Language: Why We Hear More Than Words

It’s a classic complaint in relationships, especially romantic ones: “She said she was okay with me forgetting her birthday! Then why is she throwing dishes in the kitchen? Are the two things related? I wish I had a translator for my spouse. What is going on?”

The answer: Extreme was right, communication is more than words. It’s how those words are said, the tone, the order, even the choice of a particular word. It’s multidimensional.

In their book, Meaning and Relevance, Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber explore the aspects of communication that are beyond the definitions of the words that we speak but are still encoded in the words themselves.

Consider the following example:

Peter got angry and Mary left.

Mary left and Peter got angry.

We can instantly see that these two sentences, despite having exactly the same words, do not mean the same thing. The first one has us thinking, wow, Peter must get angry often if Mary leaves to avoid his behavior. Maybe she’s been the recipient of one too many tantrums and knows that there’s nothing she can do to diffuse his mood. The second sentence suggests that Peter wants more from Mary. He might have a crush on her! Same words – totally different context.

Human language is not a code. True codes have a one-to-one relationship with meaning. One sound, one definition. This is what we see with animals.

Wilson and Sperber explain that “coded communication works best when emitter and receiver share exactly the same code. Any difference between the emitter’s and receiver’s codes is a possible source of error in the communication process.” For animals, any evolutionary mutations that affected the innate code would be counter-adaptive. A song-bird one note off key is going to have trouble finding a mate.

Not so for humans. We communicate more than the definitions of our words would suggest. (Steven Pinker argues language itself as a DNA-level instinct.) And we decode more than the words spoken to us. This is inferential communication, and it means that we understand not only the words spoken, but the context in which they are spoken. Contrary to the languages of other animals, which are decidedly less ambiguous, human language requires a lot of subjective interpretation.

This is probably why we can land in a country where we don’t speak the language and can’t read the alphabet, yet get the gist of what the hotel receptionist is telling us. We can find our room, and know where the breakfast is served in the morning. We may not understand her words, but we can comprehend her tone and make inferences based on the context.

Wilson and Sperber argue that mutations in our inferential abilities do not negatively impact communication and potentially even enhance it. Essentially, because our human language is not simply a one-to-one code because more can be communicated beyond the exact representations of certain words, we can easily adapt to changes in communication and interpretation that may evolve in our communities.

For one thing, we can laugh at more than physical humor. Words can send us into stitches. Depending on how they are conveyed, the tone, the timing, the expressions that come along with them, we can find otherwise totally innocuous words hysterical.

Remember Abbott and Costello?

Who’s on first.”
“What?”
“No, what’s on second.”

Consider Irony

Irony is a great example of how powerfully we can communicate context with a few simple words.

I choose my words as indicators of a more complex thought that may include emotions, opinions, biases, and these words will help you infer this entire package. And one of my goals as the communicator is to make it as easy as possible for you to get the meaning I’m intending to convey.

Irony is more than just stating the opposite. There must be an expectation of that opposite in at least some of the population. And choosing irony is more of a commentary on that group. Wilson and Sperber argue that “what irony essentially communicates is neither the proposition literally expressed not the opposite of that proposition, but an attitude to this proposition and to those who might hold or have held it.”

For example

When Mary says, after a boring party, ‘That was fun’, she is neither asserting literally that the party was fun nor asserting ‘ironically’ that the party was boring. Rather, she is expressing an attitude of scorn towards (say) the general expectation among the guests that the party would be fun.

This is a pretty complex linguistic structure. It allows us to communicate our feelings on cultural norms fairly succinctly. Mary says ‘That was fun’. Three little words. And I understand that she hated the party, couldn’t wait to get out of there, feels distant from the other party-goers and is rejecting that whole social scene. Very powerful!

Irony works because it is efficient. To communicate the same information without irony involves more sentences. And my desire as a communicator is always to express myself in the most efficient way possible to my listener.

