Mary had a little…
If your first thought was “lamb” your mind is working normally (in one respect, at least).
What about some other answers?
If your first thought was “bear” or some other common noun like that, your mind is working somewhat strangely. You might think of it as a more creative response, but creativity that is not deliberate is likely to be disabling.
In order to get through life we all need our minds to come up with conventional and appropriate responses to the day-to-day situations we find ourselves in, and to come up with them quickly and reliably. Creativity has its place, but not as a disruptive influence that gets in the way of conventional and appropriate thinking.
So it’s fine if you thought of “lamb” first, and only later, after deliberately deciding to be creative, you thought of “bear”. But if you thought of “bear” first, and if that’s the way your mind always works, there’s something unusual happening in your mind.
The unusual thing that’s happening is likely to be related to the narrowed context of your thinking. You might only have been thinking of the phrase “Mary had a little” itself, without taking into account its significance in English-language culture. Strangeness like that can result from failure to take account of the wider context.
If your first thought was something like “more” you have a more severe problem. The phrase “a little more” is certainly a common phrase. The trouble seems to be that you ignored the words “Mary had” at the start. You lost track of the context completely and gave a conventional and appropriate response in the comparatively limited context of “a little…”
Some linguistic research, however, shows what a good response “more” is. Googling “a little lamb” gives just over 5 million hits. Googling “a little more” gives nearly 300 million hits. Research evidence clearly shows that “more” is a more appropriate response!
Losing track of the wider context is a disability in the same way that uncontrolled creativity is. In order to get through life we all need our minds to take account of context in coming up with responses to the day-to-day situations we find ourselves in. Reacting instead only to narrow cues disrupts thinking.
Attention and consciousness
Problems like these are in part, at least, problems of attention or of consciousness. Attention and consciousness amount to much the same thing.
For example, when unconscious and dreaming there is no need for appropriateness or wider context. It’s OK in a dream for Mary to have a little bear or a little more. That kind of thinking is typical of dreams, and indeed in a dream “lamb”, “bear” and “more” can be interchangeable revealing that our minds really process thoughts in parallel.
The mental processes of dreaming are no different from the mental processes of conscious wakefulness. It’s just that consciousness constrains or filters dreamlike thoughts so that the conventional and appropriate thoughts reach awareness while the more unconventional and inappropriate ones remain unconscious.
So even if your first conscious thought was “lamb” some part of your brain was almost certainly thinking “more”. The mechanism of consciousness ensured that only “lamb” got your attention, while “more” (and probably many others too) never reached your awareness.
A few rare people have a general difficulty with context. They lack that filtering mechanism to some extent. The result is that many competing answers reach their awareness, and they may have difficulty choosing an appropriate response to a situation.
For example someone experiencing this kind of difficulty quite severely might, when giving a talk to an audience, forget the audience from time to time and lapse into a private conversation with a friend on the front row, or even start talking to himself as if no one else was present.
Or, in a less severe example, he might utter sentences that do not connect together to convey any overall meaning, even though each sentence in isolation might make sense.
A similar process is used by computer programs that create deliberate gibberish. The intention is to generate random nonsense that appears at first sight to make sense. A common algorithm is to restrict the context to just one word.
For example, such a program might start with the word “Mary”. Now the program looks in its database to find a word that often follows “Mary”. Perhaps it chooses the word “told”.
Then, forgetting anything that went before, it looks in its database to find a word that often follows “told”. Perhaps it chooses the word “her”. So it goes on, generating word after word with only a single word of context. The result is nonsense, but nonsense that has something strangely plausible about it.
I used a Markov Text Synthesizer of this kind to generate nonsense from part of Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, published in 1848. Here was the result:
Mary told her head, seeing this, her sound, though Newton’s “Principia” lies so little old-fashioned curtsey she heard the door. Then t’ sew up by old Alice’s—she thought it to his wife kept her to deny the comfort her: but, in all so much for evil, a surprise that he were sore afraid, for a week on the great help.
For grandfather is pretty; concerning her sleeping child. But hoo loikes a wizard’s dwelling. Instead of old Job Legh would be ignorant.
So he says she, ‘Don’t trouble yourself, John, how good strong common hand-loom weaver were the last time was protected by the families that I cried over and he could not hurting so delicately with early home, not care not really was fading, from whom he would not speak the other policemen; and many a pennyworth of the spirit to any one foreign parts), had early May or another of the scarlet lovers embracing in his first described her will say was, “Good-night, Mary, “I try and he left off now, like th’ leg, and one stupefied.
Although that’s quite convincing, it works much better with technical jargon that is difficult to decipher anyway. Here’s an example of legal wording based on the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union:
The freedom of fundamental freedoms as is not to working conditions provided for the light of rights entails responsibilities and ideas without interference by Union acting in criminal proceedings for the death penalty, that is necessary and Fundamental Freedoms, and freedom, equality and maturity.
2. In the heart of their children is a third countries legally resident in particular those rights in the Member State.
This post is a follow-up to my previous post, Margie, which was written so long ago now that even I have partly forgotten it. I’m sorry for the delay.
The connection with Margie is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which appears to be based on the assumption that mental illness is largely due to difficulties with context and attention, but in exactly the opposite way to the difficulties I have described above.
For example, in one description, Philosophical, theoretical and empirical foundations of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, ACT is said to be:
…based on the view that clients’…attempts to control uncomfortable or disturbing private experiences is the origin of a large portion of psychopathology.
Clients have private experiences that they attempt to control, and it is this attempt in itself that is said to cause the trouble — it would be better, it is implied, for clients to have uncontrolled experiences similar to the effects of restricted context that I outlined.
Allied to this is an assumption that those thoughts that reach awareness are essentially arbitrary:
…patients are taught to treat thoughts as an arbitrarily applicable process of thinking, not as the seemingly nonarbitrary products of thinking.
The mechanism of attention that filters thoughts so that only relevant, non-arbitrary, thoughts reach awareness is, it is said, an illusion and it can be unlearned.
That is, ACT is based on the notion that the disability I described above is a desirable state, and the normal processes of attention that come up with conventional and appropriate responses to the day-to-day situations we find ourselves in are undesirable.
A true convert to ACT, if there could be such a person, would find it impossible to communicate, or to make sense of communication, because, for example, following the word “Mary” all words would be equally likely. The result would be gibberish worse even than the output of the computer gibberish generator.
The origins of this notion are obscure. On the surface, the explanation is that the contexts people create from past events sometimes let them down in the present (for example, because circumstances have changed). That does not seem to be good reason for undermining all such contexts, though.
When I saw Steven Hayes presenting on ACT, although he seemed to work hard at being charismatic and engaging, I thought his lecturing style very much resembled the rambling comment that he made here on Margie. I had a sense, at the time, that perhaps he finds ordinary everyday focus harder work than the rest of us. Denver psychologist Shawn Smith puts it like this:
I’ve met Steven Hayes. He is a kindhearted, ingenious man who could find staggering complexity in a shopping list.
There’s a very much darker portrayal in the video spoof, Bus Driver, which tells the story of a driver doomed by his inability to filter thoughts and pay attention to only the relevant ones in the way most of us do all the time.
Before Steven Hayes’ lecture, I thought ACT was intriguing though unconvincing. After it, I think ACT promotes serious dysfunction as a way to escape from milder dysfunction. The dysfunction it promotes is a kind of attention deficit that unravels the normal ability to stay on track, to come up with conventional and appropriate responses to day-to-day situations, to drive the bus without being fatally distracted.