We’ll be looking at some preexisting work on meaning, particularly, immediate meaning, which Cognitive Scientist Bruce Mangan has made a career out of writing and thinking about. The intention is not to provide a systematic review or even to fully understand what Mangan means—instead, we’ll be using his conceptualization to help frame and deepen the larger world of meaning research that we’re building.
To get a good feeling for the kind of meaning that Mangan studies, let’s first turn to one of his favorite exercises
“As a preliminary, consider the following paragraph. For full effect, it is important that you read it out loud all the way through, however frustrating this may become.
A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance. (Klein, 1981, p. 83)
For most readers the paragraph as a whole makes no sense, even though its component parts certainly do make sense. Each sentence is well-formed and made up of common English words. But as a matter of phenomenology, the experience is anything but meaningful: the overall feel that envelops the paragraph is discordant, puzzling, unpleasant; the individual sentences clash with one another and do not coalesce into a larger idea.
However, we can change the phenomenological character of the paragraph radically and instantly with a single word: kite. The experience I’m calling rightness should now explode in consciousness. There are, of course, many other and more natural ways to refer to this experience in English: we could say that the paragraph suddenly makes sense; or that it is meaningful; or that its component sentences now fit well with one another; or that they now constitute a coherent whole. In more formal terms we could call this the experience of successful cognitive integration, or the quality that characterizes a good Gestalt.”
Mangan calls all this “rightness” (and elsewhere, feeling-of-knowing). We’re meant to understand that this transcends mere object recognition through our senses—it is not enough to say that we are merely perceiving things and responding to them, as the old behavioralist view would assert. Instead, most of what we experience is separable from sensory information. This is not a bug—it’s a feature. Were we to operate solely off of our sensory information, we could not function at the level of complexity that we do. Even if we add in priors based on behavioral learning (as machine learning research does), this does not give us anything remotely like the human experience. What it is like to be a human is to have experiences. Reasoning and perceiving are tools are informed and shaped by experience but they are not sufficient for the robustness required to operate at a global scale.
Mangan’s work was greatly inspired by William James, who identified that consciousness (which I’m calling experience to disambiguate it from the myriad flavors of consciousness, such as wakefulness) has a center focal point of attention and awareness. Beyond the center, we have a fringe, a blurry pile of living context for our experience. We do not merely observe objects as a pile of properties but we directly perceive them as having a whole host of additional properties and possibilities that may or may not manifest over time.
As a way of understanding this directly, do the following: cast your gaze about the space you’re in and find a single object. Consider its sensorially accessed properties—color, shape, luminosity. Is this all it is? Keep looking and think about what you notice.
For me, I found a tennis racket. I see the oval shape of the head and the handle coming out of the throat, the strings (broken), the dirt on the grip, the scuffs on the frame, the kinks in the string, the yellow and black the branding (Dunlop), specifications, 98sq in, 310g static weight, etc.. The more I look, the more I see. But even as I see more, I am also aware that these observations carry more than mere visual content, some shapes and colors. When I see the scuffs, I feel the scraping on the asphalt and have a fleeting (cringy) feeling of being the one doing the scraping. The broken strings tell a story I’m a part of—I broke them through hours of fighting and struggling in a contest of skill (one I lose about half of the time). The brand “Dunlop” evokes feelings which, upon reflection, manifest as thoughts about their quality, methodology, design, history, and ethos. The things I observe feel a certain way in an immediate sense and reveal far more as I reflect on them. This process could continue for hours if I were so inclined. You might be able to do the same with the object you observed. Or maybe you would struggle with this. Your struggle might be rooted in a couple of things:
- You don’t have any strong connection to the object you’re observing (I have this with a nearby mug my old housemate left behind)
- Your attention is diverted
Both 1 and 2 are one are related, as attention is an extremely (notably) finite resource and it makes little sense to direct it towards things that don’t lend themselves to our doing the things we want to do. Together, attention and connection drive our experiences, which is to say, our lives as we know them. At the center we have the things we pay attention to—what we see, hear, and smell, but also think and care about. Past direct attention, we continue to have less clear but still real cares, goals, beliefs, impressions, and wisps of thoughts. Through attention, we can sometimes surface these fringe feelings. This is what I did as I looked at my tennis racket and what you might have done as you observed your object.
Rather than focusing on this sensory observation process, Mangan has largely been interested on experiences that are not the direct result of seeing, hearing, and so on. These of course include our thoughts, the world of thinking about and considering and worrying and anticipating the past, present, and future. Unfortunately, this world is really difficult to capture in physics-friendly ways. This is frustrating because our thoughts and feelings are what we actually care about—behavior only matters in light of the fact that we can think and care about things in the first place. Yet, just about all of our research is directed towards behavior or physics-friendly correlations (such as “the neurons in the amygdala get agitated when people see things they say they’re scared of”).
How does this connect to meaning? Straightforwardly. Elsewhere, we have described meaning as a complex dynamical process with two main components:
- The slow, narrative meaning that drives our lives
- The fast, immediate meaning that colors our experiences
Narrative meaning is only possible if we have thoughts and feelings—these thoughts and feelings are sometimes in the center of our attention but are often less clear and determined. You can anyone to tell you what the meaning of their life is and they can provide an answer (or when this fails, they can be rightly distraught that an answer does not immediately surface). As we go about thinking and fantasizing about what we want to do each day, we are engaging in narrative meaning-making and shaping. This is not to say that narrative meaning is the same as the explicit thoughts and words we use to describe it to ourselves and others. Instead, narrative meaning itself is a part of the fringe and is therefore impossible to fully express in words (Mangan refers to this defiance of description as the alpha cluster—ineffable, noetic, unistic, and transcendent) . The descriptions that we provide when asked about meaning loosely track the fringe experiences that actually carry narrative meaning, shaping the fringe and altering our behavioral trajectory. In other words, narrative meaning is felt, elusive, and amenable to change upon reflection.
