Blue Skies, Nothing But Blue Skies,

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A child learns to crawl, stand, toddle, walk and run without stopping to wonder how they are capable of manipulating their arms and legs in order to move about. They do it because they can do it. It just happens. Apparently all a child has to do is want to crawl, stand, toddle, walk and run, and the necessary on/board systems develop in such a way so that almost unconsciously they are able to stand, toddle walk and then run. I say almost unconsciously however because it does in fact take a lot of mental effort to make that first step, and then the next, and then successfully string a sequence of steps together to cross a room or bend over and pick up an object. It takes a lot of practice before it becomes fully automatic and one can clearly see the strain written on a toddler’s face as they work at becoming locomotive and adroit. The child is aware of something they’re doing to make their body move coherently, they are doing something, but were they to be queried of course they wouldn’t yet have the words to describe how they are able to move. Thus the miracle of locomotion is acquired in an unexamined fashion.

It’s not that kids lack wonderment. At some point past this fledgling state as the power of language is acquired a child will begin to ask about the world they are moving within. They ask: Why is this? …Why is that? … and of course the proverbial: “Why is the sky blue?” One Blue Sky question after another as every busy parent very well knows. This is where we are in Dogdom today. Canine cognitive science is busily asking Blue Sky questions, nothing but Blue Sky questions.

Recent experiments in canine cognition task dogs in various exercises attempting to probe the really big questions: Do dogs take into account the perspectives of others?—Can they apprehend a Theory of Mind?—Do they understand the politics of social standing? Science is trying to get to the root of altruism, social systems, collectivized and cooperative behavior. But I argue that these Blue Sky questions aren’t going to get us anywhere because before we turn our gaze toward the ceiling of canine cognition, we should first consider the basement: How does a dog understand its ability to move its body? Is it reasonable to presume that a dog might be able to mentally entertain a state of inequity, comprehend social rankings and territorial delineations , the state of mind of another being, grieve for the loss of a loved one, but then doesn’t invest a neuro-millivolt of canine cognitive-dog power to the contemplation of how it moves its own body, or how other bodies happen to be moving about as well?

As children mature they begin to back fill these more basic questions and thus learn from biology 101 about the Central Nervous System, the firing of synapses and the translation of nerve impulses into the contraction and relaxation of affiliated muscle groups. And since they acquired the capacity to move without any examination of the phenomenon this kind of information seemingly answers the question. But, actually, knowing that intentions and desires translate into a neuro-chemical cascade that arcs across a million neurons to animate a limb or digit, doesn’t really answer it: How do I move my body, how do I actually lift a leg up and then place my foot one stride ahead of the one before? What’s going on in one’s mind BEFORE the vast network of synapses fire and affiliated muscle groups contract and relax in a synchronized way so as to produce a smooth rhythmic motion or a finely calibrated action? Saying that a nerve impulse travels from the brain down to the appropriate body part via an autonomic guidance system so that one step follows another while at the same time maintaining ones’ balance isn’t actually HOW the child moved themselves. It remains that the child, and any young animal for that matter, is struggling at something during the fledgling phase. The toddling child isn’t aware of nerve impulses but is doing something, something that did generate a nerve impulse which then moved a muscle with the resulting movement looping back as feedback for the next move. What was that? Conceptualizing about nerves, synapses, feedback loops, doesn’t address what’s going on in the mind of an organism that is learning how to move and thereafter going on to learn how its movements influence what’s going on in its surroundings.

For example. If an adult takes up the game of golf, not exactly a natural way to move one’s body and therefore a perfect forum for examining the nature of movement, they would need very specific step-by-step instructions in the proper grip, stance, body action and so on as otherwise they won’t be able to get the ball to do much more than dribble or hop-skip off the tee. And at the heart of this detailed instruction would involve the precise point where one must center their weight and how this loci needs to shift during the course of the swing. Placement of the hips, elbows, shoulders and head all factor into this configuration of (hopefully) fluid motion. And therefore if one were to ask a golfer how they managed to cleanly drive a ball 300 yards, or why it went askew into the nearest water hazard, they could report in specific and vivid terms and they wouldn’t be talking in terms of nerve impulses and muscle contractions because this isn’t informative. “My elbow dropped while my head came up as my hips rotated and so I shanked it to the left.” The golfer would speak in terms of an immediate-moment interpretation of how he was tracking his center-of-gravity around which his torso was configuring over time. He would talk like this because he would be very clear about his motive, to put the ball, as an extension of the force his body generates, onto (and thus into) a precise forward point in the middle of a green. In other words, the golfers’ mind would be configured about an array of points, internal and external, and he would know of all this via an immediate-moment manner of analysis. A manner of analysis which could eventually lead him to understanding how all this complex articulation of his body parts were tied together via a manner of breathing, immutably entwined with the physical memories of the moves made during the learning process, and which then liberates the now finely honed muscle memories at the moment of execution.

Furthermore, the stimulus, a golf ball, would have an emotional impact on the golfer as a function of how efficiently he transferred force to the ball. That would be the primary emotional effect that the ball would register on the golfer’s mind. This value would refine itself via an array of points into the various contexts that a ball can end up in; a ball in the rough hemmed in by trees would feel constrictive, a ball in the open fairway with a clear run to the green would feel expansive. Access to this array of points, the dots connected through a smooth locomotive rhythm, would be the frame within which the golfer’s mind operates. During the course of a game he may be hustling an opponent or mulling over a deal with a fellow player, very high level cognitive operations, but this would nevertheless be situated on the basement floor of emotional conductivity that connects an array of points. The emotional affects through a principle of conductivity would frame the entire experience in the golfer’s mind.

So if we want to understand a dog’s mind, why would we first ask if they understand inequity in a shake paw/hand experiment, a Blue Sky question, we should first be asking a ground floor question: what is a dog aware of when it moves its body and when its movements produce feedback from its environment, how does this frame his experience of reality and how might it further elaborate to encompass his overall construct of reality? Do dogs take the phenomenon of movement completely for granted, or do they have some level of apprehension of what is going on in their mind when they seek to animate a limb, digit or tail? How could we imagine that a dog is entertaining big Blue Sky questions, nothing but Blue Sky questions, and yet never wonders about the something as basic as how it moves its body or how others move theirs?

In contrast, the ground floor is the basis of an NDT immediate-moment analysis of behavior. And so my challenge to canine researchers is to provide an account for a dog’s apprehension of its ability to move. I propose that the answers to these most basic of questions determines everything about how a dog’s mind frames its apprehension of reality, on every level, even were a dog to wonder; “Master, why is the sky blue?

Published June 23, 2016 by Kevin Behan
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