Imagine a world where human beings could not talk.
Maybe your mind immediately entered the world of Triffids and suddenly the entire human race cannot see? Maybe you began to worry about how you would watch television or listen to the radio? Maybe your faith in the ability of Facebook and the Internet to save mankind was suddenly kindled anew?
What about looking at it from a slightly different perspective? What if we looked at it from the point of view of removing the gatekeeper that is known as ‘talking’, and opened up the communication process to a direct linking of minds?
Let’s start this ponder with a mind game. You are on stage, in front of a packed auditorium, with a hushed crowd waiting expectantly for you to say something funny. It enters your mind that for some reason you are supposed to keep this crowd entertained for 5 full minutes, making them laugh with hilarity and unbounded joy. What happens?
Assuming that you are NOT a natural comedian, and that you are not rooted to the spot in absolute horror at the thought of all those eyes staring at you… what is going to occur in the seconds immediately following your realisation that you’ve got to be funny?
Let’s argue that what happens next is symbolic of the problems with having minds of far greater capacity and ability than our mouths.
To start, we have to agree that what the mind can conjure, analyse, alter, recompose, critically evaluate and then reassemble amounts to an awful lot of things in those first few seconds. Kinda like a 3 second thought that takes 30 minutes to put into writing. Pour yourself a coffee and loosen your shirt, ’cause this ain’t gonna be a quickie…
It is an assumed given that our minds are busy controlling the bulk of our bodily functions through involuntary feedback loops and systems, helping to keep the mind that is “me” free from annoying messages like “hey, it’s your foot here – i’m just going to move a bit to the left, tilting slightly to compensate for that erratic movement of the bloody heavy object referred to as your (my) head” or “heart here… sorry to be a bother but would it be possible to breathe a little deeper – your hyperventilating is causing a lot of grief for those of us responsible for plumbing and ventilation”. You get the idea.
The eyes are busy feeding a continuous stream of stereoscopic data that soaks up enormous quantities of processing neurons, exacerbated by that slight focus differential that the Optometrist told you about but for which you’ve still done nothing months later. For some reason those eyes are taking a bit of licence on direction and focus – moving from a wide shot of that huge crowd, right down to a minute focus on the sweat trickling off the hairs on the back of your hand as you realise that you haven’t actually said anything yet.
Hairs and liberal doses of wax are protecting your senstive inner ear from dust and particles but that doesn’t seem to stop the huge waves of sound washing their way through your soul. At least, that is what one millisecond of neural connectivity suggests as a workable corollary to help with comprehension of that seashell cocophony of sound. And yet that damned sensitivity cuts in again and you can’t help but noticing the spasmodic coughing and tell-tale chatter of small talk that seems to be quite a bit more evenly dispersed than it appeared the last time connector neurons got together to come up with a feedback playback. How many seconds have passed, and we still haven’t managed to utter a word.
Was that an automatic response? Did you actually mean to say that? Or was it an inbuilt response conditioned by societal expectations? Who cares? You’ve finally managed to say something.
“My name is Nephrasian Hermalakka”. Where did that come from? Not sure… it just seemed the right thing to follow. They don’t know me, after all. Actually, sounds like a silly thing to say but it’s probably what is expected. Why did you tell them your (our) name? What does it mean to them? Nothing. What if they don’t even like that name? It isn’t a standard name after all. Some of those people out there are going to immediately begin to categorise us as this or that type of person with this or that characteristic just because our name sounds like something they like or don’t like, or reminds them of something from their own past – maybe a person they once knew… and what are the chances that this other person is anything like you? You know that there are other Nephrasian Hermalakka’s out there, and you have yet to meet one that you even liked.
Those lights are bright, aren’t they. It almost reminds you of that time you drove into the countryside with friends late one evening, jumping out of the car to run off into the fields and hiding from the others. It was just like this – feeling very alone out there, hidden, yet completely bathed in the blinding beams from the car headlights. Only no-one was expecting you to say anything then. All you had to do was lay down flat and keep your head under the grass height. Not like now. There are people out there. Lots of them. And they are expecting you to talk.
“Apparently, i’m supposed to keep you laughing for the next 5 minutes.”
That didn’t seem to get a response. But they aren’t booing. That just might mean that they are going to give me a chance. To do what, i wonder. I’m not funny. At least, people don’t seem to find me funny. When i was little, the adults always seemed to be laughing at the funny things i did, telling me that one day i’d be a famous comedian. Except i don’t feel funny. Not now at least. It’s not as though i’ve had a bad day – in fact, it was pretty good really. I felt refreshed when i woke up, and enjoyed a relaxing day pottering around the house, sipping tea and reading books in between some indolent tv channel surfing. Until that ‘phone call. That damned, bloody ‘phone call.
“I don’t know whether you received an audience participation script at the door on the way in tonight but i can assure you no-one gave me a lucid and witty set of palm cards on the way onto the stage just then.”
