a brief but serious and provocative look at mindful language
(about 4.5 pages on my word processor with font-size 12)
Language is perhaps the most amazing of human inventions, at least so far. I just finished reading a recently published book on the origins of language, co-authored by a linguist and a neuro-physiologist (someone who measures and studies things like the electrical patterns in a living human brain– whether one that is “healthy” or not). The ultra-short version of the content of the book is that significant quantities of evidence support the intriguing possibility that humans evolved language as an indirect by-product of developing the capacity to throw.
No other primate can throw with anything close to the accuracy of the dominant hunter among earthling creatures, the human. The particular complexity of throwing (for the primary purpose of hunting) is distinct from the also complex neuro-physiology involved in something like walking or seeing. While I don’t think it was never mentioned in that book (titled “Lingua Ex Machina”), I can imagine that the upright walking of humans may have set the evolutionary foundation for throwing, besides the obvious freeing up of the arms, though there are other species that would walk upright on two legs, such as penguins and kangaroos and tyrannosaurus rex, though apparently none of them developed language.
The particular way that throwing involves a set of joints all making incredibly precise motions, with the throwing movement being coordinated between the eyes (looking at a target that may be moving- such as a penguin or kangaroo) and refining the joint motions for the particularities of the projectile being launched and the wind and so on, is an extremely distinct neurological process from any other process of any earthling species. Other primates may grab branches to swing or toss, but their accuracy is quite imprecise.
Only humans throw. And we’re all “wired” to do it… and very well.
Plus, throwing is not just a trivial thing, like a thing for sports or games, at least not from an evolutionary perspective. The ecological dominance of humans on this planet is predicated on the immense superiority of human hunting over the hunting of any other species (at least on the land). Apparently, the immense superiority of human hunting for the last several million years on the whole rests on the single fulcrum of throwing.
What is established by recent neuro-physiology experiments (with the latest scanning equipment and so on) is that the actual process by which humans link together words and prepositions and clauses may actually use the exact same neural pathways and functions as the process of throwing a projectile- or close enough to have attracted the attention of neuro-physiologists. Apparently, the unconscious planning process of throwing is virtually identical neurologically with the unconscious planning process of how humans as young as 2 years old can suddenly shift from sprinkles of words to complex sentence structures running on and on with embedded verbs and pronouns. Of course, 2 year-olds are notorious for making mistakes in their use of “irregular” verb tenses, but the fact that most anyone can effortlessly understand what they are “saying almost correctly” is still distinctive, even though mastery of the various verb formations generally takes several more years.
So, first, language just magically appears, with single words and then sets of up to five related words- which is about how far other primates can go when taught sign language. Soon, human children begin producing complex sentences and eventually learn that they do not have mastery of all the verb forms. That is the stage of “conscious incompetence” in regard to conjugating verbs- which seems much easier for small human children to master than human adults who study a language foreign to them. (This may be related to the fact that adults typically try to learn foreign language by reading it, which is never how they learned to speak their native “tongues,” with tongues being a physiological reference to the primacy of speech in language.)
Indian family in Brazil posed in front of hut – 3 bare-breasted females, baby and man with bow and arrows. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Within a few more years beyond the age of 2, young humans typically develop conscious competence in various aspects of grammar and syntax- when they can produce proper constructions of spoken language, but only with attention and effort. They can distinguish proper and improper constructions, but sometimes only if reminded and prompted.
They are competent in properly constructing complex language, but only when conscious to properly forming their language. With a few more years of practice, that competency may be automatic and unconscious for most humans.
Other primates that have been taught sign language apparently do not have the capacity to communicate in complex sentence structures at all. The other primates that have so far been taught sign language seem not to comprehend complex sentences and do not ever generate them.
How humans can decode complex sentences and even produce them as early as the age of 2 is still somewhat mysterious no matter how well a biologist may explain how this capacity evolved. Consider the recurring amazement of some grandparents, even though they may have already witnessed more than a few young humans develop competency in language. Of course, no one is surprised that human children learn to speak in general- though not all do- but many children may surprise us with the particularities of their learning of language. “Oh, you won’t believe what she said today!” We may be simply amazed at language itself- and being around a young child just learning language tends to remind us of how amazing all language is.
