What nutshell do I speak of?
Consider the following conversation between a husband and wife:
W - "Honey I am not feeling good"
H - "What's wrong?"
W - "Beth"
H - "Oh my goodness. I am so sorry. Come here"
And they embrace each other.
This is a very normal conversation. It is not weird to you, the reader, that you have no idea what happened to the wife. Yet, if I were to ask you whether you think the husband knows, you would answer yes without any doubt in your mind.
None of this should be weird to you because you know that your lack of knowledge regarding the particulars behind the emotional state of the wife is due to your lack of knowing the appropriate context. You believe that the husband, being the competent human being he is to merit the title husband, does know the particulars and therefore only needs to hear the word Beth and instantly connects all the requisite information presented in front of him to know what happened to his wife.
What if I told you that you were right in all these assumptions? Again you would not be surprised. In fact, you might feel like I just wasted however many seconds it took you to read to this point and if you could, you would conjure me up from thin air and demand that I return to you this time. But most likely you would just stop reading this article and do something else.
But what if I told you that your assumptions were wrong. That the husband does not understand the context in a way that can allow him to know what happened to his wife. That the husband can never sufficiently understand any context to know anything. That everything is constantly changing so fast that as I write sentence I can say the sky is blue and you can look up right now and see a different color!!!!
The husband, as well as you and me and any other lumbering sack of flesh that houses a human brain that is talking to another lumbering sack of flesh that houses a human brain, can never know what another person means when they say anything because not even the person saying the thing we think we know the meaning of knows what is meant.
I really do want to go get some ice cream right now instead of writing this article. Meh. I guess I will finish what I started, which is, to explain why we never know what people mean when listening to what they say because our brains are not capable of it. And I guess I will end with explaining what our brains are capable of and that that it is pretty amazing.
First the not.
Our brains are not capable of understanding what we say because everything we say is said in the form of a language. The type of the language depends on the region wherein we are saying the thing we are saying and the person who is listening to what we are saying. If I am in Japan, there is a high chance I am Japanese and an equally high chance the listener is Japanese, therefore the language is also likely to be Japanese. If I am in South Africa, it gets a little more complicated in which language I would be saying the thing I am saying. But none of this matters because it is language itself, not the type of language, that is the cause of us never being able to understand what people mean when they say what they say.
To explain this I turn the mic over to my good friend Steven Pinker. Steeeevo...
Hey guys. Steve here. In case James didn't explain, I wrote a book called "The Language Instinct" and apparently this is where James learned a lot of what he wants me to talk about. There is other stuff he might address that I am not qualified to speak of so when that time comes I will give the mic back to James. But anyways, I will just get this over with. I got a bar and martini to get to afterwards so I will make this quick. In my aforementioned book I talk about an idea that as humans, our brains are equipped with an instinct to learn language in the same way a spider is equipped with an instinct to spin a web. Yep, you heard me right. Children are not taught their native tongue, they learn it all on their own. In fact, the reason they can do this is because they, as well as every other human regardless of age, have a mental language which I call a mentalese. This language exists only in the mind, and is the same for every human on the planet. This language has a universal grammar, and by this grammar, any human can be born anywhere and have zero problems learning the unique language of that region of the world (assuming the baby has what is socially considered a healthy brain). This idea was originally put forth by another dude named Noam Chomsky and in my book I just added the extra tidbit that our brains developed this instinct as a result of natural selection. Why James didn't invite the orginator Chomsky to speak is beyond me, but I think it is because he hasn't read any of Chomsky's books but is afraid to admit it.
But to get to the point of this article. What is it about language that will never allow us to know what people mean when they speak? Well, mentalese does not deal with concrete shapes like "words" and "sentences" like a typical spoken language, it deals more with abstract shapes like ideas, feelings, thoughts etc. There are far more abstract shapes than there are concrete ones, therefore far more ideas, feelings, and thoughts that exist in the mind than there are words in an spoken language to express them. How do we know this? Well, because they are abstract. Abstract means the inherit ability to take the shape of anything if the process of solidification were ever to occur. This is why sometimes when your mentalese communicates a certain feeling and you try to express this feeling with a word like "happy", there is always a possibility that the person to whom you say the word does not quite get your definition of "happy". For example, I feel good when I am eating a thick steak, so I say "I am happy when I eat steak" yet I am sure there are many people whose mentalese would strongly disagree with me. See, you never know what someone actually means.
