Soliloquy With My Virtual Image

"Language production humanizes in the interest of species survival in society, not in the interest of an understanding of ‘reality in itself’, that lofty but evanescent goal of our intellect."


We have been mired for a long while now with the attractive proposition that, within the context of a logical brain-framework environment that human beings seem to have inherited, self-consciousness appears to have emerged as a linguistic by-product generated by our use of language, from the cradle baby-talk to our departing farewell laconisms at the moribund bedside.

       In a previous chapter (“Working Language Memory and the Emergence of Self” & Telicom 2001) we demonstrated how an ongoing image of self is necessary for a successful semantic novelty detection during a language comprehension experiment. The task quoted required a silent landscape overview of written material followed by a sorting out of sequentially processed word meanings before their logical integration into an overall propositional meaningful representation, thereby establishing the importance of a self representation by the subject in detecting, sorting out and interpreting subtle and novel semantic variations before integrating all the implied contributions of a plurality of neural selves into a propositional sentence ready to be decoded into eventual action (vocal reportability) at Broca’s area (Module 3). It may be relatively easy to identify the participation of the various memory modules (implicit, explicit and working) in the successful integration of their contributions into a logic proposition during a language comprehension effort, but it may not be immediately evident that the novel detection, creation and production of language structures heretofore unfamiliar to the subject reader was proof of the intervention of another exclusively human feature, accessing a higher order consciousness of self. A careful experimental design maintaining a constant indexical content and a controlled variable syntax made it possible for the semantic content to remain the only independent variable to be measured and assessed during the language comprehension test.

       It is important to underline the importance of  keeping the indexical content of the expressions used constant. Those expressions included the use of the familiar pronouns (I, you, etc.), demonstratives (this, that), temporal expressions (now, yesterday) and locative expressions (there, here, etc.) The  subject’s use of indexicals implies that it required an ongoing, introspective glimpse into the content of the plurality of his ‘self-systems’, not a mere ‘awareness’ of internal / external environmental temporal variations and their pre-programmed adjustments to pre-set values thereof (first order consciousness) but an ability to ‘observe’ himself as an active part of a coordinated plan / response he is simultaneously a constituent part thereof, the hallmark of a higher order self-consciousness, something that eludes being reduced to a cognitive syntax description. As we concluded elsewhere: “The ability to sort out the best adaptive course of action in response to a changing internal / external challenge, including delayed responses, altruistic responses or responses contrary to self-interests requires an ‘objective’, simultaneous, panoramic overview of self as observer and actor in the ongoing vital drama of life. One of the interesting practical consequences of this view is that it will allow a window for the observation of situations where there may or may not be a ‘collegiate’ consensus among the various participating neural ‘selves’ in deciding the best adaptive response to an ensuing circumstance demanding a prompt response.

       ”We now feel more comfortable, after the experiment described, in implying working language memory processing as a reasonable and reliable measure of the involvement of higher states of consciousness. This article elaborates further into that issue to suggest that it may be specifically that aspect of language processing, our ability to converse with ourselves, that soliloquy with our virtual image -as if reflected in the mirror-, that is essential (whether vocalized or as inner silent speech) to co-generate appropriate thoughts or self-consciousness.


      We continue to look for every opportunity to document our intuition that ‘thinking is a silent talking to ourselves’. This search is predicated (and biased!) on yet another intuition: that language production humanizes in the interest of species survival in society, not in the interest of an understanding of ‘reality in itself’, that lofty but evanescent goal of our intellect, as we have argued and documented in several articles. See ‘Biopsicosociologia’, Ed. Limusa, Mexico 1985.

