What's In A Word? series

Should We Dumb Down Communications and lose the ability to think?
The challenges of writing for a mass audience

Copyright © 2010 Dorian Scott Cole

   About this series.

The advancement of the ability to think is dependent on the acquisition of language. Without language, communication is limited to animalistic behaviors, and the internal world of the person is in darkness. Dumbing down our communications to the lowest common denominator actually affects people's ability to think. By dumbing down communications we're inviting a downward spiral.

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The primary thing that separates us from animals is a collection of genetic codes that give us a much larger language center and the physical abilities to use it. These make it possible for us to "think." Of course, animals can communicate as much as they need to for survival, and they can do a certain amount of problem solving. But at the age of 3 years, animal progress stops even with human intervention into their language. What humans can do and what animals can do is a difference of an ocean apart. People can "think." Well, some of them.

I'm grateful to Radio Lab for drawing my attention to a different aspect of this topic that I frequently write about. You can hear their programs on words at www.radiolab.org, or a Public Radio station.

How necessary is language to thought? In isolation, we would be much like the animals in our ability to think. We would not be able to develop language. The Radio Labs story reported on one woman who lost her language abilities to stroke, now recovered. She said that during her non-language period she was just "connected" to the universe, but unable to have thoughts. It was a pleasant enough experience, but given an either/or choice, she didn't necessarily prefer the "connected to everything" state.

That connectedness is also expressed by people during meditation, during experiences on certain drugs (mostly illegal or controlled substances), and during near-death experiences. Interrupting neural pathways seems to remove the onslaught of thoughts that we have at all times, and brings about that feeling of just experiencing the universe without deliberating on it from different perspectives. It is language that assists the process of individiation that helps us become individuals and understand ourselves as separate from others.

Individiation is dependent on the narrative (stories) of our lives. We are the stories we create, and we become the stories that we see ourselves living. Without language, there is no story. The past is not interpreted. The future has no meaning except existence.

The experience of a deaf school in Nicaragua confirms the reality of language being principal to the development of thinking. Before the 1970s, there were no deaf schools in Nicaragua. The deaf lived in isolation from other deaf people, and to make their needs known they simply mimicked the actions of others. Their thinking was limited to behaviors, similar to animal behavior. Discussions with deaf people who developed language late, indicates that not having language is a time of darkness and non-thinking, to which they would not want to return. In 1970, several deaf people were brought together in a school. An interesting thing happened. They developed their own rich sign language. Students reveal that with the advent (development of something momentous) of language, they developed the ability to think.

Testing was done with the students to understand this mechanism. Years later, testing was done on early students and current students. The earlier students could not do as well on tests that required more advanced thought than the newer students. Then another interesting thing happened. The earlier students were mixed with the current students, 8 or 9 year olds, and the earlier students then learned the advances in their language. Guess what? The older group performed better on tests that required advanced thinking.

So what is deduced from this is two things. One, the development of language is an innate drive in humans. Two, the development of language is essential to the development of higher level thinking. To move beyond survival reactions and survival problem solving, you require a language to develop thought.

Deduced: Concluded through reasoning.
Innate: Existing from birth - a natural inborn ability.

Communicating with words

If you have looked at the other articles on this (Visual Writer) Web site, in the What's In A Word series, you already know that the development of words and language is based on symbols (semiotics) and experience. The symbols come to represent experiences, and the more emotional the experience the deeper the embedding. We give these symbols to each other by communicating, typically along with some sense of what they mean, and individual experience loads the symbols with meaning. The more experientially based symbols (words) we have, the more we are able to think with concepts.

As an example of this, consider the person who learns some vocabulary and grammar of another language, but can't "think" in that language - instead has to translate the words first into their English equivalents. The internal connection of the word with experience is lacking. The symbol doesn't represent experience, it simply connects to an English word.

What troubles me about dumbing down is a couple of things. One, we don't teach people to think, and two, we tend to "dumb down" communications for the lowest common denominator. It is a downward spiral.

I have long noted in discussions with others that way too many people don't think, they simply react based on emotion. Not to get deeply into the dynamics of attitude, but our behavior is known to be controlled primarily by emotion and only weakly by what we "know." This can change as people mature and begin to alter their behavior to match what they know. For example, young children want something so they take it. Later they learn that stealing has consequences, and even later they internalize the value that stealing is simply wrong or not socially acceptable. Eventually their behavior conforms to the internalized value.

It troubles me a lot that in chronologically mature adults I too often see the reacting behavior, not the thought process that leads to evaluating and decision making - that is, thinking. Somewhere we are failing as parents, as educators, as politicians, as leaders, and as religious people. There is way too much reliance on "rules," to govern behavior. It is an emphasis on compliance instead of values. There is a big difference between the two. Behavior based on compliance is mindless: Lack of free will - stimulus/response. Behavior based on values is something we learn and internalize: we consider, we evaluate, we decide. We usually start with compliance. We learn and internalize values as we mature through experience.

We not only don't teach people to think, we don't give them the tools to think with. Language, that is a vocabulary packed with experiential meaning, and grammar, is the basic tool of thought. For example, we don't expect a bear in the woods to tackle such issues as determinism versus free will. But a person needs to understand that for a society to function, people have to be responsible for behavior that results from their choices.

Sometimes I wonder if society is capable of grasping this concept at all. I just read an article today in which philosophers are still grappling with that issue as they try to reformulate philosophy. Determinism versus free will was being reconsidered... again, possibly as an oversimplification of cognitive psychology. I thought the Behaviorism approach went out the window in the '80s.

Determinism versus free will seems like an excellent discussion for Philosophy 101, but as people mature they either grow to understand, or are required to understand, that they are confronted endlessly by behavioral choices. They can choose to grab for the food that isn't theirs, like hungry animals do, or they can choose to earn money to buy food. Free will begins to develop when there are choices and principals that require thought. At some point they can choose a higher value system as a guide and then choose whether to conform their behavior to the higher system or not. It actually requires thinking - something that seems to be becoming less frequent in our "It's all about me" knee jerk reactive society.

I believe that we do the world a disservice by not passing on language that gives people the tools to think with. But just as importantly, if we don't pass on some meaning that fleshes out the word, then we have accomplished nothing. It's like handing someone an auger and not telling him what an auger can do. And then we have to know how and where to use the tool. It is perspective that comes from ideas passed on by language.

Language is very important to thinking (deliberating, considering, evaluating, perspective, discriminating, judging, choosing), but it is the exercise of thinking that develops the ability to think. We need to pass that ability to others. Next time an editor asks you to dumb it down, just grunt like an ape, ask him how soon he wants us to all talk in grunts, and hand him this article. (Oh, I should add, don't come crying to me if you get fired. I bear no responsibility for the things I write, I'm just a mechanism. : )

- Scott

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