Schankian Remindings

Steven Pinker is a linguist, and so you might think it natural for him to be coining new terms regularly. But in fact, as he explained in The Stuff of Thought (which i’ve finally finished, and so this may be my last post on it – but don’t count on it), coinages rarely catch on, and so he knows enough not to bother trying. (Consider, courtesy of Rich Hall, “peppier” n. The waiter at a fancy restaurant whose sole purpose seems to be walking around asking diners if they want ground pepper. How perfect is that? I’ll try to remember to use it, but i probably won’t. If you just heard this for the first time, it’s because no one else did either.)

The truth is, i doubt that Pinker even meant to coin by invoking the term “Schankian Remindings”. As so much else in his books, it probably just sounded clever or appropriate at the time. And sure enough when i ask Google about it, the only real results are references to the book. (Making it not quite a googlenope, a rare term that did actually catch on.)

But i was so intrigued by the idea that this is now my official term for: episodes in which one event reminds us of another. It was coined thus because Roger Schank gave some examples of during a talk. Schank’s main area of interest appears to be learning, and i didn’t find any evidence of him exploring the idea too deeply. Pinker gives about three page over to the topic, which is pretty insignificant in a book of 439 (without references and notes), especially when he justifiably labours over metaphors in general for 44. I’m inclined to rectify this, and i believe the easiest place to start is to reproduce the examples in the book.

Someone told me about an experience of waiting in a long line at the post office and noticing that the person ahead had been waiting all that time to buy one stamp. This reminded me of people who buy a dollar or two of gas in a gas station.

X described how his wife would never make his steak as rare as he liked it. When this was told to Y, it reminded Y of a time, 30 years earlier, when he tried to get his hair cut in a short style in England, and the barber would not cut it as short as he wanted it.

X’s daughter was diving for sand dollars. X pointed out where there were a great many sand dollars, but X’s daughter continued to dive where she was. X asked why. She said that the water was shallower where she was diving. This reminded X of the joke about the drunk who was searching for his keys under the lamppost because the light was better there even though he had lost the keys elsewhere.

While jogging, I was listening to songs on my iPod, which were being selected at random by the “shuffle” function. I kept hitting the “skip” button until I got a song with a suitable tempo. This reminded me of how a baseball pitcher on the mound signals to the catcher at the plate what he intends to pitch: the catcher offers a series of finger-codes for different pitches, and the pitcher shakes his head until he sees the one he intends to use.

While touching up a digital photo on my computer, I tried to burn in a light patch, but that made it conspicuously darker than a neighboring patch, so I burned that patch in, which in turn required me to burn in yet another patch, and so on. This reminded me of sawing bits off the legs of a table to stop it from wobbling.

A colleague said she was impressed by the sophistication of a speaker because she couldn’t understand a part of his talk. Another colleague replied that maybe he just wasn’t a very good speaker. This reminded me of the joke about a Texan who visited his cousin’s ranch in Israel. “You call this a ranch?” he said. “Back in Texas, I can set out in my car in the morning and not reach the other end of my land by sunset.” The Israeli replied, “Yes, I once had a car like that.”

In college, a friend and I once sat through a painful performance by a singer with laryngitis. When she returned from intermission and began the first song of the set, her voice was passably clear. My friend whispered, “When you put the cap back on a dried-out felt pen, it writes again, but not for long.”

Later in the book, Pinker provides another example, although he doesn’t identify it as such. He is speaking about how children’s names go in and out of fashion.

… Then the next generation of parents will react to the [now-common names] by looking for a new new thing… The dynamic is reminiscent of Yogi Berra’s restaurant review: “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Such remindings might not be much to write home about if they were individualistic. If it only made sense to me, it could be explained away as experiential or evidence of mental issues. But each of the above examples, even though i know little or nothing about the people who originally uttered them, is meaningful to me in a way that is either funny or profound or both.