Wilson and Sperber conclude that human language developed and became so powerful because of two unique cognitive abilities of humans, language and the power to attribute mental states to others. We look for context for the words we hear. And we are very proficient at absorbing this context to infer meaning.

The lesson? If you want to understand reality, don't be pedantic.

Philosopher Kahlil Gibran on The Tension Between Reason and the Silence Required for Thinking

Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931) published his masterpiece, The Prophet, in 1923. The work endures as a timeless meditation on the art of living. Gibran's thoughts on love and giving offer a glimpse into his genius.

Reminding one of the struggle most of us have with the three marriages, Gibran illuminates the beautiful struggle that exists within all of us between reason and passion.

Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.
Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody.
But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements.

Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.
If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.
For reason, ruling alone, is a force confirming; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.
Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it my sing.
And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.

As for his final piece of advice, on the tension between reason and passion, Gibran suggests something we should all take to heart, “rest in reason and move in passion.”

Just as there is a required solitude in leadership, there is a silence required for thinking. Increasingly, however, we use devices from iPhones and Echo's to entertain and reduce our ability to be present with ourselves. When it comes to Speaking and Talking, Gibran offers:

You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, your thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a case of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.
The silence of aloneness reveals to their eyes their naked selves and they would escape.
And there are those who talk, and without knowledge or forethought reveal a truth which they themselves do not understand.
And there are those who have the truth within them, but they tell it not in words.

The Prophet goes on to explore love, marriage, children, crime and punishment and so much more. Complement with German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer on the Dangers of Clickbait.

General James Mattis: Arm Yourself With Books

How many situations will you face that have not already been experienced by someone else? Billions of people, thousands of years … probably not too many. It’s been done.

Luckily, sometimes those experiences are captured by history, and thus they become valuable tools for us to learn and prepare for similar situations. This is part of the central ethos of Farnam Street.

In an email that went viral in 2013, U.S. Marine General James Mattis (now the U.S. Secretary of Defense) candidly wrote about the value of this approach near the beginning of the Iraq War. Advising a colleague, he wrote:

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

Speaking specifically about situations he faced in the context of his military role, he said “We have been fighting on this planet for 5,000 years and we should take advantage of their experience. ‘Winging it’ and filling body bags as we sort out what works reminds us of the moral dictates and the cost of incompetence in our profession.”

Whatever country you are fighting a war in, someone has already fought there before. Someone has also explored it, mapped it, studied it, and done humanitarian work there. The hard work has already been done. All you have to do is read.

Maybe Napoleon shouldn’t have dismissed the Swedish accounts on the perils of invading Russia. He might have learned that the Russians didn’t follow the traditional norms of warfare. They weren’t going to surrender, or even admit to losing a battle, not with thousands of miles of country to withdraw into, scorching the earth along the way. And also that the Russian winter is really, really, harsh. 130 years later, with Napoleon’s experience to draw from, it’s staggering that Hitler went down the same path. He got the same results.

Books have a limitless amount to teach us if we're willing to pay attention.

You don’t need to be a military general to benefit from the fore-arming and forewarning that books can provide. Ask yourself, what body of knowledge would I benefit from having deep in my bones? Unless you're trying to make discoveries in fundamental physics or advanced technology, someone else has probably already gained the knowledge that you seek, and they likely have put it in a book to share with you.

Learning how to read for wisdom is simple, but not easy. The payoffs though, can be incredible.

The more you read, the more you will build your repertoire. Incrementally at first, the knowledge you add to your stockpile will grow over time as it combines with everything new you put in there. This is called compounding, and it works with knowledge much the same as it does with interest. Eventually, when faced with the new, challenging, and perplexing, you will be able to draw on this dynamic inner repository.

You will react, not as a neophyte, but as someone whose instincts have been honed by the experiences of others, rather than just your own. You will start to see that nothing is truly new, that awesome challenges can and have been overcome, and there are fundamental truths to how the world works.

