A Psychological Look at Language

Introduction

To look at language is to look at speech and also to thinking. Both speech and thinking use language. But we will be focusing on the language side of the equation.

Language can be looked at from many angles. For example, we can get a picture of sentences on a piece of paper and think to ourselves, "That's what language is."

Or we can think of the same sentences and break them up into the periods at their ends, their nouns, their verbs, and so on, and we can think of language as a series of nouns and verbs expressing complete thoughts.

Or we can picture the individual letters of an alphabet and imagine them strung in a row, and we can think of language as letters strung together in different ways.

Or we can think of a language as a small set of sounds that can be joined together in different ways by the language users, according to the rules of grammar of that language, in order to express certain thoughts and feelings.

Or we can picture people talking and can think of their goals in talking, and we can come to see language as one tool among many for getting certain things done.

Or we can think of the meaning of words and sentences and think of language as a system for expressing meanings and ideas.

These ways of looking at language don’t contradict each other, but they are different.

Different psychologists look at language from different angles. Some focus on the different stages in the learning of languages. Others become fascinated by how language is learned and the best way to teach it. Still others focus on the parts of the brain involved in language acquisition and use and on what happens to language ability in people with brain injuries. And clinicians may be interested in the hidden meanings in the linguistic expressions of their patients as well as the emotions connected with different words and phrases. – And so on.

I should also add that Buddhist and Jewish mystics (and, I would guess, mystics of other religions also) have turned their attention to language. Jewish mystics, for example, discussed the various names of G-d, and the letters used in these names. The Sefer Yetzirah, for example, says that the world was created by the Lord using the twenty two Hebrew letters (maybe through His speaking them) and the first ten numbers, and Kabbalists think that a person can penetrate into the mind of the Lord, as it were, by meditating on the Hebrew letters in the proper way. Even the parts of the letters have deep significance.

While respecting each and every one of these approaches as well as the numerous others that we have not even touched on (for example, those of the philosophers of language and of the computer programmers), we will leave all of these behind. This does not mean I want to move into the realm of the poet. I want to remain within the realm of psychology.

What I want to do is to demonstrate, using language, not only how important it is, but its influence in ways that are very difficult to put into words; how it leads us into all kinds of psychological worries and tangles; and that it can also lead us out of them.

Names are important

In the Jewish Bible, God gives Adam the responsibility of naming all the animals. The fact that this is actually mentioned at all, let alone so early in the first book of the Bible, is an indication, I think, of how important naming probably is. Related to this is the ancient idea, that we now think of as "magic," that knowing something's name gives a person power over it.

Most people probably have difficulty remembering when they began to learn the names of people and things. We probably find it very difficult or impossible to remember a time before we learned language. Equally difficult is to imagine what it must be like to be a dog or any other animal that, as we think, do not understand language. Of course religious or spiritually oriented people do speak of "the language of the animals." It is said, for example, that Rabbi Isaac Luria understood the language of birds and other animals. The same thing was said of St. Francis of Assisi.

It is possible to get a hint of what it was like for us in our pre-language pasts and maybe even what it may be like to be a dog or cat or to have been Adam, before he named everything, if we think now about things in our current experiences we can't name.

I hate to use a pretty crude example from my own life, but it is relevant. Living in a rural setting, there are many people in the area who suffer allergies leading to sinus problems. I am one of these people. I can wake in the middle of the night feeling an unpleasant sensation in the back of my throat or in my sinuses, I'm not sure how to say where. And I do something with my nose and throat that makes a rather loud noise that sometimes helps releave the area and clear it.

Now that thing I do must have a name, at least in medical circles. And that whole problem area — the space inside my head in which I feel the discomfort — definitely could be divided into parts and named by anyone familiar with the anatomy of the head. But I can't name any of it. I can focus on it all — it's a living reality for me — but I can only talk about it in the general way I just did. If I go to my doctor next week, and he asks me how I am, and I decide to try to tell him about the problem I have at night, I may not be able to, as we say, "find the right words."

And because I can't find the right words, it will make his job difficult, maybe even impossible. If I could name the area and name the action I do to try to clear the area, there may be a very straightforward way of easing the problem. Being able to describe the problem using the correct names would give him the power to be able to fix the problem. Naming is an ability and a power.

To name and describe is not to fix it, but it can be a first step, and maybe, in some cases, it is a necessary step. It is easy to see how people in the pre-science age could feel that they had made a true step forward in influencing a thing or person by learning the "proper" name. It could explain why some native people might have an urge to hide their names from their enemies or why they might have two names, a secret name, known to them and their intimates, and a public name that others could know.