Technically I am done with my contract with James right now. I explained everything I was paid to. But James is very weak-minded and I doubt he is capable of surviving the bombardment of questions that will surely come now that you heard this heresy, so I will add one more thing that I hope will put some of you at ease, but more importantly, will save James' ass from some serious stress.
Some of you may be thinking, "Well Mr. Pinker, it sounds like you are just replacing the arbitrary term personality with another equally arbitrary term, mentalese." What I forgot to mention is that the term personality is usually reserved for an individual once this individual has lived long enough for someone else to see this individual act in a unique way.
"My son, when he was a baby, was fearless. He would climb up trees and over couches like a cat. Then, when he got sick with pneumonia, he changed straight 180. Now seeing a fork makes him scream, "MY EYES!!!!""
Mentalese is different because it refers to the mental language that every single human shares - from birth. Since this particular language is in the form of abstract ideas, feelings, and thoughts, it refers to the abstract ideas, feelings, and thoughts that every single human shares. While every single human has an abstract idea of fear (mentalese), the unique concrete shape this abstract idea of fear takes once each individual has enough life experience to know that "my fear of spiders" is different from "her fear of heights" is no longer mentalese but ones personality. A purpose for spoken language can be seen as our way to bring to a more concrete, conscious state (personality) the mentalese we all share. This is one of the many sub-purposes of spoken language, which is part of the big umbrella purpose of promoting social cohesion. A long time ago before there were humans that spoke language, communication consisted of something not as complicated. Maybe a series of grunts. Possibly a variety of screams. It could have been purely pheromonal. Yet, for environmental reasons that we can only surmise through conjecture, survival required these humans to band together in bigger groups than they previously did and coordinate more elaborate strategies to get food. Here is another purpose of spoken language under the umbrella of promoting social cohesion - to aid in human survival through the more efficient acquisition of food. In a sense, not much has changed. Many of us use language to acquire money, and we use money to get food; only for many of us food has ceased to bear the same weight of survival as it did for our ancestors. This is another topic worthy of many late nights of discussion, but for another time.
In summary, while we all have a unique personality, we all also share the same mentalese. Before our unique personality could be said to be known by anyone, we all still shared the same mentalese. This mentalese, in its natural state of abstract ideas, feelings, and thoughts, also has a universal grammar that every human uses to start on the process of expressing it through the first spoken language(s) we learn as babies. This grammar is similar enough to all the the spoken languages of the world to allow for any baby, anywhere in the world to be able to express their mentalese through the unique spoken language that exists where they are born, but unique enough from each spoken language to allow for the entire human race to belong to one mentalese. This is all I have. If you want to know more of the specifics behind this universal grammar, mentalese, and Monty Python, get my book. Bye.
Thank you Steve. Much appreciated. Your check will be in the mail in about 2 weeks. Now please never contact me again.
Ok, finally that part is over, but I still need to tell you why, despite this complete cognitive dissonance between our mental language and our spoken language, we can still get the gist of what everyone around us is saying, and why only the gist is perfectly fine.
For the technical explanation I turn the time over to my friend Michael S. Gazzaniga. I hope he is a little less Pinker Stinker and a little more nicer to meer. Mike.......
Hello everyone. Michael here. James, the name is Michael, not Mike.