So learn from others. Figure out where you are going and find out who has been there before. Knowledge comes from experience, but it doesn’t have to be your experience. Deep reading helps you to understand the world allowing you to conquer panic and maximize your chances of success.

If you're interested in military matters, you might even start with Mattis' reading list itself.

Warnings From Sleep: Nightmares and Protecting The Self

“All of this is evidence that the mind, although asleep, is constantly concerned about the safety and integrity of the self.”

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Rosalind Cartwright — also known as the Queen of Dreams — is a leading sleep researcher. In The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives, she explores the role of nightmares and how we use sleep to protect ourselves.

When our time awake is frightening or remains unpressed, the sleeping brain “may process horrible images with enough raw fear attached to awaken a sleeper with a horrendous nightmare.” The more trauma we have in our lives the more likely we are to experience anxiety and nightmares after a horrific event.

The common feature is a threat of harm, accompanied by a lack of ability to control the circumstances of the threat, and the lack of or inability to develop protective behaviors.

The strategies we use for coping effectively with extreme stress and fear are controversial. Should we deny the threatening event and avoid thinking about it better than thinking about it and becoming sensitized to it?

One clear principle that comes out of this work is that the effects of trauma on sleep and dreaming depend on the nature of the threat. If direct action against the threat is irrelevant or impossible (as it would be if the trauma was well in the past), then denial may be helpful in reducing stress so that the person can get on with living as best they can. However, if the threat will be encountered over and over (such as with spousal abuse), and direct action would be helpful in addressing the threat, then denial by avoiding thinking about the danger (which helps in the short-term) will undermine problem-solving efforts and mastery in the long run. In other words, if nothing can be done, emotion-coping efforts to regulate the distress (dreaming) is a good strategy; but if constructive actions can be taken, waking problem-solving action is more adaptive.

What about nightmares?

Nightmares are defined as frightening dreams that wake the sleeper into full consciousness and with a clear memory of the dream imagery. These are not to be confused with sleep terrors. There are three main differences between these two. First, nightmare arousals are more often from late in the night’s sleep, when dreams are longest and the content is most bizarre and affect-laden (emotional); sleep terrors occur early in sleep. Second, nightmares are REM sleep-related, while sleep terrors come out of non-REM (NREM) slow-wave sleep (SWS). Third, sleepers experience vivid recall of nightmares, whereas with sleep terrors the experience is of full or partial amnesia for the episode itself, and only rarely is a single image recalled.

Nightmares abort the REM sleep, a critical component of our always on brain, Cartwright explains:

If we are right that the mind is continuously active throughout sleep—reviewing emotion-evoking new experiences from the day, scanning memory networks for similar experiences (which will defuse immediate emotional impact), revising by updating our organized sense of ourselves, and rehearsing new coping behaviors—nightmares are an exception and fail to perform these functions.

The impact is to temporarily relieve the negative emotion. The example Cartwright gives is “I am not about to be eaten by a monster. I am safe in my own bed.” But because the nightmare has woken me up, the nightmare is of no help in regulating my emotions (a critical role of sleep). As we learn to manage negative emotions while we are awake, that is, as we grow up, nightmares reduce in frequency and we develop skills for resolving fears.

It's not always fear that wakes us from a nightmare. We can also be woken by anger, disgust, and grief.

Cartwright concludes, with an interesting insight, on the role of sleep in consolidating and protecting “the self.”:

[N]ightmares appear to be more common in those who have intense reactions to stress. The criteria cited for nightmare disorder in the diagnostic manual for psychiatric disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV-TR (DSM IV-TR), include this phrase “frightening dreams usually involving threats to survival, security, or self-esteem.” This theme may sound familiar: Remember that threats to self-esteem seem to precede NREM parasomnia awakenings. All of this is evidence that the mind, although asleep, is constantly concerned about the safety and integrity of the self.

The Twenty-four Hour Mind goes on to explore the history of sleep research through case studies and synthesis.