We do not need to agree that getting a name of a person and writing it on a piece of papyrus and then burning it will hurt the person, but, even from a modern, scientific perspective, we can agree that learning the name of an enemy might be a first step in being able to defend ourselves from that enemy.

The point I am trying to make is that there are times now, as adults, as language speaking adults, where we don't know the right words for something. And, in that moment, we may feel helpless and powerless and confused, and this may be very much as we felt when we were just learning language.

It is possible to state this even more dramatically: There are whole areas of life into which we may enter, from time to time, about which we know hardly anything, and, in which, we feel like "babes in the woods." There are situations into which we could be placed, in which we would hardly name anything, that is, in which the languages we have learned would fail us almost completely. In these situations we would feel, possibly, how pre-linguistic children feel and how animals feel. And these situations do arise in the lives of many or all of us, from time to time.

To take this line of thought still one step further, in every single human experience there is something we know how to name and describe and many things that we can't name or describe, even those of us very good with language. And some of these things have no names. We can make up names, but, until we could teach them to others, they would be part of our own private languages and would make us feel alone and separate from others — from those who are chatting away as if they knew everything and understood everything. We would, at these times, I think, feel the challenge children must feel when they watch the grown-ups chatting away or when dogs lie at the feetof their masters, listening to them drone on, and wish they could get something or other through to them.

These thoughts may help us understand a practice in Judaism that I demonstrated above. Orthodox Jews never write the name of G-d. If they are writing it in English, they put an - instead of the o as I just did, or they use the Hebrew word Hashem which can be translated as The Name (the idea being that they are avoiding naming G-d by talking, instead, about His name).

If knowing the name of something gives you some power (or the beginnings of some power) over the thing, naming the Lord would give at least some power over Him. But, it will be thought by religious people, that this is not possible. For this reason it is not so much blasphemous to use the Holy Name, but impertinent and arrogant and impossible.

And yet there is an idea that there is a secret name of the Lord, in fact there are more than one. One Jewish tradition has it that Jesus stole the name and used it for magical purposes. But, within Jewish tradition, there are certain very holy Jews (for example, Abraham or the Prophet Jeremiah) who are supposed to have known the Name and who knew how to manipulate it for good (for example, to make an artificial human, a Golem, who could help the Jewish people).

So there is a tension between the tradition that that there is no way to ever know the name of G-d and that we shouldn't even pretend to mention it and that we should use - or some other method to remind ourselves that we can never really name Him — that is one tradition. And the other tradition says that, certain people can learn divine names and derive tremendous power from them and can use them for good or bad.

Language is powerful

I'll never forget a psychotic woman I used to see. She seemed to me to be a very nice woman, and she felt so badly about herself that she was in agony. Her talk would be tortured, but also she exaggerated her negative view of herself to the point where she was delusional. We would talk about this and that throughout the session, nothing deep, no profound psychological analyses, and about half way through the session, we would be talking along as normally as any two people would talk. She would be happy, and we were just chatting along about this and that normal topic.

I have always been impressed by how talk, not deep psychological talk, but just ordinary talk led to the dissipation, not only of the agony, but also of the delusions. All this through warm, friendly conversation.

This is certainly not a new idea. Everyone knows how we can be inspired and moved and uplifted by words. Or we can be "pulled down." Sometimes, when we are "flying high," words can "bring us down to earth," down to reality. At other times, when we are "down in the dumps," someone's sensible words can make us see that things may not be quite as bad as we think.

Sometimes the sensible words inform us of new facts. Other times they make us see the same facts in a different way. At other times it is the feelings that they convey or the images they stimulate that "take us out of ourselves," to another higher (or lower) level. And words can make us laugh or make us cry, they can wound or heal us, and they can "bind us in a spell" (that is, be "spell-binding"). And, while mired in a spell, another person's words can wake us up out of it, liberate us from it, and make us see the situation in a different light ("throw a whole new light on the matter").

It's hard to resist mentioning the obvious: we have to be very very careful about how we can be led to do all sorts of bad things by the silvery words of people good at making bad things look good. You can wind up doing all sorts of terrible things that will only look terrible to you later, after you wake up, as it were, and for which you will then suffer terrible guilt. Of course these words, are weak, and, even if they have some small impact now, in the moment, they will soon fade away, into the wind, and be long gone at the very moment they might be able to be the most useful. Oh well, all of us old-timers can't resist tossing out a few words of warning now and then. They are usually ignored proving that not all words are powerful.

