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Now heres one what if we were eating and ate only had to meet and I would say Gee this meeting is like a rubber meter like rubber right close to the case like rubber would that be good. Yeah you know. Well John I guess you and Laura agree on something there. Well we probably agree on a lot of things Annie but we can't be sure because we don't understand each other a lot of the time who our minds meet a series of explorations and human communication conducted by professors John Fry and Donald Nelson of the Department of English Western Michigan University where minds meet has produced and recorded by W-M UK under a grant from the National Association of educational broadcasters. In a shrinking world where minds meet and words are not at all. Man's speech is his most decisive act. These discussions explore this world of speech a topic for today is pieces of mind abstraction. Here are professors
Prine and Nelson. This is John freind and this is Donald Nelson. John you said that you and Laura and the little girl you were talking to don't understand each other much of the time. What do you mean. Well I just meant that Laura is only four years old and whenever an adult talks to a child very little communication takes place that is on the intellectual level. Of course if we know a child well we don't have any trouble expressing our feelings or in understanding the child's feelings. You and Laura for instance know how you both feel about the rubber. Right. A 4 year old child's vocabulary is quite limited and so are his sentence patterns. Is this what you're getting at. Yes but even more irony the child uses his small stock of words to talk about everything that happens to him. His words and his sentences frequently mean different things to him than they do to us. A child just learning to talk for example points and says Dai to everything we don't know what characteristics of something a child is paying attention to and which ones he's neglecting. And certainly the child is no more aware of the way the adult abstracts. You call this obstructing this process of paying attention to certain features of something and
neglecting others. Well since abstraction is what we want to focus upon today could you go into a little more detail. How do we learn to abstract. Well part of this ability I'm sure we're born with babies we know are more sensitive to some things and others they respond to certain large B qualities. They don't perceive objects they don't know what an object is but they perceive instead of these concrete things vague general qualities like loud and soft big and small weapon dry and so on. But we would have to add that many members of the animal kingdom show the same innate ability to abstract although they don't always select the same characteristic to pay attention to. Yes I'm told that the male stickleback fish for example apparently identifies other males by a red dot. He has a fighting response to other males but he responds he assumes a fighting posture only because of the red dot. You mean if a decoys a piece of wood with a red dot is placed near and he will get ready to fight. Yes. Well it's a musing irony that that he would beings
have abstracted the feature of the stickleback that the stickleback is unconcerned with what's right. I mean we call it a must to call back if the Sticklebacks ball game lives he'd call himself a red dot for this is what he sees. So that out of all the characteristics that might serve as identification the stickleback pays attention only to one. Yes now an even more striking example that I have seen is the way ducklings react to a silhouette that resembles a hawk hawk now is of course their natural enemy. Yes but the ducklings don't need to be taught this nor do they need to see very many characteristics of the hawk. If a wooden figure shaped like a cross is caused to circle in the air above a group of ducklings they will become frantic. If the cross circles in one direction but they will pay no attention if it circles in the other. This cross then is in the shape of a traditional cross. One segment longer than the other. Is that what you mean. Yes. Not when the cross is circled headfirst. That is so the shadow of the cross on the ground moves in the direction that it sure is and is pointing. The silhouette resembles that of a hawk short neck and long tail when it's reversed when it circles in the
direction of its long and it looks like a goose a long neck and a short tail. Then this means the ducks are born with the ability to abstract very particular and for them important features a cross like shape and direction of movement. Well John I'm sure that we could give a number of interesting examples of this kind of inherited ability both in humans and in animals but our program today is concerned most with the levels of abstraction that human beings reach through learning and especially on the verbal level. How do we learn to abstract and how does language help us to go beyond the level of the stickleback or the duck. Well first we should say that animals abstract instinctively and also through learning. Pavlov's famous experiments with dogs who were conditioned to expect food at the sound of a bell shows this. Yes they learn to attend to a bell through frequent association until finally the sound of the bell meant food and much the same kind of process much more complex is the means by which children learn to associate words with different situations and different objects. After all learning a word means that we are
abstracting. Of course John I think that one of the best ways to see how much is involved an abstraction at the human level of language is to observe the speech of children for there in the middle of the process of learning exactly what characteristics are supposed to abstract. When people use certain words and say certain things. This is really difficult. Well we've interviewed a number of children 14 or 15 asking them the meaning of similes like the lake is like glass and the difficulty you speak of certainly becomes apparent unless the child is at a good deal of experience with the subject of the simile and with the simile itself isn't likely to understand us. The children we've interviewed have ranged from 4 to early teens. The older ones don't have any difficulty with this kind of statement. It's usually the younger ones the ones under 8 or 9 we experience difficulty with these common expressions. Yes generally speaking the 10 year old is acquired what we would call the right meaning for even the more uncommon ones. For instance the lake is like glass usually means to the
older child what it means to the adult that it's smooth. But the younger children might say that it's breakable thing it's hard you can see through it and so on. Yes and I think we should say that almost all the answers the children give to questions of this kind are logical in just the way that yours were. Well why don't we play a few examples of the answers children give here for instance an 8 year old boy struggles with an expression whose meaning we take for granted. And I saw a man and I said his face is like a prune. His face is like a pro on how or what kind of whatever her. Face is like a prune. Well I guess you know everything I'm prone. Well what would you guess the basis there.