Let Go of Self-Justification

It can be startling and unsettling to confront how bad humans are at describing reality with any objective accuracy. Because of the way our brains work, how perceptions are distorted, the ambiguity of language, we seem forever destined to never really know this world we are living in. What are we to do?

One answer is to accept that there is no one objective truth so stop searching for it. Instead, we can put our efforts into understanding ourselves a little better, allowing for navigation between the many truths that exist for people, to achieve success.

In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explore the role of self-justification in our creation of reality. We make assertions about the world as if they are facts while being completely blind to the subjectivity inherent in knowing anything. Essentially we create a narrative about the world that reflects our beliefs about the kind of person we are and assign to this narrative a ‘truth’ which does not, in fact, exist.

What is self-justification?

It is not the same thing as lying or making excuses. … [It] is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. In fact, come to think of it, it was the right thing.

Self-justification is a portrayal of the brain that, despite its stated goals or desires, is not interested in truth, but rather self-preservation. Admitting you were wrong may save relationships and lives, it may prevent distress and war, but it will also force you to admit that the narrative you have constructed about yourself is wrong. And depending on how committed you are to that narrative, you may be unable to even see that you made a mistake, let alone confront it.

Self-justification has costs and benefits. By itself, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It lets us sleep at night. Without it, we would prolong the awful pangs of embarrassment. We would torture ourselves with regret over the road not taken or over how badly we navigated the road we did take. … Yet mindless self-justification, like quicksand, can draw us deeper into disaster. It blocks our ability to even see our errors, let alone correct them. It distorts reality, keeping us from getting all the information we need and assessing issues clearly. It prolongs and widens rifts between lovers, friends, and nations. It keeps us from letting go of unhealthy habits. It permits the guilty to avoid taking responsibility for their deeds. And it keeps many professionals from changing outdated attitudes and procedures that can harm the public.

The book contains many unsettling examples from politics and law enforcement. Research based stories of officials who refused to admit their mistakes even when confronted with irrefutable evidence they were wrong. The more invested you are in a situation, the more extensive your narrative, the more likely that narrative has become intertwined with your self-worth and self-esteem, and therefore the harder to rewrite it in light of your errors.

Perhaps the most startling examples of the descent into irreversible self-justification is the research conducted on what the authors call ‘the closed loop of clinical judgment’. They discuss the total lack of evidence to support the theory that traumatic events are suppressed by the brain and contrast this with the amount of clinical practitioners who will enter into therapeutic relationships with the pre-supposition that the client’s current troubles are being caused by traumatic events that they don’t remember.

It becomes a no-win situation for the person seeking therapy – either they spontaneously remember past trauma (which, actually, is the one thing they were not likely to forget in the first place) or they say that they have no memory of being traumatized (in which case the therapist assumes the memories are still being repressed). Either outcome reinforces the self-justified narrative that the therapist has created.

As evidence accumulated on the fallibility of memory and the many confabulations of recovered-memory cases the promoters of this notion did not admit error; they simply changed their view of the mechanism by which traumatic memories are allegedly lost. It’s not repression at work anymore, but dissociation; the mind somehow splits off the traumatic memory and banishes it to the suburbs. This shift allowed them to keep testifying, without batting an eye or ruffling a feather, as scientific experts in cases of recovered memories.

This speaks to investment in the narrative. This is not about admitting that yelling at your spouse about forgetting to buy ice cream was a mistaken over-reaction. In the case of these practitioners, this is their career. It is also the many lives they may have destroyed by unintentionally encouraging false memories of trauma. It would not be easy for any of us to admit mistakes when the consequences of those mistakes are so devastating.

How can we remember things that didn’t happen? Because self-justification has an effect on our memories.

Between the conscious lie to fool others and unconscious self-justification to fool ourselves, there’s a fascinating gray area patrolled by an unreliable, self-serving historian – memory. Memories are often pruned and shaped with an ego-enhancing bias that blurs the edges of past events, softens culpability, and distorts what really happened.

We remember our past in a way that confirms what we believe of ourselves in the present.