     We always find it necessary to start a discussion on this topic by fine tuning our conceptualization of ‘consciousness’. A distinction must always be drawn between a sense-phenomenal conscious experience (may be just an un-explained unconscious awareness) of an object or event and the explicit ‘feeling’ or self explanation (meta-consciousness) of that sensory experience. When you differentiate between both states of mind it becomes clear that the object or event need not be empirically present (ie, sense-phenomenal) but now the result of a memory recall or a dream and not so conscious after all! You may argue then about its very existence (not to mention its more elusive essence)? The occasional recording of short stereotyped, unconscious or subconscious verbal reports of such experience is our only evidence, as under hypnosis or anaesthesia. For the time being we will not be concerned with an essentially subconscious mental 'awareness' of external sensory phenomenology like we 'experience' when driving downhill on a familiar route as we try to solve a puzzle while driving. As soon as the sensory scenery includes a non-familiar element the awareness becomes a consciousness as we incorporate (access) the participation of other 'consumer' systems to aid in the understanding of the novelty as will elaborate in subsequent chapters.

    Whereas sense-phenomenal ‘conscious’ experience is mostly a continuous, routine-like process, meta-consciousness is hypothesized to occur only intermittently in response to goal failures, self-reflection, or requests for self-reports, as we will mention later. Either way, the contents of  consciousness may be accessed. But the ability to re-represent at will the contents of consciousness, to entertain high order thoughts conceptually is, in our opinion, a product of the language faculty and a self-conscious process, something we know as 'inner speech' soliloquy, like the case of catching one's mind wandering in front of a mirror planning ahead the day’s interviews, a temporal dissociation from the learned, stereotyped sense-phenomenal awareness of shaving. This brief intermittent dissociation is to be distinguished from the continuous viewing of the phenomenal constancy of the invariant properties of the razor, the blade, shaving cream, and the immediate circumstantial context. i.e., the execution of reflex, stereotyped responses requiring only a first order level of 'consciousness', a mere state of subconscious, robotic-like awareness. Once meta-consciousness is triggered by a novel object / event , syntax / semantic translation dissociations may occur if the re-representation (novelty) process somehow mis-represents or does not match a previous experience as when one verbally reflects (linear processing) on non-verbal experiences (non-linear processing) or attempts to take stock of conflicting experiences. Translation dissociation events are not frequent, except in pathological cases, which lets us to believe that non-linear representations (qualia?) are eventually reduced to linear syntax for sequential processing as ‘propositional attitudes’ (see below).

     Sporadic volitional access to the different conceptual (modular?) subsets of working memory is characteristic of a soliloquy. An immediate past memory, concurrent with the precise moment the triggering object or event is present usually sets off the inner speech event, especially if we are, e.g., unsatisfied with our perception of the trigger or the resulting response. The immediate past memory is of limited capacity (can hold ca. 7 items) and will quickly degenerate (in 30 seconds) unless a recursive stream (or loop) is activated along various reverberating cortico-thalamo-cortical neuron loops, becoming now the equivalent of a ‘working memory’ able to, within a short time span, to re-enact the triggering event by de novo correlations, sorting out the various cortical and sub-cortical contents previously visited, integrating them into an assortment of propositional codes, the best adaptive response to the triggering stimulus, including delayed or inhibitory responses. This time span for the duration of re-entrant loops between cortical and sub-cortical sites is prolonged and the formation of a short term memory may be dispensed with. The new solution rarely becomes in the subject’s best perceived biosocial interests and only the affective component of this experience may become a recurrent ‘long term memory’ (See “Memory”, Squire & Kandel, Scientific American 2000).

      As in the reading experiment described above, the word by word reverie of inner speech also requires a processing for the ascertainment of their individualized meaning (in the acquired language), formulation and execution of a proper syntactic arrangement where the atomic elements get now integrated into propositional semantic representations of a whole molecular sentence (all of this woven within the context of the triggering object / event it belongs to!), quite some task for a serial, sequential computer processor. Please note how proto-semantics precede the syntax structure. For reasons we discussed in the previous reference, aphasics would also have a hard time in handling all these tasks. As we have said, it is not just a temporal accumulation of information from various modular sources, it requires knowledge about how the constitutive elements are related to each other, their individual content (meaning), their best possible group formation arrangements consonant with collective meaning (verb argument configuration), all within the context of the final grammatical role in the language chosen. The important thing to consider is the successful, meaningful integration of qualitatively different data from their various modular locations in space and time  into novel configurations not experienced before by the subjects but relevant to the solution imposed by the triggering event.

