Language and Thinking

Human beings have developed consciousness through the use of language symbols. With this innovation, humans became capable of an awareness of their own mental processes and through that event become amenable to modification and adaption of the very schemata which creates their reality. The result is that each individual, within some limitations, has the capacity to modify their own reality to make it more satisfying.

Mental processing [thinking] is activated through symbols which have been developed to identify and describe the sensations caused by the integration of various stimuli impacting upon the senses. Such sensations help the individual to organize these various sense perceptions into a single comprehension [intuition, hunch]. These comprehensions are then subject to the development or adoption of symbolic representations [language] which not only allow us to consciously comprehend the idea caused by the sensation, but to communicate it as well. In modern society, as we become less aware of nonverbal or intuitive sensations, we increasingly use words or symbolic language in our thought processes.

This is not to underestimate the importance of physical modalities which might be described as style, tone, affect or demeanor which are apparent in living things. The intuitive feelings we take from these qualities have substantial impact on our reactions to the world and in fact, intuitive comprehension give us considerably more information than we are able to codify into language. The salient power of intuition can be easily demonstrated by discerning our ability to recognize a person whom we know from very little perceptual information, while at the same time being unable to verbally describe that individual sufficiently to allow a stranger to pick them out of a crowd. We “know in our gut” that the person was sincere or insincere from these cures, but we cannot put this knowledge into words.

Steven Pinker [1994] in discussing how people think, acknowledges that language is not adequate to account for all of our thoughts. He indicates problems of ambiguity, lack of logical explicitness, co-reference, dexis, and synonymy as examples. Ambiguity, which leads to such unexpected humor as in “Iraqi Head Seeks Arms” as an actual headline, clearly begets difficulty in interpretation. As Pinker indicates “…if there can be two thoughts corresponding to one word, thoughts can’t be words.” Lack of logical explicitness requires that the reader [or listener] make logical inferences to deduce what is meant and co-reference [occasions where we identify a male person explicitly, then refer to the man, and perhaps finally, just to him] requires the recipient to use “common sense” to deduce the details of language. “Dexis”, which is a linguist’s word, considers articles like a or the. The difference between “killed a policeman” and “killed the policeman” requires a context specific to enable the recipient to determine exactly what was meant. Synonymy references the various ways in which language can be arranged to refer to the same event. All of these problems allow for misinterpretation.

“Any particular thought in our head embraces a vast amount of information. But when it comes to communicating a thought to someone else, attention spans are short and mouths are slow. To get information into a listener’s head in a reasonable amount of time, a speaker can encode only a fraction of the message into words and must count on the listener to fill in the rest. But inside a single head, the demands are different. Air time is not a limited resource: different parts of the brain are connected to one another directly with thick cables that can transfer huge amounts of information quickly. Nothing can be left to the imagination, though, because the internal representations are the imagination” [Pinker - 1994].

Thus, we speak often in a kind of shorthand, with ambiguity and lack of explicitness which requires that the individual interpret what we mean. For people with problems in living, who often have a “cahce of beliefs” which negates or denigrates themselves in relation to others, this leaves a great deal of room to translate such statements into derogatory perspectives. Such people imagine that they are being “put down” in cases where “common sense” would indicate otherwise.

But the internal or mental narratives; those “stories” that we tell ourselves are also subject to shorthand. Meichenbaum and Fong [1993] suggest that such stories fall into three levels and that they are arranged hierarchically. Level I reasons focus on evidence-based reasons whereby the individual supports or questions the validity of the evidence. Level II reasons focus on self-relevant reasons, in that they describe the individual’s attempt to appraise the merits of a decision in terms of cost/benefit to themselves. Level III reasons explore the affective schema-related reasons that reflect the more self-involving, often highly affectively charged, schema related beliefs that influence the individual’s perspective of reality.

Each of these “reasons” can be used to deny what is an apparent truth [such as the hazards of smoking], but the schematic-related reasons are connected to relatively enduring characteristics of the person’s cognitive organization that allow the person to screen, code, and assess information. As such, they are much more embedded in the explanatory style of the individual and operate like a “perceptual readiness hypothesis” that help to preclude all doubt, question or delays, admitting no refusal and being truly imperative. In short, such schemas influence the perception, interpretation, transformation, and organization of information [Meichenbaum & Fong - 1993]. Again, there is a tendency for people with problems in living to operate more at Level III than Level I. The importance, then of the helper’s ability to listen to the client’s narrative stories is not only is to focus on the client’s will, through identification of preferences, but to interpret what is actually meant.

As we attempt to “sort out” these feelings, hunches or intuitions, we do so by putting them into words. The assignment of organized symbols to such “feelings” enables us to understand how we feel and therefore to find the ways and means to cope with these feelings. We may know, without words, but we must be able to put these thoughts into words to understand. Often when we cannot quite grasp the quality of the intuition, we develop an allegory or metaphor to describe our intent. The development of this way of stating sensations through words is an attempt to understand it.

Thus WORDS, and their conscious formulation are an important part of helping each of us find our place in the world. While we might know something on an unconscious level, we will tend not to be comfortable with it until we can understand it through common language symbols. This loss of ability to accept things that we cannot understand is epitomized through verbal attempts to delineate our faith; which is inherently unknowable. Faith can be defined as a belief which has no provable, logical, systematic basis; one believes or one does not. Despite this, in many religions it is the WORD that is important. The allegorical Word of God through which we come to understand. Levels of civilization might be identified as the degree to which commonly held beliefs are conscious and able to be symbolized or unconscious and without symbolic [at least language symbols] explanation.

The concern, of course, is that the translation of the important words from significant people becomes first a sensation, intuition or hunch that we are being denigrated which we find hard to put into words, but which we feel strongly. Later, we may find that we can articulate these feelings metaphorically, in broad generalized statements about the unfairness of the world, or our own martyred state. Finally, we begin to articulate specifically how other people do not like us and develop the counterposition that therefore, we do not like them. Such thoughts, fears and fantasies lead to atypical and often antisocial behaviors, which to others have no apparent context.

One could suggest that such “errors” in translation or misunderstandings are hardly sufficient to lead to such dramatic and bizarre behaviors as are seen in the human species, but this disregards the figure/ground aspects of human interrelatedness. As the individual listener begins to act based on their interpretation of the perspectives of those around them, they develop self-fulling circumstances. Their behavior becomes less and less acceptable and therefore leads to responses which are likely to reinforce the flawed premise. Such doubt ignores as well the self-fulfilling aspects of the attitudes which leads the conveyer of the word labels to act in ways that enhance the potential that such a performance will occur. So in cyclical fashion, the person with problems in living is seen as atypical. Other people seeing this atypical behavior, identify the person as [fill in your own pejorative label] thus expecting to see atypical behavior. Based on a self fulfilling prophecy, they act in such a manner to produce what they expect. [See Pygmallion]