When we do misremember, our mistakes aren’t random. The everyday, dissonance-reducing distortions of memory help us make sense of the world and our place in it, protecting our decisions and beliefs. The distortion is even more powerful when it is motivated by the need to keep our self-concept consistent.

The authors present many fascinating examples of totally fabricated ‘memories’. Not ones that are intentional, but situations in which the memories were believed to be genuine and turned out to be false. In all cases the memories had been unconsciously altered or created to support a self-justifying narrative. For example, believing you are an independent free-spirit, you remember your actions as always having been so, or conversely you remember the past as more awful than it was in order to support your narrative of strength and change.

If a memory is a central part of your identity, a self-serving distortion is even more likely.” How many of us have come across our old journals or diaries, and felt like they were reading the life story of someone else? We will frequently look at the entries and say ‘wow, I don’t remember being like this at all’.

Okay, so our memories are unreliable. Hardly a surprise. For the millions of people who frantically search for their car keys every morning, it will not be shocking that your fourth year birthday cake wasn’t the bad-ass Batman you remember, but a cute puppy with giant eyes. So why worry about memory?

The self-justifying mechanisms of memory would be just another charming and often exasperating aspect of human nature were it not for the fact that we live our lives, make decisions about people, form guiding philosophies, and construct entire narratives on the basis of memories that are often dead wrong.

When we use our memories to strengthen our narratives, it causes huge dissonance when those memories are revealed to be false. It often requires a rewriting of the entire narrative. This is incredibly hard for humans, provoking what can be thought of as an existential crisis. If I am who I am because of my experiences, what happens when those experiences cease to exist? Do I, in a sense, cease to exist as well?

Admitting Mistakes

In order to be able to admit mistakes, to correct the spiraling self-justification that can have devastating consequences for ourselves and others, we need to accept that “something we did can be separated from who we are, and who we want to be. Our past selves need not be a blueprint for our future selves. The road to redemption starts with the understanding that who we are includes what we have done but also transcends it, and the vehicle for transcending it is self-compassion.”

This clears the path. It allows us to let go of the past and focus on building the future. More of this would result in an inevitable boon to society.

What is needed is a deep understanding not only of what went wrong then but also of what is going wrong right now, the better to prepare for what could go wrong with current decisions.

The authors argue that is a problem, particularly endemic to North America, that we associate mistakes with failure. We need to shift the thinking, to see mistakes as part of the learning process, necessary steps on the road to making things better.

The amazing thing is, most of us find it refreshing and positive when people admit mistakes. We long to hear our politicians or intellectual leaders or even our relatives say ‘yeah, I messed up. No excuses, I own it, and now I want to fix it’. Hearing this frees us and allows us to do the same.

So try it out. Right now. Think about a mistake you’ve made recently. We all have; with our kids, our partners, our colleagues. Pick one. Think about the narrative you told yourself in the aftermath. Now kick that narrative to the curb and leave it there. You don’t need it anymore. Then find a mirror. Admit to yourself you made a mistake.

Last step. Go find the person you hurt and own up to your mistake. I know this sounds scary, but the more we do this the more authentic and rewarding our relationships will be.

What We Can Learn From The Laboratory of Literature: Two Great Thinkers

We all have a feeling that literature is important. And yet many of us avoid the category altogether, feeling it's a waste of time to pick up literature when we can learn so much more from non-fiction. Literature, however, isn't a waste of time at all. In fact, literature saves us time.

Literature rapidly increases our learning. We learn through experiences, either our own or those of other people. Literature amplifies our exposure to a range of situations and events that would otherwise take decades for us to experience ourselves. For example, we can safely learn what it's like to get divorced, quit your job and fly to another country on a whim, have an affair, be in love, or kill someone.

Literature allows us to live other lives. We can be a Princess or a Prince. And we can explore what's really on our minds, which makes us feel less lonely. We can be good or evil. We can explore taboo sexual fantasies and more. Importantly, we can explore with an honesty and safety that is generally unavailable to us in our day-to-day life. We don't have to compromise. As Emerson wrote, “In the works of great writers we find our own neglected thoughts.”