     The traditional general view of language causation holds that, according to ‘neuronal connectivity’ models, consciousness arises when hierarchically organized sensory (temporal auditory?) systems send afferent (auditory?) signals to the speech production element (Broca’s) of a working memory system via dynamic changes in their connectivity as the latter is modulated or modified by selective and ambient attention. Studies on working memory paradigms have shown the central role they play in the reportability of the associated conscious state. In general external speech sounds are processed within Wernicke’s area in the left posterior temporal cortex, where composite words are recognized. This model further proposes that language signals then travel to Broca’s area in the left inferior frontal lobe where language is encoded into an expressive form. Recently, however, this view of language has come under challenge as researchers, using mainly imaging techniques, have noted language tasks that seem to involve cortical regions outside of those associated with the classical models.

     When we attempt a finer dissection of the ensuing cortical and sub-cortical processing events we start by identifying the streams of neural activations as they enter the system at primary sensory areas (or their corresponding memory thereof) and then proceed through parietal, limbic and frontal areas. These highly dynamic multiple recurrent flows are, by and large, unconscious cognitive activities involving the linking of the triggering event (external / body proper sensory inputs) with corresponding inherited (implicit memory) or learned motor behavior routines (explicit or social memory). We have witnessed a growing consensus in Cognitive Science allowing us to distinguish between unconscious and conscious processes, otherwise designated respectively as either implicit and explicit processes, automatic and controlled, associative and rule-based. The notion of modules is also tied up with these distinctions and we wouldn’t be at all surprised to make developmental language acquisition responsible for the segregation of activities into modules. That’s the easy problem, stay tuned…..

     Allow now the language component to enter the picture in full. According to the classical theory, multiple areas of the cortex are involved in the processing of language. Streams of code flow along the superior temporal cortex during the process of speech recognition where coded sounds are differentially recognized as particular words, the linguistic atomic particles. Other than the classic cochlear > pulvinar > inferior collicular > Heschl / Wernickes temporal auditory pathways, nobody has identified the postulated recurrently linked self-organizing source of input mediating the same process when the input is recalled from memory, as in inner speech. It is not far-fetched to suspect the utilization of the same brain ‘wetware’ when processing an ‘inner’ thought input, we just have to identify the anatomical locus of the ‘relay switch’ connecting the inner source to the known circuit.

     Recent evidence suggests that besides the recursive pathway we described in another publication, (streaming loop from the superior temporal lobe along arcuate fibers to Broca’s area and back), generating in the recursive loop pseudo-sound sequences, there exists a concurrent branching pathway from Wernicke’s area to the frontal lobe via the insular region of Weil. We believe that both branching pathways are major necessary (but insufficient) components of inner speech-mediated self consciousness. We have reasoned in the past that, if they have been proven to be involved in the generation of ‘awareness’ (with or without an expressive speech concomitant), they should be able to generate internal speech by reversing the flow back to auditory input areas while inhibiting speech production, as in a soliloquy.

     Language is structured in consideration of a phonological (sound), syntactic (phrase), and conceptual (meaning) component. Of these, phonological structure has the closest correspondence to the phenomenology of language. We hear strings of words, whether listening others speak or inside the linguistic imagery of a soliloquy. We will argue below that, with the exception of casual, corroborative, intermittent, brief accesses to self-consciousness via language, the structure of thought conceptualization is essentially unconscious. For these and other reasons explained elsewhere we have given primacy to sound signature tags as being involved in the binding of multimodal codes in the generation of language and thought, but one can postulate a similar analysis involving other sensory modalities, in particular when considering the role visual stimuli plays in the perception of phonemes during language cognition (see McGurk & McDonald 1976; Gary Briscoe for visual data, It would be very helpful if more neuroscientists got involved in intermodal integration studies as possibly relevant to the solution of the ‘binding problem’. It has already been demonstrated how a simultaneous presentation of incompatible visual and auditory stimuli may affect language cognition (misperception of phonemes). How may Wernicke’s aphasia be related to abnormalities in audiovisual integration (McGurk effect) badly needs a detailed systematic study.

