Learning and thinking through mental images (I)

Published on April 2nd, 2017

Cata & Gaston looking at the window

Unlike we humans, dogs do not have a linguistic code that allows them to mentally operate with symbols (words) that represent things. We must therefore assume that they operate with sensory mental imagery (uni-sensory or multi-sensory) of those things that they know or learn. This is what makes our work most difficult, their way of thinking is totally different to ours, only some mildly autistic people (e.g Temple Grandin) who have the inability to think with words can tell us what the mental experience of working with sensory images is like. We can take a lot about how dogs really think from their experiences.

Much of our extraordinary ease in thinking about complex things come from our ability to encode information in symbolic form and process these symbols in our heads instead of directly using mental images, to illustrate this I would like to give the reader a little exercise: mentally evoke the image of a person you know, do not think of their name just picture them, ok, now imagine that they are riding a horse, when it gets there imagine that this horse, with your friend in the saddle, is jumping a fence. Well, if you did the exercise you may have noticed that, as more elements were incorporated into your visualization, it was more and more difficult and the image was not all as accurate as it could have been. Now think of the name of your friend and mentally repeat the phrase: Fulanito riding a horse and jumping a hedge. This really has not taken much effort, as these images have become symbols, processing them is easy, fast and restful. Dogs operate in the first, more laborious way.

Handling symbols is a way to optimize the computing capacity of the brain, this is what makes computers so smart: with a binary combination of simple symbols (zeros and ones) they can perform a lot of very complex mental processes. Why does this happen? When you think of images your brain has to devote a lot of effort to build the image: You must put some kind of clothing on your friend, think of a color for the horse, the shape and arrangement of the hedge, even though I did not request any of this, you need to do it to build the image, however this effort is not necessary to symbolize it in words, we don’t need to know the clothes, the color of the horse or any other data except the minimum that I have asked: Fulanito riding a horse and jumping a hedge. Dogs do not have this ability to translate symbols, thereby minimizing the amount of information relevant to that time, so their thinking is slower and requires a significant amount of sensory memories.

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