Meta-Systems and Motivation

Yes… it has been a while.  It was that time of the semester/year when all hell breaks loose and I have no time to write.

But more issues are at hand this time around.

Besides the normal craziness of life, there have been additional health issues that have taken up my time…This post is directly related to those health issues.

My father had a stroke in early October.

Luckily, my mother saw what was happening and did exactly the right thing and got him medical attention and he survived fairly well for the circumstances of being a 65 year old man.  He was thoroughly disoriented and confused, and he suffered significant damage to his speech comprehension and capacity.  This came to be a case of Wernicke’s Aphasia, which is a serious/complex problem, but not impossible to overcome.

Other than that, however, he was mostly okay.  He didn’t suffer any motor-coordination issues at all–in fact, during the early disorientation and confusion, he actually fought to get out of bed–I was told this.. I wasn’t there–and they had to get 8 people to restrain him and sedate him… So.. definitely no loss of motor skills or strength..

Anyway.. I didn’t actually get to see him until about 5 days after this happened… when he had been home for a day or two… and it was a rather fascinating experience.  I say this not to be snarky, but sincerely.  The person who was my dad was mostly there.. I could recognize him as my dad.. but there were also some significant alterations and some changes.

He was my dad.. and yet he was a different person also. His identity seemed a bit in flux.

To get more specific–I must note that his speech at that time was really severely impaired.  He often spoke in repetitive “word salads” and while I could usually parse out what his intent or meaning was–because I knew my dad pretty well and we were often in a classic situation, e.g. watching college football on a Saturday afternoon and talking about various plays–there were a number of observations that came to my attention at the time..

1) The inability to understand speech correctly (although you think you do..) and to use it to exchange meaning with others is really seen as key to how many people perceive one’s identity.  My mom, for example, has suffered the brunt of helping dad relearn English these past months (which is amazing…), but she also seems to be the one most irked and distressed that dad could not speak well… There was an urgency in her tone and an insistence that he do it right as if all of what dad was and who he was would be determined by using the correct words in the correct order.

But a person is more than just their ability to talk.. Perhaps this is clear to someone who has had to thoroughly learn another language and to deal with not really being able to speak at first… Perfect speech is great.. but not essential for constructing our own identities…

On a very steady and basic level, I could see dad trying to communicate to us something that was important to him… and although there was massive interference and distortion in this process–so that the “signal” was hard to pick out at times–I never doubted that the basic desire and goal to communicate was there…

2) On the other hand, there were aspects of dad’s personality that did seem to change–and are perhaps forever changed (or maybe they will settle down after more time)–that I noticed.  Specifically, dad had always been the most patient and calmly rational person I’ve ever really known.  This doesn’t mean he couldn’t get excited or excitable–All of us Kundert men get infuriated at poor driving skills in people–but there was always a kind of secure knowledge in him that came from having spent years building up a core base of knowledge that he could then apply to the situations at hand.  This has always made him more than just “the rock” of the family–he’s more like the fucking “core of the planet” of the family.. exerting a steady gravity on social interactions…

However–in this first visit–a lot of that calmness was absent.  Dad got excited very easily and was also impatient–not with others–but with himself.  Because he began to see that his communication capacity was not working (and yet he couldn’t tell by what he was saying that this was the case–only by watching our faces and noting that we were making incorrect expressions to what his words were supposed to mean…), he got very frustrated and impatient.. again.. with himself.

On the one hand–this should not be too surprising.  Imagine spending most of 66 years or so speaking a language and being clearly understood and understandable for at least 63 or so of those years.. and then.. being an older man–with a less flexible brain–facing the task of losing all of that–and having to relearn how to communicate–that would rightly make any sane person frustrated…. On the other hand, it was still one of those things that I noticed.. and I wondered if this would change as dad got better..

Now… it’s been two months or so since the stroke.. and I’ve seen him twice more since then.. and also talked to him on the phone at regular intervals…  and he has gotten much, much better..  He’s gone to speech therapy for weeks and he’s gotten back about 90% of his capabilities.  He still makes minor errors–much like I did when I was living in Germany–but they are small and unimportant..

