My daughter is slowly climbing her way up the language hill. It’s really neat to see her acquire words. Each time she we recognize that she’s trying to say a particular term for something, such as “kitty” or “milk”, it’s kind of amazing.
But she can’t say the words very well, so as we see her applying labels to things it’s really evident that she’s grasped the concept or idea of a thing. But it also illustrates to me how words largely serve to make us unhappy.
I ran across an article about a year ago about a scientist with an interesting take on lef-brain/right-brain function*. The way he saw it, the left side of the brain is identical to the right side, except it’s brain-damaged. The stuff that the left side does well, analytics, language, etc, can also be done by the right. His contention is that the left side is hyperfocused on analytics and pattern matching, and kind of took over humanity because that turned out to be a pretty useful adaptation.
Furthermore, everything in our culture and society is designed around, because of, and in support of the analytical side of the brain rather than the right — a more holistic and experiential side of the brain. Up to and including the statement I just made. If you’re constructing a story or a narrative out of events, you’re validating the left side.
This guy’s take is that you don’t actually need that hyperfocus, you can actually do it all in a non-linear, creative fashion on the right side; furthermore, you’ll probably be a happier person because you’re seeing reality as it really is and not how the damaged, analytical side sees it. And he has some experimental data that looks as if it backs his claims.
Whether or not there’s a true left/right antagonism, the core concept really resonates with me. Lately I’ve realized that most of the conflicts I have and see are all about narrative. It’s the same raw data, but the story that different people construct around it complicates matters. Everyone sees their own pattern in the same data, but their own pattern is truly their own.
So, for example, it’s not that members of two religions want different things out of life, and it isn’t really about their beliefs even. It’s that their beliefs inform their story about how the world works, but each story is a slap in the face of the other story. The overarching story is that the world is internally self-consistent. I.e. gravity isn’t backwards for you. So if my story doesn’t go with yours, that’s a serious problem.
I think about this as Adelaide develops language, because what she’s doing right now (and this is verifiable with brain imaging) is letting her two hemispheres fight it out. Sooner or later the left will win, cause that’s what happens. But in the meantime, I see her going from an experiential mode of observing and cataloging, to a stage where she’s applying labels to things and categorizing them.
Here’s a thought experiment for you: Think about some animal that doesn’t have language (so far as we know), such as a wolf. You can put an assortment of objects in front of him but he doesn’t have a context or concept of “this is a thing called a book. there are lots of others like it in the same general shape.” My daughter had that a few months ago, but now she knows that this shape is a book, and even this is the book with Elmo in it. This book is like that one because it has a golden spine. She has labels for concepts and so can differentiate them — which opens the door for preference.
I’m minded of a constant trope in fantasy, that “Names Have Power”. If you know the name of something you can control it. There’s also the idea of just knowing the right words and you can do magic. I think this reflects a fundamental assumption about language. You can get more and more specific and as soon as you have the right word to call something, you know what it is and can hold its destiny in your mind.
There’s a Richard Feynman video I watched recently in which he recounted his father’s teaching method. One of the anecdotes boiled down to this: you can know all the names in all the languages for a sparrow, but you won’t know anything at all aside from human language concerning that sparrow. He then went on to use that in support of learning in a more scientific sense, e.g. describing that bird’s properties. My point in all of this is that you’re still using language, and your fundamental assumption is wrong.
Here’s where your left brain is going to disagree with me.
Pointing at a sparrow and describing it is just as flawed, because that entity is unique enough that it should be the only thing to be called sparrow. It is not the same thing as the sparrow sitting next to it. The sparrow sitting next to it is constructed of different atoms, has a different path through ife. Though it looks the same and maybe is a nest-mate, that being should be called sparrow-2. The name is a label, but it isn’t the essence.
I posit that a wolf looks at a sparrow and sees a thing that flies, that it is similar to but a totally different being from another thing that flies. So it couldn’t possibly have the same name. And everything is like that. Each tree, hill, rock, and other wolf. Each thing is a thing unto itself.
Your mind might balk at that idea simply for the sheer number of words one would need, and because you really want to say “look, they’re all birds at least” — but that’s the thing, why do you even need the words? Why do you feel so strongly about it grouping them together? What purpose does categorizing serve you that when I challenge it you have such a strong reaction?
Ultimately, calling something by a name is simply about control. It’s about being able to feel as if you have an understanding or at least knowing of any particular object. Unknown shape on the movie screen is scarier if they don’t tell you it’s a ghost or a man or a dog. Dealing with bad people is more manageable if you can say it’s because of Evil.
Look around the room you’re in. Everything you see and acknowledge is a placeholder. That wall is a fundamentally different object from the one it adjoins. Each individual thread of carpet is its own object in space. You call it carpet or threads, but each one is uniquely constructed of distinct atoms. There’s thread-1, thread-2, thread-3 and so on. I’m not saying it’s alive or has a being, but that you see it as all the same when each is its own object.
Remember what I said about stories? A story is just a huge Name. A story is a placeholder so you can collect other names. This is the one about the guy who is a jerk and loses his girlfriend, then amends his ways and gets her back. This is the one about the prodigal son. This is the one describing how a sparrow works.
So I look at Adelaide learning language and I’m both excited and also a little sad. I’m glad that I’ll be able to communicate with her, but I also regret that she’s losing her experiential wonder at the world. She’s slowly leaving paradise.
It’s like the story of the Garden of Eden, except the conventional telling is wrong. I don’t think they left Eden after eating from the Tree of Knowledge. I think it happened before.
I think they left Eden when they started naming things.
* I’ve looked and cannot find the original article. However there are lots of related posts. He was doing experiments with transcranial magnetic stimulation to disable the left side of the brain. Really cool stuff!