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Novelty in Thinking

Author(s): Benny Shanon


Source: SubStance, Vol. 19, No. 2/3, Issue 62/63: Special Issue: Thought and Novation (1990),
pp. 48-54
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3684667 .
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Noveltyin Thinking
BennyShanon

MODERNCOGNITIVE
RESEARCH
is dominatedby thestudyof informationprocessing.But, surely, human beings not only processcognitive
material,theyalso generatesuch material.Interestedin thestudyof such
I have setmyselfto studywhatI have termedthought
sequences.
generation,
orderedprogressionsof thought
states,
Thoughtsequences consistof finite,
each of whichis usuallya phrase-likethought
theyoccursponexpression;
beginningsand ends. Here are two
taneouslyand have well-demarcated
of
examples thoughtsequences:
arenotusuallyhand1. Heardon theradio:"Heroesofchildren's
stories
icapped."
1.Nottrue.
2.TheUglyDuckling.
3.ThePoorBoy.
4.Pinocchio.
a friend's
2. Thedaybefore,
hadtriedtoremember
thethinker
name,and
andsomeone
Haifacametovisit,
from
couldn't.
Thenextday,friends
said,
of
witha recollection
Thesequence
starts
"You'vegotitcoldinJerusalem."
thatutterance:
1.You'vegotitcoldinJerusalem.
2.AndinHaifa?AndinTelAviv?
friend's
3.InTelAviv--Gabi
name).
(thesought-for
4. "Tipofthetongue"
isaninteresting
phenomenon.
abbreviation).
5.Thisis "TOTT"(thephenomenon's
6.No,"TOT."
7."TOP."
andits"top."
of"iceberg"
8.Theconcept
is likethetoppartandthe
9.Freud:theconscious
isthebottom
unconscious
part.
10.HowwiseFreudwas.
because theydefinewhat may be
Thoughtsequences are interesting
kinds may be definedby the
Such
kind.
a
natural
cognitive
regarded as
wellFirst,the domain is phenomenologically
followingcharacteristics:
demarcated;both the individuationof each componentand its member-

SubStanceN0 62/63,1990

48

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NoveltyinThinking

49

of
Second,thedomainconsists
shipinthedomainarereadilydetermined.
a genuine,
ofthemind,nota reaction
imposedon
expression
spontaneous
it by thedemandsof an artificial
task.Third,thedomainexhibits
both
oftypesand coherent,
richness
patterns.
systematic
domainandtheir
multi-faceted
Thought
sequencescoveranextensive,
studyinvolvesmanylevelsand pointsof view.Specificmethodological
issues
and methodological
issuesare involvedas well.Bothsubstantive
havebeenexaminedelsewhere'and thisis nottheplaceto reviewthem.
HereI wouldliketofocusononeveryspecific
aspectrevealedbythought
in
such
which
sequencesgeneratenew cognitive
sequences-theway
material.
in a
Whatdistinguishes
sequencesis theirbeingarticulated
thought
ina quasi-verbal
form
medium.Whiletheconductofmentation
particular
In
is so natural,
obvious.
revealsthatitis farfrom
reflection
essence,
being
Thiscouldhave
thefunction
ofmentation
is toentertain
semantic
content.
been done in a systemthatis obliviousto themediumof articulation.
viewandin therecentalterIndeed,inboththeclassicalrepresentational
is
nativeconnectionist
the
mediuminwhichthought
paradigm, particular
informais
characterizes
instantiatedall butignored.27Representationalism
inunderinterms
ofabstract
ofthemanipulation
symbols
tion-processing
in
of
so
terms
connectionism
does
mental
parallel,
lying
representations;
in associativeneural-like
networks.
distributed
activation
Spontaneous
havea paras itis amenabletoconsciousness,
does,however,
mentation,
in
a
ticular
medium.Thought
are
entertained
form;
quasi-verbal
sequences
form.Are thesecharacmentalimageryis conductedin a pictorial-like
forinstance,
teristics
(as suggested,
byPylyshyn)4?
merely
epiphenomenal
I thinknot.I wouldarguethattheinstantiation
in a particular
ofthought
It
material.
mediumallowsthehumanmindto generate
novelcognitive
to
be
entermaterial
offers
a meansforunexpected,
spontaneous
cognitive
tained.
In brief,it seems thatthe articulation
of thoughtin a particular
avenuesbywhichit
mediumaffords
with
alternate
thecognitive
system
Thesealternate
avenuescan be seenin thefollowing
patmayprogress.
terns.
via theMedium
Progression
The
are entertained
becauseof theircontent.
Functionally,
thoughts
thinker
insomeinformation,
andthecognitive
is interested
system
proces-

