image.

4. In California, we have warning signs in English and Spanish. And just in case the viewer speaks only Cantonese or Vietnamese, they will include a stick-figure demonstrating the danger. (The polyglot Europeans long ago did away with words on their traffic and warning signs in favor of imagery and figures, but in California as in the rest of America we persist with words.) My favorite stick figure, in a warning about overhead high-voltage lines, shows a person sticking a length of irrigation pipe up into the wires and dancing like crazy.

5. This poses special problems for people who are either deaf or dyslexic. But although they may not be fully capable of either hearing spoken commands or reading complex information with easy comprehension, they are not relieved of the human association between thoughts and words. By now, in the modern form of H. sapiens, it’s hardwired into our brains.