     The reason we have had the intuition that there is a close relation between self-consciousness and speech formation is because it would seem that all verbal reports on introspective thoughts require a state of consciousness. But we also know that deliberate motor activity, including speech formation, can originate from unconscious sources and it's not easy to explain that connection other than to note that such specific unconscious activity seems stereotyped, part of a reflex / learned routine of short duration, usually in the form of an emotional reflex reaction to an event, real or involuntarily recalled from memory, even during sleep.

     The analysis gets even more complicated if one ponders on the fact that having achieved a self-conscious state consists in being able to realize that such state transition does not always require to be inferred. Consequently, from a meta-logic perspective, we can not, for instance, ascertain the truth-value difference between the first order thought expression “that p” as opposed to the higher order “I think that p” which caused the previous report. In other words, the verbal conscious report “that p” (usually the sense-phenomenal) IS a conclusion, has a higher truth value than the non-verbalized unconscious “I think that p” an inference of lower truth value that preceded and caused it.  One speech event, two truth conditions!

     To fully appreciate the significance of the preceding paragraph  consider for a moment another aspect, the situation we confront when trying to reduce the sense-phenomenal properties we capture in our environmental perceptions to first-order physical properties. A moment’s reflection makes us realize that, if we were to adopt the view most people do, that our primary perceptual reality consists of our phenomenal environmental experiences, then we have to also accept that our conceptual model of the first-order physical properties of our perception are essentially syntactic translations of the originating phenomenal properties into second order subordinate properties, thus an explanatory gap arises only when the first-order properties cannot explain second-order qualities, not the other way around. The resulting asymmetry creates an evolving conception of our knowledge of the external world as structural thereby undermining the ultimate cognitive value of the scientific methodology requiring empirical verification!

     Here we add on yet another layer of complexity in the characterization of our lonely chat with the mirror while shaving.  We notice that sense-phenomenal conscious experiences are language-like in that they possess representational contents. The water-dripping razor in my right hand has such contents (parallel linear processing?). A visual representation takes that visual scene to be a certain way; it has truth conditions, I can conclude it IS a razor. If not, then my visual experience is misrepresented. But, (ignoring for the moment our previous comments on the difference between the primary properties of objects and their brain representation in terms of their secondary properties) conscious experiences in real life seem to be more than mere representations of their physical properties intuited by my sense perception. For there is something it is like in the way in which it feels to push that sharp, wet 3-blade razor against the sore, bumpy surface of my cheeks. At first glance this feeling seems to be a non-representational aspect of  that physical reality. The easy way out is to go in denial and argue that the associated qualia  is an illusion, that all there is to consider is completely exhausted by the experience's representational content. That is one of the sacraments in the materialist religion.

     Some years back, upon stimulating the lateral hypothalamus (medial forebrain bundle) inside a rats brain with wire electrodes and consistently eliciting a rage behavior, with all of the motor aspects present sans the affective component (non-adaptive sham rage), we argued that a relay switch in the hypothalamic motoneuronal circuit was either disconnected or turned off from the Papez limbic circuit charged with the organization of the affective component. More important, in this context, we hypothesized the possibility of a linear code representation of ‘affect’ (distinct from its ‘motor’ equivalent linear code) was left out of the sequential processing in the brain, hiding out (by dissociation) the emotional affective but adaptive behavioral component (subject-directed biting, clawing, spitting) from view. We thought this adaptive response was qualitatively different in the human being and required accessing the second order self-consciousness within the context of the ongoing inner speech, something impossible to demonstrate in the experimental animal or the anesthetized human.

