Monday, July 15, 2013

"It's Abstract"

I cannot explain why my brain likes to kick into writing gear as I'm getting ready to go to bed. Were it a two-year-old, it would make sense. However...

Some ten years ago, I spent time working as a summer camp counselor. Another counselor, a ceramics major in college, would often remark on various incomprehensible attempts at artwork saying, "It's abstract." It is this idea of 'abstract' that I have been pondering since second grade and wish to explore here. I can't say whether I'll manage an ultimate conclusion, but continue to read and perhaps you will understand why that is. And maybe you will have insights that can help me pin down the abstract.

As I mentioned, this kinda (I'm a fan of understatement...) started with something I remember my second grade teacher saying. She said that kids tend to think more in images where as they mature and get older, develop more, it shifts to thinking in words. I remember remembering this in Junior High, High School, and more frequently as I have gotten older and I have concluded that I must lie rather outside that pattern. This may not be readily apparent as a lifetime of much reading has created a rich vocabulary to pull from, but the large majority of my thinking that does not relate to interacting with people is done without language. It is, in essence, abstract.

I'm sure that many people use non-lingual processing at times here and there, but as I have tried many times this past year to try explaining what I've been pondering with little success, it seems to be less common than the literal thinking that language creates. (This idea finally helped me understand what the critical theorist, Jacques Lacan, might have been getting at when he claimed that 'Language Speaks Us'. I.e. Our ideas are shaped by the language we have available to process our world and influences our realities more deeply than our natural perceptions. Not fully legit, but I finally get what he was thinking...) Language is naturally structured meaning thoughts in language form automatically have some level of inherent structure. They may have horrible grammar, metaphorically speaking, when they race and jump about, but they have a definable structure none-the-less.

So what do I mean by saying I tend to think in the abstract? How do I think without a reliance on words? If you have seen the recent BBC version of Sherlock Holmes series, think to the episode where they explain his method for remembering and processing details and information. Sherlock says he builds a memory mansion - castle? palace? house? I forget the classification - and stores the details away in that house in a way that makes sense to him. When he is pondering the mystery at hand, he focuses inward to this mental creation and wanders through the memories till he has puzzled out how it all fits together. The episode even gives a visual representation of him doing so. This is a step approaching the expression of abstract thinking. There is the concept of space, movement, image, and connections between objects of ideas.

Now go look at the last paragraph again. See the part where I stumbled over what the proper classification was? That is evidence of my abstract processing. I think it was not called house because the sense of the designation is large, grand. And it is a living location. But I do not need the words to have the concepts. That means when I try to put what I process or file in abstract into words, I actually have to translate from one 'language' into another. It makes for difficulties in communicating and has been a direct cause of problems as people have assumed my first pass at trying to translate is what I actually meant. But if it is considered a rough draft at translating (which it is) it can be understood why I am often inclined to adjust what I'm saying as I realize the words I had picked did not give the meaning I was aiming for. And in direct communication, there is not time to puzzle everything out over weeks to ensure the closest translation possible. It can be quite frustrating.

If you have been following my other posts, perhaps you can look back and see more evidence of this. In the ones I had pre-written, I had time to focus and simplify and make my thoughts as direct as possible. In the posts that are written as I type, they tend to pull on multiple thoughts weaving about with perhaps not every connection explained in a direct, literal way. It can also be seen in how often I will use multiple words separated by commas to express the essence of an idea. That is because the single word does not completely express the sense of the abstract in my head. I do actually think in language, mainly when I think of talking with someone (such as to you unknown readers), and most of what I have written about are things I have considered and pondered over many years. These have helped with the translation process. It also helps to try to translate, express abstract considerations to others to get a gauge on how close I manage it. Doing so, with feedback, also lets me make my thoughts literally accessible.

It may seem that abstract thinking is too divorced from the actual to be of any real value, that it would rather be a hindrance. As with the translating troubles, there is some truth to that, but it's not as problematic as you may assume. In some ways I believe it made school easier for me. Being an abstract processor, I do have a rather hard time remembering details like lists of names, dates, places (more problematic when I tried being a history major...) and my brain often doesn't file away lists of facts or memorizations (though I can bully it into some short-term filing). Instead, as I sat in classes, did homework, and processed the information, my brain metaphorically converted the information into pieces of a giant machine where everything new learned helped fine-tune the mechanical workings. Once each piece was in the right place, I no longer had to think about it. When I took tests, like the In-Out function machines, the question posed went in one end and the pieces directed it through to the appropriate answer.

Like those science flow charts where it asks if this or that is or isn't present and based on the answer it sends you to the next test until you are finally presented with the outcome. Only, in my head, it feels more like movement and the sense of testing against other sensed but not necessarily worded entities. Like a wood maze where the tests determine whether the ball should drop or not and the ultimate drop defines the answer. Or like high-speed flying through space where the gravities of relative concepts create small shifts in the overall trajectory till you come to an ultimate destination.

A recent recognition of abstract processing came while watching my favorite movie, The Avengers. It can also be seen in any of the Iron Man movies as it was recognizing that the displays in Tony Stark's helmet with multiple gauges and readings would require a certain level of abstract removal to process the needed information. Consider everything he'd have to concentrate on - the mental link to control the flying, the power levels, the suit/body functioning, altitude, location, communication with others, and then throw in some level of tactical attention to fighting off whichever bad guys happen to be attacking at the moment.

Now Iron Man is a fictional character, but consider the other places where a person must actively process multiple shifting variables in order to accomplish a task. I think of pilots with tons of gauges, soccer and hockey athletes, even police officers, firefighters, and active-duty military personnel. You may consider it more of a trained 'instinct', which has some accuracy, but that 'instinct' operates by processing in the abstract. It is quicker. It bypasses the definitives which slow things down.

I can keep trying to express and define the abstract, but it clearly becomes rather ponderous. There are reasons we use symbols to represent ideas. They become simplified enough to use in communication. Ultimately, I am interested in any thoughts you, as the reader, might have regarding this idea in any respect. As I said at the beginning, I have been trying to process this concept for many, many years and still have trouble trying to simply translate the concept. Other ideas are difficult, but are inherently more accessible than the meta-abstract.

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