What's In A Conversation Anyway? By Shadid Ahmed

 What's In A Conversation Anyway? By Shadid Ahmed

What's In A Conversation Anyway?  By Shadid Ahmed
What's In A Conversation Anyway?  By Shadid Ahmed





I make jokes, you laugh. I ask you questions and you answer. With no pretense, I  trail and seek meaning in your mundane squabbles. But we never really have a conversation. Of course, if that were the case, some would definitely have a preferable company over others. But doesn't that already happen? And what's in a conversation anyway? 


As i was listening to this song by Joler Gaan, like I do with every other songs that I like, I kind of zoned out but these two lines, I think, stuck with me and for a long time I would eagerly wait to incorporate this song into my writings. Maybe this is the day. 

The lines are: 

স্বর-ব্যঞ্জনে মালা গেঁথে বেঁধেছি এ গান 

কথার ভাঁজে ঘুমিয়ে আছে - জমিন আর আসমান ।

Wreath with the alphabets and see sweet melodies furled 

For beneath this verse, lies an entire world.  (Translated)

Words are tricky business. Our perception, consciousness, things that manifests love or even the universe will stand and guard what we are. But to rebel and seek salvation in freedom  is the most human of all. But to seek comfort and company is not outside the primary instincts too. No body deserves to be lonely, every body deserves love. The following chapters carry my understanding of this world, the words of the people I trust and are inspired the by people I dearly adore. I do hope that yo’ll find the time reading the whole thing desirable. 

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Chapter 1: For Your Perception.

Let's say I met an alien from a far away solar system who, lucky enough, could speak English, but had never, and could never, feel pain. I could explain to the alien that pain is sent through A delta and C fibers to the spinal cord. The alien could learn every single cell and pathway and process and chemical involved in the feeling of pain. The alien could pass a biology exam about pain and believe that pain, to us, generally is a bad thing. But no matter how much he learned, the alien would never actually feel pain. It terms of words, we can only understand each other so far. This matters because it shows how fundamentally, in terms of our perceptions, we are all alone in our minds. 

Philosophers call these ineffable, raw feelings- "Qualia." And our inability to connect physical phenomenon to these raw feelings, our inability to explain and share our own internal qualia is known as the "Explanatory Gap." This gap is confronted when describing color to someone who's been blind their entire life. We associate the color “Red” with things are high in temperature or as we like to call them “Hot” and the color “Blue” as cold but to someone who has never seen a single color, that just seems weird. 

Some philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, argue that qualia may be private and ineffable simply because of a failure of our own language, not because they are necessarily always going to be impossible to share. Perhaps, even in English, he says, given millions and billions of words used in just the right way, it may be possible to adequately describe a color in such a way that a blind person could see it for the first time. Or you could figure out that, once-and-for-all, yes or no, in fact, you and your friend do not see the same red. But for now it remains the case that we have no way of knowing if my red is the same as your red. Maybe one day our language will allow us to share and find out, or maybe it never will. I know it's frustrating to not have an answer, but the mere fact that conversations allows us to share our internal experiences, and the mere fact that I can ask my friends and we can all collectively wonder at the concept of qualia is quite incredible, and also quite human.

Animals can do all sorts of clever things that we do. They can use tools, problem solve, communicate, cooperate, exhibit curiosity, plan for the future, and although we can't know for sure, many animals certainly act as if they feel emotions - loneliness, fear, joy. Apes have even been taught to use language to talk to us humans. It's a sort of sign language that they've used to do everything from answer questions, to express emotion, or even produce novel thoughts. Unlike any other animal, these apes are able to understand language and form responses at about the level of a 2.5 year old human child. But, there is something that no signing-ape has ever done. No ape has ever asked a question. 

Joseph Jordania's "Who Asked the First Question?" is a great read on this topic and it's available for free online. For as long as we've been able to use sign language to communicate with apes, they have never wondered out loud about anything that we might know that they don't. We are the only species that the universe has allowed to understand itself. Of course, this does not mean that apes, and plenty of other animals, aren't curious. They obviously are. But, what is suggests is that they lack a "Theory of Mind." An understanding that other people have separate minds. That they have knowledge, access to information that you might not have. Even us humans aren't born with a "theory of mind," and there's a famous experiment to test when a human child first develops a "Theory of Mind." It is called the "Sally-Anne" test.

