Friday, December 12, 2014

dissecting a thought bubble

THE MAIN BUBBLE is the largest and most salient feature of a thought bubble. Round, usually horizontally elongated, and with a fluffy perimeter more often than not, it frames the content of the thought. It’s where the cartoonist is directing your attention.
     More interesting to me, structurally, are the minor bubbles. Two, three or four smaller bubbles, arranged in order from smallest to largest, are interposed between the head of the character and the thought he or she is thinking, with the smallest bubble nearest the character and the largest bubble nearest the main bubble. Although a thought bubble cartoon is a static image, as the bubbles vary in size incrementally on the page they imply an upward movement, a flow from the character to his or her thought. Often, instead of a series of bubbles trailing from it, a main bubble will have a single pointy element projecting from its underside. The effect is the same. There’s a main bubble, rounded and cloudy, arising from the character via a pointy cloudtail, or floating up via a trail of expanding bubbles, dot dot dot, buoyed upward by the dynamic connotations we ascribe to cloud and bubble shapes. 
    You may be wondering where I’m heading with all of this. There may be a thought bubble hovering over your head at this very moment with “Isn’t this all common sense?” written inside it. The point I’m trying to make, indeed the reason I’m even talking about thought bubbles in the first place is — you’re correct — it is all common sense. And in this case common sense is exactly misleading. The thought bubble diagram — so useful, so whimsical — crystallizes and perpetuates a pervasive yet inaccurate model of how human thought actually works. Although thought bubbles are great at telling stories, if we take them too literally they tell us lies as well. And the deception is so total we don’t even realize we’ve been deceived. That’s where I’m heading with all of this.

THE THOUGHT BUBBLE is a useful and universally understood shorthand, but it’s important not to read too much into it. It’s a cartoon diagram after all, not a neuroanatomical map. I mean, cartoon people might think by sprouting bubbles, but that’s not how real people think. Thoughts just don’t sprout out of a person’s head like that. The small chain of bubbles — dot dot dot — implies a pathway between a thinker and a thought where there isn’t one. There’s no such pathway in nature. Yet this thought-bubble dynamic is pervasive, showing up not only in the visual language we use to depict thought in cartoons, but also in the verbal language we use to talk about thought, even in the very conceptual language we use to think about thought, clouding and distorting our understanding of the way our own minds and brains work, and we’ll never be able to see the situation clearly as long as this bubble of our collective reverie remains unpopped.

     It boils down to this — thoughts don’t emanate from the brain. That’s not how the brain works. Brains don’t work by pumping out clouds or bubbles of anything. They work in concert with a sophisticated system of nerves suffusing the whole human body. You can think of the human brain as the crown jewel of the human nervous system, sitting literally atop a complex network of nerves and sense organs. The brain narrows toward its base and is continuous with a spinal cord, which is connected to rope-like nerves that enter the head and every limb, which branch into smaller nerves that penetrate every finger, nose, toe and tongue. This is the framework upon which the brain operates. This is how brains accomplish anything, with all of its pathways entering and exiting via the narrowing at its base, all functional pathways, at least. If anything exits the brain it exits via the brain stem, pointing down toward the body, not up and away from the head. So when you see a head sprouting bubbles, remember, it’s a cartoon you’re seeing. It isn’t neuroanatomy. 
     Adding to the confusion is the fact that brains do actually emanate stuff. They metabolize nutrients and give off heat and other forms of electromagnetic radiation. They’re electrically active organs. Criss-crossed by currents, brains broadcast signals whose wavelengths can be recorded in real time on the scalp using swimming caps studded with electrodes. Brains even generate magnetic fields — by virtue of the electricity running through them — which can be characterized with precision in real time as well. In fact, a recording of the magnetic fields generated by a brain provides better information than a recording of the brain’s electrical activity as detected on the scalp. The electrical signals a brain produces are dampened and scattered by their passage through the head’s bony encasing, but the brain’s magnetic fields emanate from the brain and traverse the skull mostly undistorted. And provided you’re in a room with aluminum walls to shield you from the much larger magnetic field of the earth — which all but drowns out the tiny magnetic fields your brain produces — the magnetic fields of your brain can be recorded and measured and subjected to complex calculations. So, yes, brains do emanate stuff. But that’s not how they accomplish what they accomplish. Brains don’t work by emanating stuff.