     This linear code representation of affect (propositional attitude) is  today a distinct theoretical possibility after the brilliant work  by Fodor’s ‘Language of Thought’ (LOTH), the possibility of an experimental design to test it, is a very different problem. LOTH hypothesis  devolves around the premise that thoughts are complex mental representations structured out of simpler concepts in a syntactic way. The demonstration of conscious inner speech seems to corroborate in part this thesis (see Carruthers,1996). The introspection suggests that our conscious thoughts tokens are brought forth by sub vocalized natural language sentences as in a soliloquy. There is an inherent concern about the truth-value function of introspective conscious access of such representations because linguistic intentions and action plans have components that can be easily modified, replaced or otherwise subject to systematic manipulation and revision as it is known to be possible in such processes dealing with classically structured representations.

     It remains to be demonstrated that processing linearized code will elicit the verbalized qualic component of thought in an experimental subject. The experimental design presents major hurdles for the investigator. Ignoring the major limitation in the resolution powers of our sense perception organs for a moment, how would he account e.g., for a situation where the conscious sense-perceptual experience might be much more fine-grained (more pixels or voxels / unit measure) than the combinatorial resolution possibilities of our conceptual domain? Please remember that such truncated, inferred account of the real world out there will henceforth cause, inform, explain and guide our future encounters with the same reality.

     A related problem, the phenomenon of ‘subjectivity’, which arguably seems to be different from either consciousness or qualia is now easier to analyze in the soliloquy model. When I stand sleepy in front of the bathroom mirror I can squint there is an almost exact physical / functional replica of myself reflected back at me for my opinion. The replica is almost a 2-dimensional structural / functional isomorph sans qualia of myself; thus it is clear that I am standing beside ‘someone else’ looking like me, acting like me but who is not me! A perfect model of introspective consciousness where a soliloquy becomes an inner dialogue, a question and answer session! In this dialogue we are having qualitatively different conscious experiences, for all intents and purposes I am not that virtual image and he is not I. When one asks and the other answers, the first person pronoun "I" takes a different referent; when I lament "I shouldn’t have over reacted to the atheistic remarks hurled at my presentation”, the word 'I' refers to me and not to the virtual interlocutor.

     This ‘virtual dialogue’ is a physical re-enactment of the explanatory gap asymmetry existing between the sense-phenomenal, physical ‘me’ standing now besides the mirror and the virtual, more perfect ‘me’ reflected and guiding my future actions. Yet, ‘him’, my conscience, with all ‘his’ wisdom and sapience can NOT explain me as well as the little sense-phenomenal physical me can explain ‘him’! Little physical ‘me’ concludes, virtual ‘him’ can only infer! Can a virtual syntactic isomorph, cognitively created by physical me explain the real world to me as well as I explain it to ‘him’? In my opinion the subjectivity issue constitutes a genuine challenge to the defenders of mind-brain identity and to physicalism in general, as Thomas Nagel previously suggested.

     It is generally thought by Dennet, et al that sense-phenomenal consciousness presupposes the achievement of a higher order of self-consciousness. We have already made a distinction among the various subsets of sense-phenomenal perceptions whether ongoing, online or the result of memory, offline recalls. A higher order may be only achieved in novel situations when a linguistic analysis precedes or co-evolves with the relevant conscious thought during the process. In his "Phenomenology of Spirit", Hegel already argued that the possibility of consciousness is tied-up to the capacity for structured representation by linguistic architecture. After all, our conscious access is not the raw sense-phenomenal data as such but always a structured low fidelity, gross-grained syntacto-semantic representation.