During the test, researchers tell children a story about Sally and Anne. Sally and Anne have a box and a basket in their room. They also happen to have a delicious cookie. Now, Sally takes the cookie and puts it inside the box, and then Sally leaves the room. While Sally is gone, Anne comes over to the box, takes the cookie out and puts the cookie inside the basket. Now, when Sally comes back, the researchers ask the children "where will Sally look for the cookie?" Obviously, Sally will look in the box. That's where she left it. She has no way of knowing what Anne did while she was gone. But until the age of about 4, children will insist that Sally will check the basket because, after all, that's where the cookie is. The child saw Anne move the cookie, so why wouldn't Sally also know? Young children fail to realize that Sally's mental representation of the situation, her access to information, can be different than their own.

Apes who know sign language, but never ask us questions, are doing the same thing. They're failing to recognize that other individuals have similar cognitive abilities and can be used as sources of information. So, we are all alone with our perceptions. We are alone in our own minds. We can both agree that chocolate tastes good. But I cannot climb into your consciousness and experience what chocolate tastes like to you. I can never know if my red looks the same as your red. But I can ask. We can have a conversation. 

Chapter 2: Our Burning Consciousness

If you just stare at something and kind of feel what it feels like to be you, it feels a little bit like you're a thing inside a body looking out through the eyeballs. And nobody else on Earth will ever see the world from that position. This awareness of your own experiences, the awareness that you are having them, the awareness that you are having your own thoughts makes up what we call consciousness. But if I were to take your brain and split it into two and put it into two different people, would both of them be new people who were conscious?

One of the best places to start when defining consciousness and understanding it is to begin with things that we agree are not conscious. For instance, robots. They are made up of computer programs and responds to our questions cleverly but only because they are programmed to do so. We wouldn't consider it conscious because it doesn't have a sense of itself. It doesn't feel anything. It doesn't have its own inner life. It's just a program that responds automatically to my inputs. Now I know that I am not like a robot. I know that I feel things and that I have a sense of myself. I have intentions. But how do I know that you do? For that matter, how do I know that everybody else that I meet is like me? How do I know that they're not just little smart versions of a computer who know exactly what to automatically say?

Now what I'm asking is incredibly philosophical, but it is a very famous and important question. I'm basically asking if it's possible for something to exist as a “Philosophical Zombie”. It’s a thing that reacts and responds and acts just like a normal human but yet doesn't actually feel anything. It doesn't know that it's having its own thoughts. It just automatically responds like a robot in the appropriate way. Now what's amazing about this question is that science doesn't have an answer, and it's not even clear that science will ever have an answer, let alone an approach to finding that answer. About all we have is the psychology of disorders of consciousness.

Let's begin with Anosognosia. A common example of anosognosia in psychology classes is a patient who has, say, lost the ability to move their left hand. When asked to raise their right hand, they'll say, "Yeah, no problem, here you go." But then when asked to raise their left hand, they'll say, "Oh, yeah, sure, no problem," but not move it. And when asked why they didn't move their left hand, instead of reporting that they can't, they'll confabulate some excuse. For instance, "Oh, I didn't feel like it." 

Anton-Babinski Syndrome is even more dramatic. Patients with this syndrome are cortically blind. They cannot see anything. But they deny being blind. If you ask them a question, for instance, "How many fingers am I holding up?" they will make a guess, but if they're wrong, they'll explain their inaccuracy with an excuse. For instance, "oh, well, I don't have my glasses." People who exhibit anosognosia tend to be the victims of stroke, and there's some disconnect between what they're really experiencing and their conscious awareness of it. They don't know that they can't see because the part of their brain that monitors visual input isn't telling the brain anything. It's not even telling the brain that there is no visual input which means that the parts of their brain responsible for answering questions or creating speech has to completely create a confabulated response. 

Despite the fact that we've been able to study patients with anosognosia, we still have no idea how to solve our original problem. In fact, all we've managed to come up with are more impossible questions about identity, questions that are so befuddling, the best you can do with them is to answer them yourself according to what you believe. 

Here's another one. It's called the Swampman. Imagine that I'm walking around in a swamp and then all of a sudden, I get struck by a bolt if lightening and my entire body is burned to a crisp, dissolved into smithereens. But the very same moment, a second bolt of lightening strikes nearby, and it causes a bunch of atoms and molecules to all arrange themselves into the exact same configuration that my body used to have. Is that me? Would that be me? 