Eye Feedback – Still hard to see. Possibly noticed a few people move in their seats just as those lines were delivered. Feedback loop – perhaps they’ve already decided i’m not funny? How long have they been sitting there anyway.. aren’t we half-way through the evening? You’d expect a bit of seat repositioning to account for Numb Bum Syndrome by this part of the night.
Ear Feedback – Twittering continues unabated. Small pockets of laughter from the east wing. Coughing doesn’t seem to be stopping. Feedback loop – so some of them are warming to me. Maybe this won’t be as hard as we thought… Was that a tremor in my own voice causing me to trail off a bit at the end of that sentence?
Physical Feedback – Heart still pounding. Sweat now trickling down the back of neck. Heat from the spotlights causing hair to stick to forehead. Feedback loop – How can i still be this nervous? Maybe if i move a little bit across the stage it’ll help get rid of some energy and settle me down a bit?
“I was actually trying to work out what i’d say as i walked up to the microphone but now that i’m here, it just doesn’t seem funny. So what i am going to do is to share with you what is in my brain. Not just the bits that make it to you from the received aural tones of the soundwaves created by my vocal cords. We’re gong to share everything. If you’d like to reach under your seats, you’ll find a very special headset. Would you mind taking a moment to reach down now, and place the headset that you find onto your head. It should settle on quite easily. It’s elastic and specially weighted to fit most head sizes – except for that gentleman in the blue cardigan in the third row… don’t think science has come up with a name for a headshape like that.. so chances are, you’ll have to just hold it close to your ear and hope for the best. And you ma’am. Yes, you with the Art Deco teeshirt. Might help if you just rest it on that tea cosy warming your head. That’s it. Everyone got it sorted?”
“”OK. Everyone hear me? We’ll just turn on the connectivity links and you will all be tuned into my thoughts.””
“”Aghhh… Quietly please. One at a time. Now look, would everyone please just be quiet for a moment and pay attention to what i am trying to say? Is anyone listening? Anyone? Of course i’m thinking about sex – but that’s now what i am really thinking about… it’s a back-room type thought, and you’re not supposed to be in that room back there!””
And so on and so on.
We know through the works of Wittgenstein and many others that language is a social construct, that it forms our thoughts just as much as it allows us to form thoughts.
What massive failures in communication start life as simply bad translations of thoughts into words? Some people struggle to put full sentences together verbally, yet are capable of incredible lucidity when asked to set thoughts out in writing. What if you have no writing skills and poor command of language, yet possess a mind capable of intricately complex, coherent thought patterns? How much time do we give to those who do not possess strong language communication skills? Is this a starting point for annoyance, disatisfaction and friction?
If our minds are capable of incredibly complex layers of thought (immediate perception; thinking about that perception; imagining ourselves thinking about that perception; imagining and comprehending what others may be comprehending about the perceptions they are thinking about) then what barriers does language present to us that are stumbling blocks to a richer, more universally satisfying level of communication?
Perhaps those strings falling out of the sky are even more stultifying to full communication? Social constructs, impressions of self, projections of self and interpretations of expectations can all lead to distortions in communication and a failure to clearly communicate ideas. Imagine a university student trying to discuss a point with a senior lecturer. Keeping aside the personal identities (annoying or obvious habits/ dialects or accents/ rapidity of speech/ use of vernacular/ hand or body movements associated with speaking and listening), and immediate physical presence issues (varying heights/ gender/ modes of dress/ sexual attraction/ physical repugnance/ distance from each other/closeness/ attractive or repellant smells/ presence of friends/ onlookers/ partners/ family members/ tone and volume of respective voices), how easy or difficult is it for that student to put forward ideas and interpretations that may differ from the lecturer’s?
There are various forms of self-help books available to help the individual improve their communication abilities. Is that enough though? A lot of self help material is logically aimed at improving your own outcomes from communication. Others aim at improving that outcome through interpretations of game theory and human nature. Yet the result usually feels contrived and the conversations that lead from it appear “fake”.
For the moment, we are simply pondering language and speech as modes of communication… Another line of thought would be to consider mime or interpretive dance or communication as it is understood and practiced by those who are unable to speak or hear.
Do we allow impatience to deprive us of the full benefit of all those other thinking minds out there? Do we give token acknowledgement to others, and in doing so missing out on adding to our own knowledge and abilities?
Why is it that communication itself receives so little attention in basic education? Are we scared of becoming too self aware? Does interpretation of communication bare too much of our social construct, and force us to delve into practices and prejudices that society considers taboo?
If comedians had to correspond with their audience through their minds instead of through their voices, would they still be funny?
Further Reading :
Language in communication …
Why read anything first..? Why not simply spend a week making notes on every form of spoken communication that you undertake? How did you feel? What were you thinking versus what you were saying? Did visual or aural conditions impact more than the verbal content?
On Wittgenstein …
Biletzki, Anat and Matar, Anat, “Ludwig Wittgenstein”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2010/entries/wittgenstein/.