Immediate meaning requires slightly more qualification. Borrowing from Mangan, rightness (feeling whole, fitting well) presents itself as being directly meaningful. Remembering the earlier kite example where once we had just a pile of descriptions with nothing to attach them to: as soon as we were given the word “kite”, everything fell into place and “felt right”. This feeling is not a particular emotion, nor is it a product of reason. Our lives are replete with this fitting process.
Can immediate meaning be more than rightness? I believe so. Elsewhere, Mangan describes other fringe+focus functions. Among these are wrongness and familiarity. Wrongness, unsurprisingly, can be recognized by an absence of rightness. Here’s an example of wrongness (turn sound on if you can):
What’s going on here? If you’re like me, you find this slightly nauseating. It’s just Bob Ross’s “The Joy of Painting” with Google’s Deep Dream painted over the top (and some audio distortion from Google’s wavenet). Yet there’s something deeply unsettling here. Though we are of course in no danger and have full awareness of this fact, the mere act of watching and listening to this video can produce genuine feelings of revulsion that ought to reserve themselves to legitimate instances of fear and disgust. There is a deep wrongness to this video.
Other more subtle instances of wrongness are easy to identify once we know how to look for them. I could easily evoke them in you again were I to suddenly change my font to Comic Sans in the middle of a sentence. You know on some level that I’m doing this as a demonstration of wrongness but it still feels wrong. Much of what bothers and concerns us is wrongness and much of what we try to do to get through it is reframe and recontextualize and otherwise ignore and avoid it. Immediate meaning, therefore, can be understood as being motivated by an aversion to wrongness. Were wrongness never present, we might not be motivated to pursue rightness.
Familiarity is another experience that’s central to your life and the meaning within it—though it is rarely recognized as such. Consider the space that you’re in. Is it familiar? If so, you’ll find that the earlier exercise of finding an object, observing it, and finding depth to its properties will be easier to do. I happen to be in such a space. Here I see a guitar, lots of tennis supplies, cat food, cat fur, a scam check, and so on—each of these has its own history, of which I am personally and intimately familiar. I know I will be here again, that these things are my possessions, that there could and have been other things in this space. This space is familiar and therefore brings with it a host of thoughts and feelings that would otherwise be absent.
Were I in an unfamiliar space—say, on a bench in a park in a city I’ve never been to before—I would be surrounded by unfamiliarity. Nothing around me would be personal, owned, or seen again or in a different way. There is of course some familiarity—benches are all pretty similar to each other, as are parks and the features they contain (grass, ducks, tress). A less familiar space could be prepared in VR. Here I could have unidentifiable shapes, textures, and physical properties, constantly shifting and changing in unpredictable ways. In this space, I would feel alienated from the world I take as granted. Perhaps I’d experience something similar to what I felt when I watched that demented Bob Ross video, a deep feeling of unease and distaste—a general cognitive rebellion against my sensory information. Unfamiliarity feels bad, which implies that familiarity ought to feel good. This is not necessarily true—familiarity may serve more of a functional role here. Familiarity is a backdrop, a foundational support upon which meaning can be built.
Together, we see that immediate and narrative meaning have their roots in particular kinds of experiences. Narrative meaning is dependent on and shaped by thoughts and feelings, themselves only possible with more than sensorially driven cause-effect loops. Immediate meaning finds its home in forms of familiarity and is experienced as feeling somehow right or complete. The dynamics between the two are complex and borne out over wide temporospatial scales. It is on this level that we live our lives. The people and places and things that occupy and shape our thoughts all dance to these meaning dynamics.
Rightness vs immediate meaning
We claimed that rightness (feeling whole, fitting well) presents itself as being directly meaningful, but this isn’t to say that they are the same thing. Mangan’s rightness is much more specific to certain kinds of experiences. Much of Mangan’s early work was centered around aesthetic experiences, where the sensory and object-based aspects of art are taken as secondary to the contextual grounding that accompanies art. The Mona Lisa is not “just” a painting of a woman, or “just” a canvas with paint on it, or “just” some atoms in an objectively interesting arrangement—the Mona Lisa is a piece of living history, a cultural experience, a priceless artifact, and so on. All art is comprised of a little bit of directly perceived sensory information, combined with a life-worth of contextual background. So too are all other perceptions. The difference is that art carries with it the expectation and intention of generating meaning, where most things that we perceive do not. As meaningful as art can be, however, most meaningful experiences we have and would describe as most meaningful are not likely to be produced by art. Yet, the most narratively and immediately meaningful experiences all have aesthetic qualities—that is, the most meaningful experiences are all replete with rightness. Meaningful experience is in this way a sort of real magic, where the experience itself takes on supernatural qualities not directly present in an objective appraisal of the meaningful event itself. My newborn child might be just a wailing infant or just a tiny ape or just some skin and bones and so on—but that is absolutely not how I perceive them. Instead, they are radiant and transcendent, perfect and singular—superlatives abound, yet fall hopelessly short.
There is a tension with the scientific process here. Since science makes its living through objective observation and reduction, the scientific approach can only superficially hope to understand this part of meaning. Rationally, it’s clear that things are exactly what they are—no more, no less. Yet, experientially, the world we live in is replete with the magic that meaning imbues upon everything we see. This does not doom the scientific project of understanding meaning—we can still observe and predict and shape the processes that result in phenomenological experiences, based on our theories. Though observation is not the same as understanding or knowing, it would be enough to identify what there is to identify here, the fundamental meaning-making process at the heart of the only reality we’ll ever know.