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50

BennyShanon

ses thisinformation.
In thecase of thought
sequences,then,it is only
naturalthatconsecutive
are
thought
expressions relatedbyvirtueoftheir
content.
Itturnsout,however,
thatnotall thought
arerelated
expressions
inthisway.
Someexpressions
arerelatedbecausetheysharea commonformof
theiractualcontents
incommon.
havenothing
Thefollowing
articulation;
twosequencesareexamplesofthis:
1.I amwriting.
"Letusbeginwith..."
1.I write,
2.1think,
islikeBegin..."
IsraeliPrime
Minister)
(former
"begin

(The following
sequencehingeson theHebrewwordshed,which
meansdemon,
and shedoni,
whichis thediminutive
adjectivefromthis
noun.)
2. A girlcallsa frisky
dog"Doni."
1.He'sreally
frisky.
2.Sheshouldhavecalledhim"Shedoni."
3.Forshort,
sheshouldhavecalledhim"Shed."
4. "Shed"hasa meaning
inEnglish,
too.
In bothexamples,thoughtprogressesvia phonologicalcommonality,
whichfromthepointof view of semanticsor contentis meaninglessand
accidental.In thefirstexample,thecommonality
is betweentwo wordsin
the language thathappen to sound alike ("begin" and "Begin"); in the
second example,the commonalityis betweentwo words fromtwo dif-

ferent
languages("shed"and "shed").
ofthiskindareoftennotedinpoetry,
jokes
Phonological
associations

and dreams.Theyare also encounteredin thelanguageofschizophrenics.5


The presentcorpusindicatesthatwhilephonologicallinkageis rarerthan

in thought
someotherkindsof relations
not
sequences,it is definitely
to
standard
foreign
thinking.
Phonologicalformis just one of various sensorymeans by which
thoughtsmaybe coupled.A famousexampleis Proust'smadeleinein A la

and tasteofthemadeleine
Recherche
du temps
Heretheconsistency
perdu.

theauthorback to childhood.Similarexamplesare
dipped in tea transport
encounteredin theliterature
on thoughtsequences.

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NoveltyinThinking

51

via LexicalForm
Progression
A commonphenomenon
inlanguageis thatthesamewordmayhave
different
Use
of
that
wordin onecontext
meanings.
mayleadthecognizer
to thinkofa topicrelatedto theothermeaningoftheword.Again,since
therelationship
betweenthetwothoughts
theseis notdue to content,
notbeenmentally
quencewouldnothavetakenplacehad thethoughts
in a verbal-like
articulated
form.Forexample,in thefollowing
sequence,
mentionofa chemicalbuffer
zone in
to mindthemilitary
brought
buffer
whichthethinker
hadbeenstationed:
1.It'sina buffer.
2. I wasina buffer
too.

Another
kindofrelationship
madepossiblebythelexicalarticulation

of thoughtsis thefollowing:

0.Thinking
abouttheinitials
S.S.S.
1.Saveoursouls.
2."Save--Our-Souls."
3.That'sS.O.S.
In thissequence,thephrasecomposedof thewords "save our souls"
is being entertainedtwice:firstas a sentenceconstructedof thesewords,
and second as theidiomaticphrase"Save--Our-Souls." As indicatedby
the insightexpressedin the finalarticulation(in whichthe cognizerrealizes that"Save-Our--Souls" is "S.O.S."), themove fromexpression#2to
(in fact,identity)
expression#3was made notby virtueofthecommonality
of content,but because the same words are employedin the two expressions--onceas thethreeconstituents
ofa sentence,and once as thepartsof
a phrasethatis a standardunit.
Progressionvia SyntacticForm
Phonologyis nottheonlynon-contentual
aspectoflanguage-syntacticformis another.Considerthefollowingprogression:
1."...preconscious
examination..."
2.Wouldn't
itbenicetobeexamined
preconsciously?