OK. Well as you say John that's perfectly logical. It just isn't what we mean. We saw one characteristic of prunes and dried prunes at that and that is that they're wrinkled and we pay no attention to the color of the size or what Jim chose the shape. Well let's listen to what another boy Steven said when I asked him the same question. He's coming a little closer to what is usually meant. OK. In what way would you support him. So we're doing OK. Well the baggy gym seems to be getting close to the notion of wrinkles but I was interested in the fact that he chose another aspect of a prune shape than Jim did. Jim selected around Stephens and long. Well I suppose the bulls were groping rather blindly for the right meaning there. The
expression was new to them and nothing seemed to make too much sense. Well our normal speech is filled with expressions like these metaphors that we scarcely notice ourselves but which probably cause children a good deal of trouble to learn. For instance expressions like the foot of a mountain the head of a bad or the long arm of the law and we can expect to get some strange interpretations of a use these in talking to children without realizing what we're doing and explaining what we mean. Listen to a 6 year old Mary makes of the long arm of the law for example. Right. Here. Here you notice Annie. She takes an utterly different interpretation than we might predict. It's extremely literal of course and I doubt whether she has much of an idea of law for that matter but she's quite sure that if it has a long arm it must have another one that's short. She's probably working from a visual image of people and in that context Her answer is quite reasonable. As you say she has no real concept of law yet probably
she can hardly be expected to apply the meaning to it that we do. But I think we should stress that acquaintance with the concept or thing that is being referred to isn't enough. Children frequently are quite familiar with the thing but they lack the words to fit it. I think we'd have to say that children progress in the difficult process of learning to abstract as adults do by gaining experience with both words and things here for instance Steven tries to explain where you would find the head of a bed. He knows but he finds it very difficult to find other words to express himself in. What would you find ahead. OK I'm sure you know which fight it is. Let's see how could you describe it it had to be you.
Yeah yeah yeah I know. I mean yeah. First Steven I doubt whether this is a metaphor it's a word much the same as fish or bird or you know whether it's simply memorable and since he doesn't know any other word for ears trouble expressing what he means. And here he is faced with the same kind of difficulty that anyone might be but I think at this point we ought to say something about another level of abstraction. Up til now we've spoken of abstraction as a process of selecting certain features from something that make have innumerable features and paying attention to just these so that we can classify it as belonging to a certain group of things with similar characteristics Yes. So a person with a prune face we say belongs to the general larger group of wrinkled face people right. This is been largely a process of classifying. But there's another level of abstraction in which one looks at two different things and tries to see in what way they are similar to what they have in common. Well we asked other questions of the children that demanded this kind of ability. I'm thinking of the
proverbs the common adage is we asked like people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Yes that for instance requires that we know something about what happens in glass houses if stones are thrown. But it also requires that we know something about another totally different situation. I say that when we call someone a name he's likely to call us a name back. Yes and finally we must put these two widely different areas together and see what they have in common. This then is what we call the meaning of the proverb this is what we what the adult consider the meaning. Now for me this proverb about the glass houses is about vulnerability. Well it's interesting to me that you could not avoid using a very abstract word their vulnerability. One reason a child finds Proverbs like these so difficult is that he simply doesn't have the vocabulary. But we have to add that it isn't just the words he lacks. It's the ability to generalize to see relationships between utterly different kinds of events in the way that adults do. Yes. If he did know the word vulnerability he'd still not be aware of how many
situations it applies to so that we must say that a child learns to abstract increases his power of abstraction itself by increasing both his store of words and his store of experience. Well why don't we play a few examples of the struggles children go through typical ones as they try to meet the demands of this higher level of abstraction. Here's the response of my boy Alaric when I asked him what it would mean if I said you make a better door than a window. And I put this in context for him I said Imagine that you're standing in front of the TV set and I was sitting behind you and I would say this. You'll notice though that dismisses this part of the problem quickly. Yeah everything you make a better daughter than a window. Well you know I mean you know me you know I. Mean well Alaric is six isn't it John. Yes he's giving the kind of literal interpretation that we expect of a child his age.