Through literature, we develop emotional connections with characters and a shared community. We witness unparalleled kindness and terror. And though these experiences, we start to learn about ourselves and others. Reading the right passage can feel like the author knows us better than we know ourselves. It can put coherence to things we've only felt. If we are the territory, good literature can be the map.

Literature opens us up to a wider range of emotions. We learn to shift our perspective by putting ourselves in the shoes of others. We learn about who we are and who we want to be. And we experience the second order consequences of choices without having to live them ourselves.

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Umberto Eco in On Literature and Jean-Paul Sartre in What is Literature, expand on our sense community.

Literature allows for community. All literature encompasses at least a community of two: the reader and the writer. And each member plays a valuable role. As Sartre writes “each one trusts the other; each one counts on the other, demands of the other as much as he demands of himself.”

The community of great books becomes so large that it becomes part of our culture. When this happens, the work allows us to share experiences with others we've never met, making us better global citizens. Eco explains “certain characters have become somehow true for the collective imagination because over the course of centuries we have made emotional investments in them.”

Many generations of people have experienced Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice and Athos from The Three Musketeers. These stories have become part of our shared fabric, even for those who haven't read the books. We transcend time and place. These characters make us feel. Whether it's the joy that Elizabeth felt reading Dary's letters or the sadness that Athos felt because he could never come to terms with the complexity of Milady. And importantly we learn moral lessons. Who doesn't know ‘all for one and one for all.'

Eco suggests that literature has a lot to teach us about fate, or destiny, because no matter one’s desire, the story is already written and cannot be changed. As a reader we discover more than information, “it is the discovery that things happen, and have always happened, in a particular way.”

We all wish we could change stories. That we could sit down with a character and say ‘hey, aren’t you overthinking this retribution thing? Or, just be honest with her, she loves you’ and rewrite their endings. Eco thinks this is part of the power of literature, “against all our desires to change destiny, they make tangible the impossibility of changing it. And in so doing, no matter what story they are telling, they are also telling our own story, and that is why we read them and love them.” Through this emotional investment, we start to see the world through the eyes of others, with their limited information.

Literature further contributes to developing community by participating in the creation of language and identity. Eco writes that “without Dante there would have been no unified Italian language,” and then goes on to say “we might also think of what Greek civilization would have been like without Homer, German identity without Luther’s translation of the Bible, the Russian language without Pushkin, or Indian civilization without its foundation epics.”

The language used in works of literature that attract large communities enters the lexicon and becomes part of the identity of the collective. Even if you haven't read the original work, its impact is accessible to you. For example, how many of us know that a ‘foregone conclusion’ originated in Othello? Or that to call someone a ‘laughing stock’ came from The Merry Wives of Windsor? These phrases started in the works of Shakespeare, but the huge community of readers has taken these beyond their original pages and made them part of everyday speech to the extent that we no longer associate them with literature. They are just ‘how we speak’.

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Another value of literature is its link with freedom.

The freedom to express ideas that challenge people, to create language to capture aspects of the human condition, to bring to the forefront stories that go against the majority and which in doing so might make us uncomfortable. Sartre writes, “the freedom of writing implies the freedom of the citizen. One does not write for slaves. The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy. When one is threatened, the other is too.”

Literature questions. It asks, what if? What if she does this? What if the world looks like that? It places characters in a certain time and space, imbues them with particular qualities and lets them go, showing us what can happen if we marry the wrong person, ignore our values, or survive a war. And thus implores us to question as well. Are we making the right choices?

This, of course, implies that we have choices, and thus Sartre’s link to democracy. To write and to read both involve freedom. Thus the value of literature is more than the stories, it is also the link it provides to others, the sense of community it can develop, and the social structures it supports.

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Still Curious? Here's a list of fiction that influences and inspires