Here's an even better one. Imagine that a surgeon came in, and he started removing cells from me and from you, replacing them exactly one at a time, replacing my cells into your body and your cells into my body. At what point would I officially have become you? No one on Earth has the definitive answers to these questions.

A condition known as “Neglect” can leave patients with a baffling syndrome as if half their world has completely disappeared. The patient ignores one side of space. For instance, they dress one side of their body, write on the right hand side of the page and miss things on the left-hand side. 

A neuroscientist and psychologist Peter Halligan spent many years to try and understand one of his patients suffering from this syndrome after a stroke. When asked to draw a cat, the patient would only draw half of it. You can draw a half cat and show it to her and she would instantly know the difference between a half cat and a full cat but what she draws is different to what she actually sees inside her brain. Our eyes are slaves to our attention system and what’s wrong with “Neglect” is that the attention system has been damaged. 

So, if our brain somehow operates without us being not aware of it, do we still have consciousness? We might never know these answers but to be aware of these questions might simply be enough. 

Chapter 3: Manifestation of Love

From birth to four months, babies can only focus on things about 8-10 inches away from their face which, not surpisingly, is about the distance to their mother's face while breast feeding. So, faces, especially those looking right at us, tend to be the very first things in our lives we can focus on and see clearly. This might explain why we are so good at detecting faces. Humans are off the charts when it comes to this, in fact, we tend to see faces even when there aren't any. It's called "Pareidolia." Because humans are so cooperative, it makes sense for us to be good at recognizing faces. And, more importantly, detecting when someone is looking directly at us and clearly expressing when we are looking at someone else. 

In fact, research has shown that our surprisingly white scleras, the area that borders the iris, isn't just an accident, but is a vital piece of human eye morphology that makes it easier for us to ascertain the direction of someone else's gaze at a glance. We also have impressive gaze-direction networks inside our brains, containing individual neurons that fire when someone is staring directly at us, but that stop firing if the gaze shifts just a degree or two. So, yes, you can tell when you're being watched. We humans are quite sensitive to it, even those of us with "Scopophobia," -the fear of being stared at. But to be sure, in order for this to work, the other person's gaze must be within your line of sight, your field of vision, that is, you can see them. Otherwise, if the stare is coming, say, from behind, there is no evidence that people can tell they are being watched.

A passionate kiss burns about 2-3 calories per minute, and releases epinephryn and norepinephryn into the blood, making your heart pump faster. Kissing more often is correlated with a reduction of bad cholesteral and perceived stress. But these positive effects didn't become widespread by accident. Why did brains and bodies that love kissing become so common? Evolutionary psychologists have argued that what we know today as "kissing" may have come from "kiss-feeding," the exchange of pre-chewed food from one mouth to another. Mother birds are famous for doing this, and many primates are frequently seen doing it as well. Not that long ago, it was common between human mothers and their children. In fact, before commercially produced or DIY baby-food instructions were readily available, it made a lot of sense.

It seemed strange to some people, but even though, yeah, it exchanges saliva, which, like any contact with an infant, can transfer pathogens, healthy mothers and healthy children can benefit from the fact that kiss feeding provides nutrients. Carbohydrates, proteins, iron and zinc, which are not always available in breast milk. Plus, an adult saliva can help pre-digest the food, making vitamins like B-12 easier for the baby to absorb. So, mouth-to-mouth attachment has a history of intimacy, trust and closeness. 

Your saliva also carries information about who you are, your level of health, and mucus membranes in our mouths are permeable to hormones like testosterone, making a kiss a way to taste-test a potential mate. A good kiss can be biological evidence that your kisser might be a good mate. So, as a strategy for mate selection, pre-historic people who enjoyed kissing, and did it more often, may have made better decisions, picked better mates, reproduced more successfully, and, eventually, become the normal sign of intimate attachments.  

But what about attachment when no one is watching? One explanation for an infant's love, attachment to their mother, doesn't involve vision or staring, but, instead, food. The idea is that we love our mothers because as soon as we are born, they are a source of life-sustaining nourishment. But what if that nourishment came not from a loving mother, but from a scary "Wire Mother"?