Yes but you recall that Laura was only forgot this one. At least you knew that the person saying it meant he couldn't see the TV. She and her brother and sister had all heard this a number of times and that much they knew. But she may not have been able to say why this expression means what it does. No. Well I'd like to examine rather closely this matter of the child's expressive powers as we listen to these examples here for instance Laura's 9 year old brother Jack struggles to get beyond the literal meaning of you can't help an onion grow by pulling its top. Well if you really really need me you know Cappy before you know it would stop me. OK. Can you think of any other time when you use the expression growing onions. Any other situation where you might say that you know.
He could enlarge its application beyond onions but not much. But it was a step he possessed the word vegetable as he used it it was a classifying word which allowed him to think beyond the concrete notion of onion. Yes but one larger applications are seen the child often has difficulty putting his vision into words. Well here's Joe now 11 years old. When we asked him what it meant to say it doesn't help to lock the MOND door after the horse is stolen. Now I'd say that he understood completely but notice the effort he goes through searching for the right words. Right. Right. You're right you're going to get it. Good luck. Right.
And courage. Well I would say that act first is just about adequate. The meaning could be spelled out a little more exactly. Act before trouble comes not after something like that. Yes. Well I think Joe is trying to do just that. He certainly could see different situations to which it might apply in a store one bicycle for instance. Right. Well what would you say causes the difficulty people have not just children in putting abstract ideas into words. Well one thing I need is the power of the concrete image abstraction demand that we break away from this. But this is difficult. Children often find it extremely hard. Here's Jim for example. He's eight and he's working on the simile we played before. Where would you find the head of a bed. Now notice how he tries to make a sensible connection between a person's head and the head of a bed. He first simply says the front of the bit. OK could you describe where the fraud is. That's right.
OK. OK OK. I think this illustrates unnecessary difficulty in all kinds of abstraction tied to the concrete image in this case Jim described the front of a band in terms of where people put their heads. His little laugh there makes me think he halfway realized how the expression that influenced his thinking. Yes I think we should stress that one of the values though of a proverbial expression is that it forces us to look at both the concrete and the general at the same time. I'd like to play two responses to the adage we were talking about a few moments ago. People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. And now Jos is quite general. 1 0 0 0. 0. Great if you got if you talked all right knowing and somebody is making noise you should tell them to be quiet for Michael.
Something like that. Yes even though he gave a particular example it was obvious he had others just as good. Well now I'd like to play Jack's response. He's two years younger. 9. But notice how he is bound to the idea of the house. It's quite a contrast. Well any really glass house you still receive their house. OK now one of the one of the glass houses around you know what if there was nobody around but living in a glass house and I would still say that. And so on occasion what sort of or what sort of a situation. Well they say that then. Now do you. I guess I wonder said I'm gonna kick you right out. Rich very proven stuff but yeah ok.
Going to finish up a long line. Gather round people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Oh no. First time in prison right. Thanks to me you know same thing you house that you're looking for you to be. Oh ok that's fine. Do you see any I imagine that if we could put those two answers together Jozen jams we would have the adult response to any kind of metaphor in which one thing is spoken about in terms of something else. Well that is the adult you're saying is able to perceive the wider application of an expression and at the same time is conscious of the force of the particular term who's right Jack of course doesn't get the real meaning of that expression. But he almost grades nevertheless have a concrete images exert a hold over us even as he employs rather abstract terminology valuables and delicate things. Well here's another instance of the same kind of thing I me my older boy David is 12
and when I asked him the meaning of the adage you can't help an onion grow by pulling its top. He made a few efforts to extend its range of application but I think it's obvious that the original image of an onion growing is controlling his imagination. Well you know something. Like an IOU. It may be growing back I don't do any good. For you or you you or him or you. Now one of your own people would say that's what I think. I mean what other circumstances. It's a girlie night. Crying out you've got a little bit. People would
try it. I really. Want to read David couldn't get rid of the notion of pulling up something you know all his examples I think would have come up against that image. What did you make of the saying that an onion sort of pushes up from the bottom. Well that was an attempt to describe growth in the same terms as the adage. I wouldn't call it accurate but it's imaginative. All children's answers are imaginative I'd say I know. And we should emphasize that everything that we've said about children's difficulties in abstraction at this level results from their seeking to abstract as we do as their society does. Yes children frequently show that they're capable of seeing extremely abstract relationships but I must they happen to think with the customary way the society has of looking at the situation. We tend to pay no attention to what they say listen to your younger son Alaric for instance talking about the expression the meat was like rubber.