However–on a bigger scale–many other things have become clear…

A)  Watching dad reconstruct his language made it clear to me just how much our identity and, even more, consciousness can be seen as a kind of grand “meta-system.”  Now.. the prefix “meta-” in English means something on the order of  “about the same category”–so metadata–is data about data… Interesting.. the word “about” actually originally meant “on the outside of” and came from the earlier word onbutan…and it does seem interesting that when you are talking about something–you implicitly are taking a perspective or position that is outside of the topic–you speak as if you can view it as a separate thing–which means that you have a certain amount of distance from it… Consciousness has a perception of itself as if it is able to step outside of itself and view itself.. Consciousness can think about problems.. rather than just being a calculator that is processing problems in a simple input/output scenario….(One might note that this idea crops up in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem novel…)

In any case, a “metasystem” would be a “system about systems”–and that’s just what this whole experience with my dad reinforced in my mind.
Now I’ve spoken about consciousness/mind/brains on here before–starting with the meat, going on to symbol vs signal processing–and remarking about bad brain/machine analogies–while also asking whether Robots can tell stories–so it’s obviously one of my favorite topics..  And one of my recurrent and underlying ideas is that our consciousness is nothing more than a temporal and ephemeral phenomenon generated from the meat in our skulls–and that this consciousness is not tied to any immortal or externally imbued soul/spirit/astrally-projected-FSM-spirit-macaroni.

We are just Meat that is aware.. (but isn’t that cool!)

Watching my dad have one of his systems self-destruct–and then watching him slowly rebuild it–and watching how his whole identity–both the internal subjective one that is tied to him–but also the more externalized and objective one that others try to impose upon him/relate to–changed just because a blood vessel burst inside his brain… That is just further evidence to me of how the meat generates all of this….without that meat.. or with messed up meat–dad’s identity was gone… there was no coherent spirit there trying to get through despite the meat… but rather the identity was constituted by the meat and only became more full as the meat was rebuilt in the proper fashion..
We are an agglomeration of different fleshy systems that have synergistic effects and produce the coolness that is ourselves..
Consciousness is the Meta-System.
We are all a Borg unto ourselves.
Prepare to be assimilated.

B) More concretely, I noticed how my dad’s vocabulary and his attempts to communicate followed certain linguistic theories and rules that I had picked up over the years.   On the one hand, it was interesting to see that, at first, my dad had a hard time hearing certain kinds of sounds–mainly p’s and b’s. These two sounds are exceptionally similar–they are the voiceless labial plosive (p) and voiced labial plosive (b)–as any linguistics student can tell you.  This intrigued me.  This intrigue grew as I noticed that when he mispoke he also often (this was earlier on) had a tendency to pick words that were off by just a simple sound change (like p vs b) rather than by very large sound changes (p vs g).  Thus, he would say “doll” instead of “tall” or “doze” instead of “dose” etc…

This was fascinating, because it appeared like his brain was trying to find the words and it was picking things that “sounded” like they should be right–but the sounds were just a tiny bit off.. but the meanings were incredibly different.

Later on–this kind of word-choice error would change–in certain ways… His brain would still be searching for words–but more of the sounds would be similar–for example, he asked me to hang something up because I was “talker than him”… so his brain had looked for “taller” and found a word just one sound off–but the total number of sounds was greater and the words were more complex..

In any case, watching this also reminded me of the ideas of George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things that I’ve talked a lot about before…  One of his main concepts is that words get their meanings in a way that he describes as “motivated.”  By that, what he is saying is that the meaning of a word is not just defined by certain clearly demarcated categories that are sets of certain qualities.  Such kinds of categories are easily simulated by computers and can be used in ways that allow quick calculations and which has “calculation” at its root in many ways.

