Thinking and communicating are messy processes. I want to serve up a freshly boiled mess, so put on your lobster bib.
Thinking happens in stages or layers. The most basic layer I think I understand somewhat is a process of forming sets or clusters of loosely-structured associations.
Neurons in the brain are organized in layers, columns, clusters, modules, and networked circuits. The organization is dynamically configurable. Different logical associations between the layers, columns, clusters, modules, and networks are forming and reforming to accomplish different jobs.
One of those jobs is to assemble sets of associations that are organized around some theme. Lets say this set of associations on a common theme is the precursor of a unit of thought. I’ll call this cluster of associations on a theme a proto-thought. This proto-thought is not yet something that is represented in language. It is just a semi-structured set of associations–associations between various items that have been plucked from memory or incoming sensory data and grouped together around some theme. This semi-structured cluster of associations comes bubbling up from wherever it was assembled into a “higher” layer or network of the brain and it gets a snippet of language assigned to it–perhaps a word or group of words.
The snippet of language is like a container that is selected to hold the proto-thought so it can be further “handled” without falling apart or dissolving or getting mixed up with other proto-thoughts. The upside of using this language container is that it gives the proto-thought some persistence and some ease-of-handling properties.
The downside of using the container is that the proto-thought is somewhat fluid and, like any fluid, once in the container it assumes the shape of that container.
In assuming the shape of the container some of the original structure of the proto-thought is altered.
Once altered, its exact, original structure is forever gone. That change in structure that results from assuming the shape of the container represents a change of information or meaning. So the more closely the shape of the container matches the original shape of the proto-thought the less the original information or meaning of that proto-thought is altered. To retain as much fidelity to the original information as possible it is very important for the brain to select a container that matches the original shape of the proto-thought as closely as possible.
Once the language packaging is completed a unit of proto-thought becomes a unit of thought.
As the thought-binding process proceeds, many such units of thought are passed on for futher processing and assembly into bundles. By this point the thought may have become a sentence or even a pragraph. These bundles of thought continue to be combined and recombined according to some purpose the brain has set for itself. This may involve only internal self-talk or it may eventually be transmitted in some finished form to another person.
As batches of language are received by another person they are unpacked and parsed in roughly the reverse of the original process of assembly. They are broken down into units small enough to compare against the reciever’s own internal inventory of “stock” language containers. The fluid contents of those stock language containers are then poured into another part of the receiver’s brain where they become absorbed as proto-thoughts.
The above is only intended to be taken metaphorically. The details are not important–the main point is that features of language modify and limit the content, shape, and meaning of our thoughts. In the transition of associations into and out of language, information is lost and noise (which may be interpreted as information) is added.
We can’t really think outside the box of language –or even if we sometimes do, these non-language-conforming thoughts will be very transient. They will quickly “snap” into conformation with language, loosing some of the original meaning. In this way language is a powerful “snap grid” that makes it difficult for us to read or write outside the lines. I think this may be one of the neuro-cognitive underpinnings of confirmation bias.
The take-away message is that we must examine our use of language, especially our choice of vocabulary, very closely. It not only affects how we communicate, It affects how we think.
“Speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts.“—Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand
- We Got Merge: Noam Chomsky on the Cognitive Function that Made Language Evolve
- Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
- Language Use Is Simpler Than Previously Thought, Study Suggests ScienceDaily (Sep. 25, 2012)
- Joe Brewer: Linguistic Framing of “War! What is it Good For?”