You critique your hair. Think up bouncing back up to its own level. Simply the notion of level is highly abstract. We would say I'm necessarily abstract. Well similarly I need listen to Jack working on the mouth of the river. He gets a little tangled up at the beginning. He knows where it is but it doesn't make sense to call it a mouth so he calls it the mouth of the ocean. Then in trying to get out of this difficulty he becomes more abstract. He talks about the source led me to work on wires only to like the ocean. OK. There anymore that they have their. Work. OK.
Well I have something going into work for Jack. Why do they call it the mouth of a river. I have no idea actually Ari but let me play two more illustrations of the way children make use of abstract notions more freely than we had first think. But first here's Alaric still trying to apply that word level to help him out. I asked him to explain the adage give a man enough rope and he'll hang himself. It meant for him I think that you want to just the right amount to much and your feet would touch the ground while you were in your truth like you know to get because you might get to the bottom. So here I get quite a bit to go back again to how I treat her. I don't I. Get down. And down.
Cause I couldn't quite make it come out right. But I'd like to play Joe's answer to the same question. It's extremely interesting because it shows that he's found a common denominator he's made a meaningful relationship between the expression and the real situation and he has no difficulty expressing himself. In short the only thing wrong with his answer is that it is wrong. I guess the person I would use any given family do you think then finally we must say that one of the chief difficulties a child faces in learning to abstract on the adult level is that in the final analysis the abstract relationships we see are completely arbitrary. Well we've talked about the factors that influence abstract thinking we mentioned experienced and age and language development but we must add another. The cultural values yes. Now when cultural values change we're able to see the change reflected in the interpretations of averages. We're going through such a period today I'm sure
that older members of our audience would agree with this college student's interpretation of the old adage A rolling stone gathers no moss although they would probably stated more forcefully. Well somebody can keep trying. OK. Could you be a little more explicit. I couldn't like much I can write. OK you know that would mean you can't like me. This is of course the traditional meaning of the expression the Rolling Stone as the person who never settles down a drifter and the Rolling Stone never gets any of the values that come to those who establish themselves in one spot. Yes but the interesting aspect is that only two out of 12 college students we interviewed came up with this interpretation. Mobility has become a value today and to many younger people it's good to be a rolling stone. The Rolling Stone doesn't get bogged down doesn't decay.
Here's the typical response of the younger generation. In my estimation. Let's keep moving keep busy and I'm going to get lazy I'm going to get arrested. John I think this is a remarkable illustration of the arbitrary element in all human abstraction as the culture changes. Newer generations see different kinds of wisdom in the attitudes of their parents and I don't think we should lament the changes. At times these startlingly different interpretations shock us but they also represent new insights and can lead us to breakthroughs and discoveries otherwise would have been impossible. Nowhere though do we encounter with such suddenness these surprising insights as when we try to communicate with children. I'd like to conclude today's program by playing a few minutes of my conversation with four year old Laura. I think our listeners will see why a modern physicist said that if he could see the world with the eyes of a young child the solutions to many of our most complex problems would be apparent. Where do you suppose you find the head up there.
The head of the bed. You couldn't prove you are again. I could I could make one. Put it on there. Well if I didn't do that you suppose a bed has a head you know. OK now what if you were standing in front of the television set and your parents say they were watching the television behind you and they were to say one of them was to say Laura you make a better door than a window. You make a better door than a window. What do you suppose they mean you do you think you see I couldn't see I couldn't see you couldn't see you if you are right because if you move very good very good you know have any idea why they'd say they're yours how can do you a little Maxine you know what if somebody said it doesn't help to lock a barn
Where minds meet
Abstraction process
Producing Organization
Western Michigan University
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
Pieces of Mind: The Abstraction Process
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Discussions explore world of speech, conducted by Professors John Freund and Arnold Nelson of Western Michigan University
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Social Issues
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Host: Freund, John
Host: Nelson, Arnold
Producing Organization: Western Michigan University
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 63-4-6 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:10
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Chicago: “Where minds meet; Abstraction process,” 1963-01-17, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 23, 2021,
MLA: “Where minds meet; Abstraction process.” 1963-01-17. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 23, 2021. <>.
APA: Where minds meet; Abstraction process. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from