Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Temple Grandin and David Hume on General Ideas

A few weeks ago, Mark Schroeder linked me to a TED talk by Temple Grandin. Grandin is autistic, and, in her talk, one thing she attempted to convey was an aspect of her own cognition that she regards as unusual. She said:
So, what is "thinking in pictures"? It's literally movies in your head. My mind works like Google for images. Now, when I was a young kid I didn't know my thinking was different. I thought everybody thought in pictures. And then when I did my book, Thinking In Pictures, I start interviewing people about how they think. And I was shocked to find out that my thinking was quite different. Like if I say, "Think about a church steeple" most people get this sort of generalized generic one. Now, maybe that's not true in this room, but it's going to be true in a lot of different places. I see only specific pictures. They flash up into my memory, just like Google for pictures. And in the movie, they've got a great scene in there, where the word "shoe" is said, and a whole bunch of '50s and '60s shoes pop into my imagination.

Mark suggested I compare this description of her cognition with Hume's analysis of abstract reasoning. In the Treatise (1.1.7), Hume tells us:
When we have found a resemblance among several objects, that often occur to us, we apply the same name to all of them, whatever differences we may observe in the degrees of their quantity and quality, and whatever other differences may appear among them. After we have acquired a custom of this kind, the hearing of that name revives the idea of one of these objects, and makes the imagination conceive it with all its particular circumstances and proportions. But as the same word is suppos'd to have been frequently applied to other individuals, that are different in many respects from that idea, which is immediately present to the mind; the word not being able to revive the idea of all these individuals, but only touches the soul, if I may be allow'd so to speak, and revives that custom, which we have acquir'd by surveying them. They are not really and in fact present to the mind, but only in power; nor do we draw them all out distinctly in the imagination, but keep ourselves in a readiness to survey any of them, as we may be prompted by a present design or necessity. The word raises up an individual idea, along with a certain custom; and that custom produces any other individual one, for which we may have occasion. But as the production of all the ideas, to which the name may be apply'd, is in most eases impossible, we abridge that work by a more partial consideration, and find but few inconveniences to arise in our reasoning from that abridgment.

I think Mark was right to note a striking parallel between Grandin's description of thinking in pictures and Hume's account of abstract reasoning (though I definitely don't mean to suggest that Hume was autistic).

At any rate, I thought this was pretty interesting, and figured I would share.

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