Likewise, no one is surprised that human children learn to throw with accuracy, though some children’s skill may be distinctively impressive, “at least for someone of such a young age.” However, in the current state of human culture, throwing to hunt is not of particular functional relevance to most human families, while competency in language may be essential to adaption and survival- not only to particular families, but even to humanity itself.
So, what is language for?
Language, according to evolutionary neuro-physiologists, not only developed using the exact same neural pathways as those for hunting, but may have developed specifically to improve the process of hunting. While one human with throwing precision can out-perform most any other predator on land, some of those other predators hunt in packs- and some of those predators may even hunt humans.
Further, if most any human can develop the skill of throwing with precision, how is it that some human groups (such as the Europeans) have consistently dominated certain other groups (such as the Native Americans)? Consider that language could be a factor.
One may suggest that military technology- such as the use of domesticated horses, tanks, ballistic missiles, grenade launchers, or helicopters- is the foundation of the military dominance of “the industrialized west.” However, consider that the most basic foundation is language, and that it was through language that not only did groups of humans organize their throwing into the most effective hunting parties among all land species, but that the singular technology of language was foundational to the development of all other forms of organized military dominance, from the stage of invention to the accumulating and refining of of raw material resources like steel and oil, the mass production of new technology, the distribution of the technology, the training of soldiers, and the implementation of whatever complex technologies for conducting the organized violence of the already dominant (AKA “legitimate”) governments as well as any competing factions.
So language is not just a means by which to improve hunting for a kin group- just as throwing improves hunting for an individual. Language is also a tool for various families and tribes and nations and factions to compete with each other. Language is now a primary mechanism of social organization.
A fMRI scan showing regions of activation in orange, including the primary visual cortex (V1, BA17). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In military terms, the use of language for social organization is called propaganda. Propaganda may sometimes be much more efficient for governing troops and conducting psychological warfare than other available methods, such as overt terrorism (“hot warfare”). Note that a popular definition of terrorism is “organized violence conducted specifically for the advancing of a political purpose,” which may seem functionally synonymous with “war.”
Currently, there is massive redistribution of the ownership of resources underway from those who are incompetent in certain uses of language toward those who are competent. Consider that the language of promises has enticed many investors, though they may have not considered the viability of the stated promises.
It may be a promise made by a politician: “Everyone will have more because we as your government will take from some of you and give to some of you, plus maybe keep just a little something for ourselves, but only a little- we promise!” Or, it may be the promise made by the salesperson for an insurance company: “It would be foolish for you to purchase anything other than this annuity contract. In this contract, we promise to pay you consistent returns no matter what happens to the value of the underlying investments.”
Did you notice anything unusual about that last sentence? If not, I invite you to read it again (and again).
Hey, didn’t you just say: “no matter what happens to the value of this investment, we guarantee the value of this investment?” Isn’t that at least just a little bit weird?
These promises may be instantly ridiculous when stated in clear language (such as in a political cartoon), but still many people invest in such promises and then express surprise and upset when they are unsatisfied by the results of their investments in promises which may have been unrealistic from the beginning. The particular types of promises which would most predictably de-stabilize governments and insurance companies and credit markets and so on may be the ones in which some people would be most eager to invest.
With each passing moment, some human groups may prosper more than others. The ones that are most competent in language may predictably develop further their social dominance. Their investments will differ from the investments of others, and thus their results will differ. Whenever a group of humans invest, some may prosper more than others.
In particular, government programs may be used to discourage certain behaviors as allegedly unsafe while encouraging others as allegedly safe. Is it possible that governments might ever publicize information that was inaccurate (whether the KGB or the FDA or the SEC)? Even sincere communicators may occasionally make mistakes, and certainly some bureaucrats are quite sincere. I used to be a bureaucrat myself, though I “did not quite fit in.”