THERE ARE TWO diagrams we’re dealing with here, and there are two distinct dynamics at play. On the one hand there is the thought bubble cartoon, in which thoughts are depicted as arising, dot dot dot, from the TOP of a head. On the other hand there is the neuroanatomical map, in which a brain is connected to the rest of the nervous system via a stem at the BOTTOM of the brain. In one diagram thoughts sprout from the TOP of a person. In the other diagram there is a spout at the BOTTOM of a brain. 
     Both diagrams — the thought bubble cartoon and the neuroanatomical map — use the human figure as reference points, but they use the human figure in different ways. The neuroanatomical map uses the human figure spatially. It situates a system of branching nerves literally inside the human figure, which in a neuroanatomical map represents a human body. The neuroanatomical map is a true map in the sense that it portrays spatial relationships but in miniature, as a map of England, for example, might.  When a nerve is depicted on a neuroanatomical map as branching near where the right arm bends at the elbow, a reader of the map can infer that such a nerve branch occurs at that location in an actual human body. That’s how maps work. When a brain is depicted inside a head, a reader can infer that that is the location of the brain in an actual human body. The spatial relationships are preserved between the human figure on the page and an actual human body.
     The thought bubble cartoon, by contrast, does not use the human figure as a spatial reference point. It’s intention is not to spatially locate a thought with regard to the human figure, so the human figure in a thought bubble cartoon doesn’t need to have the same meaty contours as an actual human body. It’s not trying to be a map. The human figure in a thought bubble cartoon is not meant to represent the spatial expanse of a human body, and the spatial relationships in a thought bubble cartoon are not trying to represent a spatial relationship in the real world. The human figure, in this diagram, in contrast to the human figure in a neuroanatomical map, is merely standing in for a character.
     Yes, a thought bubble, when it’s drawn on the page, is usually drawn over the human figure, with the bubble portrayed as coming out of the human figure’s head, but a cartoonist could locate the bubble anywhere on a thought bubble cartoon — over the character’s head, inside the character’s head, beside the character — and its meaning wouldn’t change. Placing a thought bubble cartoon over the head of a character is is similar to placing a question mark or a constellation of hearts over the head of a character.
     By occupying the space just above the figure in a cartoon, a thought bubble — or a question mark or a constellation of hearts — ascribes that element to the entire character.  It’s better to think of the chain of minor bubbles as a finger pointing to the character who’s having the thought. The minor bubbles are basically saying, “THIS is the character who’s having the thought.” The small bubbles identify so-and-so as the source of the  thought. Thought bubbles are traditionally drawn sprouting from the head of a character, but a cartoonist could as easily draw them floating up on a length of kite string tied to the character’s belt loop. In other words, we shouldn’t read too much into the spatial relationships depicted in a thought cartoon. It’s a cartoon, after all, not a map. 

THE MINOR BUBBLES connect the two major elements of a thought bubble cartoon, but the path they trace isn’t as straightforward as the dot dot dot would have you believe. As a reader looking at a cartoon of Snow White thinking of Prince Charming you have access to Snow White’s private thoughtspace. You, the reader, have slipped, as it were, inside her snow white skin. You’re wearing her gown and her slippers as your own. You’re looking out through her eyes and you’re seeing only the parts of her she can see from her perspective. You can’t see her black hair or her cherry red lips. You don’t know what color her eyes are without looking in a mirror because you’re inside her. You can see what she’s seeing in her head. And yet, at the same time, you’re also clearly outside Snow White too. There she is, half-collapsed on the cottage floor with a thought bubble sprouting from her head. You can see her in her entirety, from her head to the hem of her rumpled yellow petticoat. This is the lie the thought bubble cartoon tells — somehow you’re inside and outside Snow White simultaneously. Through the magic of cartoon these two distinct perspectives — “as seen from the inside of a character” and “as seen from the outside of a character” — are combined and collapsed into one flat diagram. Those little bubbles are pretty sneaky.