Similar to Professor Pinker, James forgot to give me a proper introduction. I can only imagine what it is like to be his wife when they arrive at any kind of social gathering. Anyways, my name is Michael S. Gazzaniga. Many years ago I lead a team of researchers to lead the first studies ever conducted on split-brain patients. I learned a lot of cool things from this research and wrote about some of it in my book The Mind's Past. It is in this book that I introduce my idea of a device in the left hemisphere of the human brain that is in charge of keeping our sanity as humans by connecting all the information we learn into some form of a cohesive and comprehensible story. I call this device "the interpreter". When I say device it must be understood that I do not speak of a man-made device like a phone but a nature-made device like a heart. There is indeed a distinct shape and location of the interpreter in the left hemisphere of our brain, but similar to how at one point the human race did not know what a heart was simply because we didn't have the technology to open up a body and see it, we yet have the technology to locate the whereabouts of this interpreter. There is one experiment my wife and I conducted that allows me to say this with great confidence. We showed split-brain patients a series of images, once to only their right brain and then the same images to their left brain. I will not expound on the ingenious way in which we were able to ensure only the right and left sides respectively were seeing the images at any given time, you will just have to take my PhD word for it. What we found was that the right side of the brain would see the images and never think anything beyond the image while the left side of the brain always tried to create a relationship between the two images. For example, if we showed an image of a pan and an image of water to each side of the brain, the left side of the brain would then be able to point to a image of a pan of boiling water as a related image while the right brain would not. This experiement was enough evidence to beg the question about whether something exists in the left hemisphere that does not in the right. I have labeled it the interpreter and will give 1 million dollars to the first person to send me one in the mail.
Thank you so much Mr. Gazzaniga. Please make the check out to James Gracey. You will see why in about a week.
Now it is my turn to connect all this randomness and finally answer the question, why are we never able to know what someone means and only understand the gist?
In a world where there are endless forms of information we need a system to make sense of all of it. Our brains have become quite proficient at understanding information we can see, touch, or in some way directly manipulate. Take, for example, gravity. I can say with complete confidence the following, "If I let go of object A, it will fall." Countless generations of brains wrestling with things like cats, rocks, and gas have allowed the collective brain this luxury. However, the following logic does not apply to things we cannot see, touch or otherwise in some way directly manipulate. Take for example, someone's happiness. I could spend 15 years developing the most tight-night relationship with a person, I could know the ins and outs of this person's personality, yet, in the same sense of the phrase from before, I cannot say something like, "If I perform action A, this person will become happy." I cannot use the word will in both those instances because its meaning would become moot due to contradictory results. In the former, I can drop object A literally one million times and it will fall every single time as long as one contingency is met - I am performing the activity in a location where we know the laws that govern it falling once released from my grip apply. Since where those laws are relevant are also where every human exists, for all intents and purposes, I can say If I drop object A anywhere one million times and it will drop 100% of the time, every time. In this context, being able to say will is an impossibility for the former. It would take a mere 5 instances of action A and the person would go from ecstatically happy to painfully annoyed. You would be killed long before you reached a million. We know this, yet we have no idea why. We have conjecture and opinion, but nothing equivalent to a law of gravity.
This is due to the system our brain uses to make sense of the world and the source of this information. As Mr. Gazzaniga explained, we have a interpreter that connects all the information entering our brain in a way that makes the most sense to us. If the source of this information comes from something reliable, something that seldom changes, something that uses a form of communication that perfectly reflects its inner state, something like gravity, the way in which our interpreter organizes the information will be a lot more likely to be confirmed again as similar by someone else, even at a different point in time. If the source of this information comes from something, as Mr. Pinker pointed out, a little less reliable, something that is constantly changing, and something that grossly misrepresents its inner state, something like the spoken word, then the way in which our interpreter organizes the information will have a bigger chance of not being confirmed as similar by another individual, especially at a different point in time. The best one can do when dealing with the spoken word, is to have a gist of what it represents. And as I promised I would explain; this is perfectly fine. Humans, when left only with a gist, will fill in the blanks with the exact same device that gave them the gist - the interpreter. This process of creating one's own narrative of everything, even the personalities of other people, is what makes life so exciting to live. It allows us to anticipate with excitement new acquaintances, and continue to grow old ones, so we can see how accurate our narrative reflects reality. We just must be careful to understand that our interpretations are always a narrative, and must always be open to re-interpretation. Else we will have a oligarchy on our hands and you know as well as I there is no fun in oligarchies.
Disclaimer - I (the author of this post) was playing the part of Mr. Pinker and Mr. Gazzaniga. The conversations we had never actually occurred. Unless you want that to be a part of your narrative.