Are we infantile introspectors?

Some plausible premises that have been kicking around in my head for a while, and lately found each other:

  • When we don’t have concepts for things, we can hardly think about them. When I learn new concepts, I often notice them applying everywhere where before I didn’t even notice anything missing. This is a partial explanation sometimes given for us having few memories from childhood; we don’t have the concepts to think explicitly about our experiences when we are very young, and without that it is hard to record them in memory.
  • We don’t invent our own concepts very much; we mostly inherit them from our society. How many concepts that you have did you invent? If it is very few, this is probably not just because society has already found all the useful concepts and given them to you. If you lived a thousand years ago, my guess is that society wouldn’t have given you concepts like ‘subjective probability’ or ‘tragedy of the commons’ or ‘computation’. And no matter how nerdy you are, you probably wouldn’t have made them up. After all, a whole bunch of people did live then, and they didn’t make them up.
  • It’s hard to share your feelings in much detail with other people. We can all learn to use the same word ‘angry’ when a person has marked external symptoms of anger. But it’s hard for an angry person to tell you anything very nuanced about how exactly they feel.
  • I find it hard to remember what emotions and things like that feel like. e.g. right now I’m not really sure what anger feels like. I know what it would be in response to, and that it’s kind of  bad, but sometimes enjoyable. And that it might cause snide remarks or energetic ball kicking and that sort of thing.

Hypothesis: We have relatively few concepts for the world inside our heads, because it’s not very shared, and we get concepts mostly from other people. This means it is hard to think about the world inside our heads, and so also hard to remember. (This is all relative to the world outside our heads, and relative to how we would be if we could show one another inside our heads more).

19 responses to “Are we infantile introspectors?

  1. Nathan Phillips

    I think all concepts are attempts to control our experiences. We create concepts in response to experiences. Rather than concepts describing or modeling reality, concepts are our internal responses to reality. Then we have new experiences and we again respond by creating new concepts. Only this time, we have other pre-existing concepts in our minds. So we create new concepts of relations between our pre-existing concepts, such as: “this experience is an instance of this concept”. So when we gain a new concept, rather than something existing in our experience that we were not perceiving and now are perceiving because of the concept, we are simply creating something different in response to the same experience.

    I agree that most people probably don’t think about their own internal experience as often as they think about the physical world, and therefore people probably don’t have many concepts about it.

  2. I can identify with most of this, but not the part about finding it hard to remember what emotions feel like; I’m curious whether this is true for other readers.

    • Maybe there’s such a thing as a memory bank just for remembering emotions. For me I can recall feelings very quickly and recreate it as well.

  3. Nathan Phillips

    I definitely have clear and varied memories of emotions. I don’t always have a clear label for the experience. ie, I don’t always know which emotion each experience is.

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  5. “I find it hard to remember what emotions and things like that feel like. e.g. right now I’m not really sure what anger feels like.”

    And of course, there’s a paper on that (as well as follow-up research to that paper).

  6. “We have relatively few concepts for the world inside our heads, because it’s not very shared, and we get concepts mostly from other people.”

    If labeling our internal states had been adaptively important, we would likely have evolved a heightened ability to distinguish them based on limited information. Perhaps we did: your evidence to the contrary is based on a sample with N = 1.

    • This makes me wonder if there are sex differences in ability to remember/conceptualize/share emotional experience.

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  8. Doesn’t writing, or any means of passing down stories, give a view into the heads/thoughts/emotions of others? I feel like reading often helps me gain clarity into my own emotions as the author shares the world inside of a character’s mind. Would that be considered a form of sharing internal concepts?

    And to echo Chris Chang’s point, I also don’t find it very hard to remember what emotions feel like.

  9. I think about this. I think it occurs in many places too, that we don’t grasp the nuances on many things, maybe just for lack of concepts and words that fit them. One main place I noticed this seems to be happening is when it comes to people trying to imagine what there might be to do in an indefinitely long lifespan. Many say an indefinite lifespan would get boring, that you can only play basketball and listen to music and talk to your friends for just so long. Who thinks about the big picture of existence and what all that entails? Who can? What concept encompasses it? If they did, if one did, I think it would be easier for many of them to realize they want indefinite life extension. So I created an unofficial index of sorts called “Existences Big Picture Big 8 Categories and Standalone Opportunities” or “the big 8” for short, which goes over the concept.

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