Reflection 18: Talking Heads

November 4, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Is language at the heart of consciousness, or is more on the periphery, like my left big toe? There are those who claim language plays an essential role, but I have so many experiences that don’t involve language, I strongly disagree with them. Take these examples that followed in quick succession in my stream of consciousness on October 27, 2008:


Checking for damage after a major windstorm the day before, I walk by the ledgestone cabin my father built in the early 1940s. No trees or branches on the roof, that’s good. At least that is the content of my thought, even though it is not conveyed in so many words. It is latent language, proto-language, easily converted into language, but existing more as preverbal kernels or nuggets of awareness. Looking down, I see a row of green columbine leaves running along under the edge of the roof where they had naturally sown themselves over the years. “Columbine Cottage,” I think, as if I am trying to come up with a name for the place, which I’m not. Passing the cabin, I am abruptly overtaken by the scent of balsam fir. Just the smell, no thoughts of Christmas, or of the tree itself. I automatically look to my right and see fir branches covered with small beads of moisture. Images without words. Just then I hear the cry of an eagle from treetops ahead. No words, just the sound. Not even thoughts of treetops or eagles. But there is something else. A lilting undercurrent of feeling. I am glad there are no branches on the roof, it’s in bad enough shape as it is. I am pleased to see the columbine leaves, as if meeting an old friend. I am almost overcome by the scent of balsam fir, as I am every time those particular molecules waft up my nose. And I am lifted by the cry of the eagle, both excited and proud to hear from one of my nearest and dearest neighbors. “Columbine Cottage” is the only verbal phrase that forms in my mind (I don’t think I said it aloud). The rest is sight, smell, sound. Sensory consciousness, not verbal—with feeling. That’s a good part of my inner life. When I am in nature, nature is in me. No words need apply.


Lev Vygotsky, a Russian developmental psychologist, set out to demonstrate that language plays a crucial role in concept formation, but what his experiments actually show is that words can help in teaching specific concepts to naive subjects, not that they are essential to concept formation itself. (Thought and Language, originally published in Russian, 1934; reissued by MIT Press, 1962.) Words may supply the labels by which we retrieve concepts as categories of experience, but so may shapes, colors, patterns, textures, and so on. I don’t need language to recall columbine to mind, I need the shape of the leaves, the red and yellow blossoms, or a locale with scant soil but plenty of moisture.


I remember smells that have no name, such as the smell of Ryan’s Feed Store, where as a kid I climbed on dusty sacks of grain piled to the cobwebby rafters of the old warehouse in Hamilton, New York in the 1930s. I remember the scent of mixed grains, sacks seen by the dim light of a bare bulb, the danger and excitement of the climb, the feel of the sacks underfoot. None of it verbal or ever written down.


It was the smell of a dry piece of bread in Bethel, Maine, that brought Ryan’s to mind while I was helping clean up after an NTL workshop session in 1980. I was about to chuck the crust into the trash when I mindlessly raised it to my nose and sniffed—Shazam!, I was back under the rafters in Ryan’s Feed Store on Maple Avenue. I wasn’t remembering being there, I was actually there, transported by a scent I hadn’t smelled in forty years. There were no magic words; a few molecules settling on my olfactory membrane did the trick.


I am thinking here of episodic memories that retain particular details from my neural autobiography. Such one-time episodes are more sensory than conceptual, laid down by the force of strong feelings at the time, not distilled as concepts are from repetition of key features across different episodes. Episodic memories comprise a constellation of specific elements in relationship. They are situational in nature, bound by a feeling tone that marks their importance. Too, they are localized in both time and place. Think losing your virginity, moving to Seattle, the day Kennedy was shot, 9/11.


Concepts on the other hand are feeling-neutral memories which are generally unrestricted by time and place. They are derived from sensory experience, but have specific occasions stripped away, leaving only the essentials shared in common. Think dogs, flowers, fish, books, numbers. Concepts are categories of experience but not experience itself. What is concrete and sensory about conceptual memories is the name we give to each category. We can hear it, speak it, write it, read it again and again. We can even sculpt it ( LOVE ) or print it across a T-shirt ( ÿPEACE ).


The genius of language is its economy. You can use the same words in different combinations to apply to different occasions over and over again. Great Danes, Chihuahuas, and German shepherds are all “dogs.” So are mongrels, mutts, and mixed-breeds. This general utility is a great boon to categorical thinking. But when it comes to putting our specific life experience into words, enter the thingamajig, whachamacallit, thingamy, and widget, along with what’s-her-name, what’s-his-face, and you-know-who-I-mean, whoever. That is, the content of consciousness is often so specific that it taxes—and often defies—our ability to describe it in words.


The upshot is, we often substitute conceptual thinking for getting a specific point across through concise use of language. Think of the broad brush with which Sarah Palin smears Barack Obama, making it seem she knows what she is talking about when, in fact, she is wide of the mark. Joe the Plumber has become a nonperson who represents an attitude, not a living human being. He is a character in a make-believe drama, no more real than Mickey Mouse or The Wizard of Oz.


And think of the huge tasks facing President Obama/McCain in implementing the policies they have outlined in general terms as if giving specific details. Their stump speeches outline attitudes more than policies that can be effected through detailed programs. Yet we hear them and shout, “Right on!” because they have mouthed the words we so long to hear. In truth, we don’t know the answers to world and national problems any more than the candidates do. No one can read the future, yet we all pretend that we can. And language contains enough slop to fool us into thinking we know what we mean to say.


My advice is take the pronouncements of candidates and pundits with enough salt to dry the excess spit from their words. Talking heads are reading scripts scrolling on Teleprompters, not speaking from the depths of their experience. Or if not scripted, they are trying hard to appear wise, and hoping we overlook their personal agendas.


I threw my television set out twenty-two years ago because everything on it was staged to manipulate my personal consciousness to someone else’s advantage. The mass media are about mind control, not informing the public. Skepticism is the best defense, and open curiosity the surest path to the truth. Don’t believe everything you hear, not even if you say it yourself. Which is a hard rule for bloggers to follow, including me.




2 Responses to “Reflection 18: Talking Heads”

  1. Hi, Great site loved this information.Just wanted to say thanks for The Read.I have booked marked this page so I can come back again. Thanks

  2. “When I am in nature, nature is in me. No words need apply” Yes.
    Good reading on this too cold to spend much time outside day.

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