     It would be much more difficult to analyze, correlate, compare, discriminate and make judgments based on the particularities of raw sense-phenomenal data. Only our inherited primitive universal phonemic 'semanticles' and grammar provides us a sufficiently structured hard-wired system in which complicated relations can be represented, our self-consciousness thereby evolves as linguistically conditioned. Once more the Wittgenstein ghost announces his presence! We suspect that he would have agreed that it is the logical 'plo' environment inherited by human beings rather than the acquired natural language that indispensable ingredient to be able to achieve that uniquely human mental state so elusive to apprehend conceptually, self-consciousness.

     We believe that our approach, albeit unfinished, is a more credible and marketable alternative (among the dualists) than Flanagan’s   non-isomorphic, dualistic, first-order, epi-phenomenal state characterization of sense-phenomenal properties of external or internal bodily states as an evolutionary shorthand for representing information about the environment. We do not need to emphasize that the linguistic links standing between sense-phenomenal perceptual experience about objects / events and the content of our judgments about them based on demonstrative or indexical aspects of language is far from being universally adopted. There is no demonstrable logical, or even natural supervenience relating the unity of the sense-phenomenal perceptual content and its adscription (via linguistic demonstratives) to the object. The latter can not reliably account for the former, for all of the reasons exposed. Yet, our thoughts seems to be framed inside the boundaries of a primitive, inherited logic brain processor housed, as we argue, somewhere along the amygdaloid complex > angular gyrus, a structure we like to equate with a proto-linguistic organ and there is no evidence whatsoever of a possible mastery of logical concepts in the absence of language.

Concluding Remarks.

     We are reminded again that the proto-linguistic organ we have suggested as the anatomical site (see Noesis 2002) for the lifetime temporal evolution of a primitive linguistic capability (inherited for safeguarding our bio-social survival) into a sophisticated instrument of symbolic representation and communication and persuasion is NOT the exclusive product of a general reasoning process shaped within the guidelines of a wired-in logical framework also inherited. It represents better a balance between intrinsic rules pre-coded for instinctual biological and reproductive survival (genetic memory) and an extrinsic rationality to channel and sublimate those instinctual drives according to consented-to rules of social behavior inspired and framed within the constraints of a logically articulated language of communication. Consequently we should expect the properties of a language so conceived are more prone to be influenced by the biopsychosociological state of the subject than the truth value content of the situation being judged. Which of the two powerful inherited biases will eventually guide humanity, the instinctual or the rational? That based on the instinct-driven nomothetic constructs of the natural sciences (discovery of natural laws to conquer and subdue nature for my exploitation) or the logic-driven idiographic tenets of the historical sciences (self-affirmation guided by the individual, unique aspects of social conviviality)? Is the world composed of historical facts or natural things?, Wittgenstein asked in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Back to Kant or existentialism?

     In this context, at another level of analysis, we may also ask once more, “..can semantically or syntactically correct logical assertions ever represent truth-functional composites of objects in reality? Or do they just represent meaningless (non-absolute) reflections on the currently changing historical scenery?” These considerations should be always be kept in mind when we assign degrees of credibility to ‘factual’, observable, testable and reproducible evidence as opposed to the evidence on ongoing styles in literature, music, painting, etc. Like the positivists of the Vienna Circle once questioned, should we pay more attention to the semantic meaning of a sentence based on  the logical methodology of its verification or simply on its social use?

     As we have pointed out before, it has been the dream of mathematical logicians since Frege and Russell to design a data base of meaningful sentences with a precise logical structure of cardinality corresponding to the structure of the facts about objects in nature they hope to encode for. We have now elaborated further beyond the severe limitations of the human perceptual and conceptual mechanisms as they relate to the credible representation of reality as meaningful truth-functional composites. It has been very encouraging to have discovered how our cognitive dominant brain seems naturally prone to process environmental information largely sequentially, like a bio-logic Turing machine. However it has been most disappointing to have learned (thus far) that metaphysics can not successfully be grounded on logic. Are we forever doomed to ignore our origins and our destiny, to be satisfied with the guessing games of the judeo-chrislamic tradition promises?

End of Chapter 13