In publicly-funded educational systems, participants may be trained in a certain ideology of how things should be. Training in how things should be is a way of distracting attention from how things are. Of course, people will eventually find out various details of how things are, but when they have been indoctrinated in advance with an ideology of how things should be, then people may reject certain details of how things actually are, then ridicule, condemn and finally try to “correct” those things. Of course, such so-called liberalism is encouraged and then made distinctive by also encouraging a slightly varied form of idealism called conservatism.
Human brain – midsagittal cut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For instance, by propagating the myth that governments have ever been anything other than instruments of social control (i.e governing operations), then producing ideology of how certain methods of governing are fundamentally better than others, the masses are set up for outrage when they confront the reality that it is not only the foreign governments identified by their governments as “your enemy” that implement propaganda, exploit their own domestic populations, and so on. Outraged intellectuals then predictably push for however trivial reforms, believing that government has ever been anything other than corruption and thus could someday be cured of any “sudden new outbreak” of corruption.
Returning to the broader subject of language, language is the only realm in which the form of deception called lying can manifest. Politicians and governments seem to specialize in this type of language. I am not saying this of certain politicians, or only of politicians of a certain foreign government alleged to be “our enemy,” or of a certain historical period of time. Politicians- or the most successful ones at least- tend to be those most competent in a particular manifestation of language called lying. In fact, deception and even self-deception may not only be epidemic amongst politicians, but amongst all the populations of the industrialized west, though perhaps most notoriously so amongst lawyers and salespeople and so on (teenagers?).
The fundamental linguistic self-deception or delusion is this: “this should not be.” The rejecting of anything simply because it does fit a preconceived notion of how it should be is a rejecting that may be happening however consciously or unconsciously.
Further, the selecting of certain particular things, then interpreting of those things as valuable or relevant is always based on models of prior experiences. We, like all biological organisms, always have available for our attention huge ranges of perception, and we select certain perceptions, rejecting all others, then we organize or interpret those limited perceptions into our emerging behavior. That is called adaption- or life.
Many of us may be unconscious of our incompetence in regard to sustainable living- like a chimpanzee that does not comprehend complex sentence structure, so does not ever have issues with proper or improper sentence construction. We may worship certain indoctrinated ideologies as “what should be,” then react against reality, resisting it, wishing to fix it, shaming it, looking for who to blame for how inconveniently real reality is.
Soon, some of us, in the sustainability of our patterns of living, may shift from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. Conscious incompetence is also known as the stage of learning (or of “the seeker”).
The term “spiritually dead” or “asleep” has been used for those who may be unconscious of their true social functionality. Of course, those who are most fanatical about how they are “born again”and so on may be the least spiritually alive or awake. Religions, by the way, may have been formed in order to organize social groups for the particular benefit of certain portions of the organized social grouping.
Those who are consciously competent recognize that attention and discipline may be relevant in order to practically adapt. They may be beyond the stages of rejecting reality or fixing it (or of ignoring or denying it). However, their partnering with reality is still in the realm of developing increasing competence.
For them, noticing how language forms- like moment to moment- may be one of many subjects of particular interest to them. The term “mindfulness” has been used for that quality of attention and consciousness which is neither that of one asleep nor a novice nor one fully awakened.
The most ridiculous of all ideologies may be in the form characteristic of “religious psychology:” how I should be. However, for the novice, exposure to the fact of ideological delusions of “how I should be” may be an essential part of training and development. Mythology is another word for religious psychology, and every religion has mythology, just as every government has mythology. Governments, by the way, may be the dominant forms of religion on the planet today. (Or, saying the same thing with other words, perhaps religions used to be the dominant form of government on the planet.)
Either way, both government and religion are institutions organized specifically to influence human behavior. Perhaps by studying religious language and religion in general, that is a fitting context for developing our basic skills before we actually wake up to the point that we may be ready to “go out there and get in to the dirty trenches” of politics. Or, perhaps religion really is, as it advertises, the singular escape from the hell of delusion and contentiousness. Are you willing to explore that question further now?