In the 1950's, Harry Harlow conducted a series of famous, but controversial, experiments on monkeys at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Harlow's findings had substantial implications on our understanding of attachment. But by today's standards, his work would largely be considered unethical. 

In one of his most famous experiments, Harlow separated young monkeys from their mothers as soon as they were born and stuck them in cages with two fake mothers: a soft one wrapped in cloth that did nothing, and a cold, mechanical mother made of wire that, nonetheless, did provide food. But despite being a feeding mother, the young baby monkey's didn't bond with her. When Harlow and his team scared the baby monkeys with a strange contraption, the monkeys ran and clinged not to their wire source of life-sustaining nourishment, but to the soft, cuddly and otherwise useless cloth-mother. This suggested that warmth and comfort was more important than food when it came to nurturing attachment.

Harlow also built a rejecting mother, which used a blast of pressurized air to push baby monkeys away. But instead of finding another source of comfort, these monkeys clung even tighter at all times than monkeys raised without rejecting mothers.

The instinct for warmth and comfort in newborn creatures is so strong that it not only resists attempts to frustrate it, but is paradoxically strengthened by it. Eckhard Hess tested this by using electric shocks to discourage ducklings from following the object they were imprinted on. But it only strengthened the behavior and made them follow more closely than ever before. The fact that a "wire mother," or a rejecting mother, or receiving electric shocks for attaching to your mother, would cause more attachment, more love, more dependence. It seems like a paradox. 

In 1955 A.E. Fisher conducted an experiment on puppies. His team separated puppies into three groups. Members of the first group were treated kindly every time they approached a researcher. Members of the second group were punished for approaching the researchers. And puppies in the third group were randomly treated kindly or punished. They grew up never knowing what to expect. Their world was not a world of kindness or punishment, but rather one of uncertainty.

What's really alarming is that the study found that that group, the third group of puppies, wound up being the most attached to the researchers. The third group loved the researchers the strongest and was the most dependent upon them. 

Guy Murchie called this the "Polarity Principle": 

"stress, including the mental stress of uncertainty, is an ingredient in attachment or love and perhaps even manifestations of hatred (its polar opposite) somehow enhance love."

And what gets our attention here is the effect uncertainty can have. Uncertainty, psychologically, can lead to some of the greatest feelings of attachment and dependence. Good things, and bad things, in our lives often seem random and out of our control. So, it's no surprise that we often react with blind love and acceptance in the face of an unfair existence because, what else are we supposed to do? We are that third group of puppies. 

But investigating uncertainty, conquering it, so as to make the best decisions possible is advantageous. So, over time, life has favored activities that turn uncertainty into knowledge. Not every person out there is the best mate for you, but if it didn't matter which one you picked, a kiss, a taste-test, or simply a conversation wouldn't be necessary, and it wouldn't need to feel so good or bring us so much pleasure talking to each other. So, perhaps it is a good thing when people get to know each other and offer interest in each others lives.

Chapter 4: Center of The Universe

Where is the center of the universe? Well, this might sound crazy, but it's everywhere. This is known as the "Cosmological Principle." No matter where you are in the universe, everything is expanding, moving away from you at the same rate. The universe is expanding, but not like a balloon getting bigger with all the people inside it. Instead, it's as if we are the surface of a balloon. If you were to put a bunch of dots on a balloon and then blow it up, all the dots would move away from each other at the same rate. And, on the surface of the balloon, there is no center. 

There’s a fun experiment on it. Take two sheets of paper and draw a bunch of dots onto them. They are exactly similar, except the top layer represents a 5% expansion of the bottom layer. Let's say that you live on one of the dots, and you want to measure where everything is moving away from. Well, if you line up a dot with a correlation to both of the layers, It will look like the center of the expansion. you can do this with any dot. As soon as you choose a dot to be the frame of reference, it immediately becomes the center of the expansion. So, while life may seem lonely, and scary, and morbid, when you look up into the sky; think instead about this. No matter where you are, or who you are, or what your friends or your parents are, you really, scientifically, are the center of the universe. Next time you talk to a person and they tell you that you’re the center of his or her world, just know that they are not lying. 

We see, listen, but hardly understand what we are dreaming.

Empty and blindly here we stand, night's too dead for sleeping.

But regardless we try, ironically never each other.


~ Shadid Ahmed

Honours in English, NU, BD.

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