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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Light Reading: How Bow Responds to Different Styles of Writing

Incarceration can be difficult for the soul. Solitary confinement wears us down over time. If you try to imagine what it would be like to be locked up in a cage, without access to other people, maybe you would think first about the loss of conversation, friendship and love. But the truth is that all forms of social contact, even strife, are very much missed. We all have the inborn desire to find worthy adversaries and to fight against our fellow man, in order to test our strength and challenge our mind. If you don't believe this, and you're not into heavy reading, perhaps you should watch Megamind. It illustrates the same principle.

Bow is not in solitary confinement, but he has no access to companions of his own kind, and those of us who spend time with him have to go in one by one, because having more than one person in at a time brings out Bow's innate interest in social hierarchies. He longs to fight against others, and he wants his friends to fight, too, to see just which one ends up on top. If Bow ever did get to meet face to face with another chimpanzee, I doubt very much that friendship would be the first order of business. It would be more like this: a fight to establish supremacy, followed by friendship, if anybody happened to survive.

Are human beings any different? When a prisoner is placed in solitary confinement, of course that is a very big deprivation. But is the loss of human contact to be mourned primarily because of the loss of affectionate companionship, or because it makes hand-to-hand combat a complete impossibility?

Edward Livingston (May 28, 1764 – May 23, 1836) was a famous American jurist who advocated prison reform. One of his ideas was that upon admission to the penitentiary, all prisoners should be placed in solitary confinement until such time as they showed a genuine desire to interact in a positive way with others. Gradually, the privilege to socialize, and even to do productive work, would be restored to the prisoner, but each such privilege would have to be earned. It sounds good on paper, but what if the chief reason an individual regrets a solitary existence is because it deprives him of sparring partners and the chance to engage in a fight to the death? In such a case, how would the reward of companionship not immediately result in a return to violence?

Bow is sometimes restless and bored. When not in an aggressive mood, he broods. With Lawrence, he has a wrestling partner, but I am more given to literary and cerebral pursuits. How do we bridge that gap? Sometimes I share my reading with Bow. Sometimes, he even listens.

Notice that Bow pays the most attention to the verse toward the end of the reading selection. His interest in the prose is less intense.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Different forms of social cooperation: a nod of the head

I've been very busy in the past month or so setting up new websites and pursuing business interests that may seem to have nothing to do with Project Bow. A pesky commenter on one of my sites wanted to know: so have you given up on proving that Bow's communication isn't "Clever Hans"? And when I replied that I had not given up on anything, but was also not pushing Bow to prove anything he doesn't want to prove, she was not satisfied. To her way of thinking, unless I am working on direct proof, then my interactions with Bow are of no consequence, for scientific purposes, which is all she really cares about. On top of that she suggested that I was deluding myself that Bow and I were communicating at all. Who's to say that our day to day conversations are not entirely in my own head, and that Bow is contributing nothing?

That is a valid question, but I also think that if what is going on here is entirely Clever Hans, then even Clever Hans is of scientific interest. Why on earth wouldn't you want to study how non-verbal cues play a role in social cooperation?

Take for example the following video. I needed to explain some things about how to get a Google Adsense account to my new writers on Pubwages. Did Bow have to be a part of that? Well,  no, he didn't. But I am with Bow twelve hours a day, most days, and so the only way I manage to get anything done is to involve him in my daily transactions. Besides, he's much more photogenic than I am.

When you watch the video, notice how at first Bow circles me, then he sits down to listen to what I have to say, then he gets up in the middle because it's not all that interesting, but when I train the camera on him as I am wrapping up my spiel, Bow starts to nod and smile, as if agreeing with me. Did I train him to do that? No. Did I ask him to do any of that? No. He did what he felt like doing, just as when he takes my hand and points to letters, he's also doing what he wants, not what I want. I couldn't for the world force him to say something that he doesn't want to say or do something that he doesn't want to do.

But did Bow really understand what I had to say about getting a Google adsense account? Does he know what adsense is? I doubt that, because he's still struggling with the concept of money. However, there are lots of human beings who also don't understand about adsense. A good friend who watched the video wrote me that she enjoyed it, but she had no idea what I was talking about. Bow, too, seemed to enjoy my presentation, though he had little comprehension of the subject matter. And yet he knew exactly which part of the discourse was the wrap up, and he decided to give his approval at that point.

Is it a pre-verbal skill to be able to pick up the beginning, middle and end of a speech, without knowing exactly what it's about? How many times have you used that same skill when trying to determine when to applaud or agree with your interlocutor, even though you were not closely attending to the meaning of the discourse? What allows us to cooperate in this way? Why are some autistics incredibly dense about picking out this sort of information?