In a non-Schankian way, these remindings called to mind Stan Franklin’s presentation on sparse distributed memory (available here), and in general ways of creating relational memory systems. The problem of knowledge representation has been around since day one, i.e. how do you take the input to a system and store it so that it can be retrieved in useful ways. It’s been well known of decades that humans do not literally store visual input as if the brain were a movie camera. The input is processed through dozens of systems that decompose it into objects and relationships, tags these with labels and multiple types of timestamps, and then submit the result to multiple types of memory systems, in which the content may or may not stick. Memories are probably retrieved by snippets of the content, which causes the matching objects to activate, causing its relationships to activate, which causes the relationships relationships to activate, eventually recomposing the original input, at least in its objectified version.

The question is: what are the bottom-line concepts that all humans understand that allows us to share things like Schankian remindings? We already know that all humans have a very similar sense of 3-dimensional space, and that we all separate humans from non-humans and animals from non-animals. We all have similar understandings of causation, and universally our relationships fall into the categories of sharing, ranking, and trading. So, it’s not far out there to assume that there are basic concepts into which we decompose ideas. And in the same way that we combine a finite set of words to express infinite ideas, the bottom-line concepts can be combined in novel ways to prevent us from falling into conceptual ruts. Also, i believe we can have a finite set of concepts (they could number in the hundreds or thousands) that we can decorate in order to give an idea just the right colour or texture out of a practically infinite set of choices.

So, what are the bottom-line concepts that humans use? If we knew, of course, we’d already be building relational memory systems that behave in ways similar to humans. The reason the Schankian remindings were so intriguing to me is because, i believe, they provide the necessary clues to solving the puzzle. The examples above each provide two scenes that are widely divergent in their sensual content; the ways in which they relate may reveal the ways that the brain most deeply stores the content. This is because it was only by at least one common feature that the one scene can recall the other.

Take the case of the singer with laryngitis. We’d have to reach pretty deep into our trick bag to figure out how a woman reminds us of a felt-tip pen, and even if we did find something i doubt that any rationale would, for most people, pass the giggle test. So what is the similarity? There is an essence of time to the story: the singer took an intermission; the felt pen had its cap put back on for some period. But time isn’t enough. There is also an element of recovery. So, perhaps the basic concept is recovery after a period of time. But then why didn’t the singer remind the hearer of a flu-sufferer, or how a battery recovers it’s charge if you turn off the device for a minute or two?

I think the similarity has to be a bit deeper, or in each scene the core similarity has to be decorated with the same traits. The closer the trait match the better. In the case of the felt pen, the period during which the cap should be left on and the typical time for an intermission are similar. Plus, the length of time before the pen stops writing and the time until the singer’s hoarseness returns is also similar. Taking this second feature into account, perhaps the core concept is fatigue from exertion and recovery after time, something all humans are familiar with. By matching the respective time periods in each scene, we have the basis of our reminding. Even still, there is another decoration: the singer has laryngitis, and the felt pen is dried out. This comparison is not exact, because the singer will presumably recover from the illness, while the pen is done for (unless it is refilled, which no one ever does), but we can still finger infirmness as the concept, something else all humans know well enough.

I’ll go one speculative step further and suggest that the analogy gets better (funnier and more profound) the more the core similarity matches, and the less everything else does. Comparing the singer with laryngitis to a flu-sufferer is calling a rock a stone: the comparison is trite. But comparing her to a dying battery is actually pretty good. The time periods are similar, and the infirmness is pretty much the same as for the pen. Actually, the battery compares better to the pen than either do to the singer, come to think of it.

So, the only question – at least for this example – that remains is: why should fatigue and recovery and infirmness be bottom-line human concepts? I think it’s obvious, but i’m in a pedagogical mood, so i’ll go on. It’s critical for all animals to understand at least their own physical limitations and recovery, and in the case of social animals, prey, and predators that of others as well. We gauge many of our actions and resolve on our stamina vs that of our competitors and collaborators. And it is critical to be able to recognize infirmity as a source of both danger (don’t catch the disease) and opportunity (go after the wounded member of the herd because it will be easier to catch). Now, how these concepts get shaken out of visual input is a big question, but hopefully a more technical one once we agree that that is what we need to do.

Dear reader(s), i would be delighted if you could, 1) provide your own Schankian remindings, and/or 2) provide your analysis for those given here or provided by others. Maybe if there is enough interest in this topic – and i for one can’t imagine how their could not be, but i’ve been wrong before – a web site could be spun up to manage the information.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s