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BennyShanon

52

In thefirstexpression,"preconsciousexamination"is employedin the


contextofpsychoanalytic
discourse.The secondexpressionis generatedby
thesyntacticchangeof an adjective-noun
phraseto a sentencecontaining
the correspondingverb-adverbphrase.Usually such a change does not
changemeaning.However,thatis notso here.The firstphraseis meaningful; the second one is not (withinthe normal range of interpretation).
Indeed, the rathernon-sensicalreadingis the centralconcernof the continuationofthesequence.Here,then,is a sequencein whichthemovefrom
one expressionto anotheris not achieved by way of a commonalityof
content,but by the applicationof a schemeprovidedby a generalsystem.
(And sincegenerallythisschemedoes notresultin a changeofmeaning,it
is applied withoutany special concern.)Withthis,thecontentof thefirst
expressionis momentarily
stripped,the syntacticoperationapplied, and
the lexical elementsread again. At this point,the cognizersurprisingly
a new content.
findshimselfentertaining
Summary
The above patternsrepresentmovementsof thoughtthatwould not
have taken place had thoughtnot been crystallizedin a language-like
medium.The detectionof such patternsbears,of course,on the classical
questionofthedependenceofthoughton language.Does thelanguageone
speaks make one thinkin a particularfashion?Sapir and Whorfanswered
this question in the affirmative,and claimed a linguisticrelativism
on its speakers6.
wherebylanguage imposes a particularWeltanschauung
More recentstudiesof specific,elementarysemantictasksfavoran inforThe patternssurveyed
mationprocessingthatis language-independent.7
stateof affairs.The patternsindicatethat
above suggestan intermediate
nonthe medium of language provides-in addition to content--other
Rather
semanticavenues thatmay be employedin thecourseof thinking.
thanenslavingthoughtand moldingitin a specific,rigidfashion,language
enricheshumancognition.
The articulationof thoughtin verbal-likeexpressionsof which the
thinkeris consciousallows the progressionof thoughtin directionsnot
planned or expected.Were one aware only of thoughtexpressionsthat
definethe problemsor issues, and of the solutionsor end resultsof the
processingassociatedwiththem,thinkingwould be confinedto whatone
alreadyknowsor is concernedwith.One's beingconsciousofintermediate
ofthoughtsin verbalformsintroducesinto
thoughtsand theconcretization

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Noveltyin Thinking

53

humanthinking
ofproblem-solvaspectswhichare(fromtheperspective
allowthecogniredundant
or
irrelevant.
These
however,
ing)
veryaspects,
tivesystemtoproceedinunexpected
directions.
Butitis theveryfactthat
theseaspectsare, fromthe perspective
of the content,
that
irrelevant,
enablesthought
toproceedindirections
ofnovelcontent.
Thispattern
may
be a smallinstanceofa muchmoregeneralprinciple
is
whereby
novelty
from
and
noise
and
order
from
disorder.8
generated redundancy,
Non-Linguistic
ThoughtProgression
In theforegoing
in
discussionI havefocusedon thought
conducted
but
like
those
noted
above
be
limited
to
need
not
language, patterns
in
this
mode.
The
medium
of
thoughts
processed
primenon-linguistic
is mentalimagery.
In a separateinvestigation
I havestudiedsethought
Thesediffered
from
the"verbal"thought
quencesofimagery.
sequencesin
thattheyweretriggered--the
were
to
their
asked
close
subjects
eyesand
a
or
and
then
to
recount
the
"picture" particular
object situation,
ensuing
mentalimagesas theyprogressed.
These accountsindicatedthatthe
ofimageswas directed
notonlybythesubjectmatter
enterprogression
tainedbutalso by specificcontingent
of
the
image.
properties
particular
Theshapeor colorofan imagemaybringto mindtheimageofanother
objector eventsharingthatshapeor color.One can envisiona sequence
withthesun,goingon to a yellowsunflower,
theyellowfading
starting
intowhite,and whenthe "thought"
returns
to the verbalmedium,it
white,likesnow,as itstopic.
proceedswithsomething
of
this
kind
ofdreams,
occurin thespontaneous
Sequences
imagery
and intheprocessofartistic
ina 1955
creation.
Thisprocesswas captured
movieby Clouzot,Le Mystere
Picasso,wheretheartistwas filmedas he
painted.Picasso's paintingswere improvisations
triggered
by initial
stimulimadeforthefilm,whichwas concerned
withtheactofcreation.
oftheartist's
brushwas directed
Uponmanyoccasionstheprogression
by
themediation
ofmediumeffects
ofthekindnotedhere.
Similarpatterns
in animated
havebeennotedin sequencesofframes
movies.Oftensuchsequencesprogress
noton thebasisofa development
in thenarrative
in thegraphicform.
butthrough
commonalities
content,
Thusthegraphicformis stripped
ofitscontent
andreinterpreted,
leading
toa new,unrelated
content.
in music.At times,however,
Analogouspatternsare encountered
musicalprogression
In
is governed
notbymelodybutby "modulations."

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54

BennyShanon

particular,chromaticmodulationsallow themusicalmaterialto progress


fromone scale to anotherby a sequence analogous to thatencounteredin
lexical relations.Enharmonicmodulationsconsistof reading the same
chordonce in one scale and thenin another.Thus,musicaltranspositions
are analogous to certainformsofthoughtsequences.
TheHebrew
Jerusalem
University,

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