Instead of this, Lakoff sees meaning in words as being “motivated” by various kinds of linking systems that show a wide variety of structures.  Some might be “protoype” models where a certain kind of element in a category (say Salmon as a kind of Fish) is seen as much more similar to a kind of “prototypical” fish than other elements in that category (say Sea Horse–which doesn’t look very fishy–but is still also a fish by our definitions…). All in all–the concept “fish” cannot just be a strict set of qualities that only applies if certain criterion our met.. but rather it is more of a set of guidelines and certain traits that are projected in a motivated fashion onto reality by our brains… We try to move these concepts from our brains onto reality and see if we can make them fit–more or less…(the word “motivate” originally comes from “motive,” which itself comes from the Latin past participle of “movere”==to move… “)

Anyway–the point I want to focus on is the “motivation” aspect–because that’s what dad’s behavior totally reminded me of.  He had certain ideas in his head–certain bits of knowledge–and he was motivated to use them–but his knowledge of the rules in which they were correctly used–that had been scrambled or deleted by the stroke–and that’s what he was working to rebuild.  Clearly–his brain didn’t work by just grokking some grammar rule and then easily applying it–but rather it was motivated to accomplish something–it was trying to move his concepts onto reality– and it had some rules that it applied–sometimes rightly, but often incorrectly (at first)–and it tried to learn from this…

Anyway.. that’s my long thought on Meta-systems and Motivation courtesy of my dad’s relearning of English in his 66th year on the planet. I’ve been meaning to write this for weeks.. but didn’t have the time.. Now.. finally I’ve gotten it out.. Time for a cookie.


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4 Responses to Meta-Systems and Motivation

  1. lauren says:

    this post is interesting to me on many levels. i realize this is about you and your family, so i won’t go off on too much of a tangent about my related, but also very different, experience, except to acknowledge the extreme challenge and perplexity it can present. three observations that stand out to me:

    1) just an aside that we’re now entering the phase where your general age-group (and my son’s) are beginning to experience their parents’ gen. (mine) having strokes/heart attacks/etc., which, having recently lost my father to altzheimer’s and heart failure, is closer to home.

    2) in the case of dementia, complicated by a subdural hematoma from a fall in my dad’s case, the linguistics and communication skills quickly deteriorated to the point where it was hard to pick out meanings and intentions, let alone sounds and words. at first he seemed to know what he thought he was communicating, though he couldn’t think of the word he wanted, and would mispronounce or substitute similar-sounding nonsense words. he’d get very agitated and frustrated. but soon it began to seem more paranoid delusional, and eventually broke down to gibberish and then nothing. he couldn’t even recognize which family member was which (he thought i was my brother, and my mother was his mother, etc.) and regressed into the past. this was such a departure from the person we knew him as, that it really was like someone else. my mother, closest to him emotionally, had the hardest time dealing with this, and just gave up trying. his personhood was so tied in with his intelligence and ability to articulate and communicate ideas, and be in control of his functions and surroundings, that once he lost all that, it was like a ghostly stranger in his place. he couldn’t regain or compensate for that massive a loss of neural connections.

    3) i’m no linguistics’/psych expert, so i can’t begin to figure out what’s going on there when a medical breakdown forces us to back up and relearn basic skills at a less adaptive age. at some point there appears to be no going back, too much damage is done. obviously people with hearing/speech disabilities still have an identity, but just communicate in a different ‘language’. but so much of our ‘self’ is built around our ability to understand and communicate with each other meaningfully. once the consciousness is out of the picture, it’s really like no one is home. or is it down there somewhere? i don’t know.

    • Prof. Woland says:

      I’m sorry for your loss, Lauren.. these kinds of things are hard…

      As it stands–I don’t know the medical stuff any more than a general layman would.. my observations are just that–the observations of someone who knows these other fields and is seeing how they seem to map onto my experiences.

      It’s possible–likely probable–that what I’m arguing is just plain wrong.. but it is a description of how I perceive these things…

      Also–Identities are what we make out of them–I just think that it should be clear that they are intimately connected to and shaped by the meat that encases them. To deny or diminish that fact is what I find wrong… People or ideas that seem to value some eternal and ethereal spirit over the concrete fleshly person in front of us–I find those things not just delusional–but dangerous…

  2. Pingback: Structured Perceptions | The Philosophy of NOM

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