On the other hand, to mention another obvious fact, language gives the power to communicate with people who we don't and can't see and who live far away times and places.

One more simple example is from something I often see on television. I person will be interviewed and will say, "I want to be candid with you," and then they go on to say this or that. Or they say, "In all honesty," and then they say this and that. And often the interviewer will say, "Thank you for being so candid," or something like this. Or the advertisement for the interview will be, "A candid interview with so and so" or "A reveal all, tell all interview," or some such blurb. But the point is that just because someone says, "I want to speak candidly now" or "I want to be perfectly honest with you" does not mean that they are going to be candid or perfectly honest. The words used to introduce the comments that are to follow don't insure the comments will be true. Yet it is tempting to fall for it. We trust words so much (and people) that if a person tells us they are going to tell us the truth and the whole truth, that sets us up to believe them, and, even if we are skeptical, we may have to work hard to resist falling under the spell of the words.

Language and reality

We have spoken about language and how there are different ways to approach language and to picture it and to think about it, even within psychology. We moved on to discuss names and naming and then to discuss how language can wound or heal and how, through it, we have the power to "transport" ourselves and others. It is now time to turn to the difficult question of the relation between language and reality.

If we approach this question by thinking of language as being a series of sentences, each with different grammatical parts, we can begin to develop a certain type of theory of language. We can, for example, say that nouns are linked to or refer to things in the world, whereas verbs refer to or describe the actions of these things. And so on. But I am not going to approach language in this way.

I want us to remember that we can't get away from language in trying to understand language and its use and place. We can lay a frog into a dish in the anatomy lab and dissect it and examine it, and we are not the frog or the dissection or the examination. Language is different. If we are able to take a little piece of language and hold it up and pull it into parts and examine the parts and think about them, we are still using language to think and talk about it all.

And the first point I want to make is that language, it seems to me, is very closely connected to the imagination, and, secondly, in a closely related point, language, in a way that is difficult to describe, brings a sense of reality with it.

I can think of no better way to explain what I mean by these two points then to note that I have been thinking in a language (English) and writing in that language for an hour or two and have been, as we say, "totally absorbed in" what I have writing about. All the talk about naming and about picturing sentences on paper and nouns and verbs and about letters and sounds was all just that, talk, as it were. There were actual letters on the screen in front of me, including the ones I am typing at this very moment, and they are parts of sentences and parts of the English language, but I never once thought about, let alone noticed, any of them. I was absorbed in my imagination and thoughts and not in the language coming out on the screen in front of my very eyes. Language can take us away from everyday reality and into our imaginations and thoughts, and it can absorb us so much that we take what we are thinking about as altogether real and even as the only reality.

I suppose that it always has been and always will be that the language of older generations seems stilted and archaic to younger generations. And I suppose it always has been and always will be that the language of younger generations strikes older generations as abrasive and uncivilized. But, even though I am in the current older generation, I find one phrase from the current younger generation in the United States intriguing and perceptive. It is short and simple. When someone starts talking to you about a subject, and you feel the talk is creating a picture or an imaginary reality that is inaccurate and unpleasant, then you say, "Don't go there! I don't want to go there!" This is metaphorical, but, still speaking metaphorically, it suggests that language can take you place.

If we believe a person is a good person and trying to help us and that they are wise and knowledgeable, we might listen to their words and try to understand and try to penetrate into their true meaning. We feel that they hold or contain some secret that can be of use to us. This was certainly how it has been throughout the ages for mystical novices who feel their guru's words, if understood properly, will illuminate their lives and liberate them from suffering. Similarly, though to a lesser extent, patients in psychotherapy may hang on every word of their therapists hoping for a clue that will help them escape from their private hells.

As a psychologist, I have read or skimmed many mystical texts by many revered masters and have found that more than a few of the authors considered the human breath to be very important. All of the texts that discuss the breath, (and I have seen them from the Tibetan Buddhist, the Chinese Taoist, and the Jewish Kabbalah) distinguish between different types of breath.

For example — and this is clearly an infinitesimally small point for people busy with what may be the life and death issues of their own lives — there is a discussion of the difference between the air that comes into the mouth as opposed to the air that goes out of it. And the air from the breath of the mouth is distinguished in such texts from the air that is deep in the lungs in the chest. And all of these breaths are said to be different from the air in the nose which itself can be divided into the air that comes in the left side and the air that comes in the right side. And these two airs coming into the nose are different from the two airs that go out from the nose, one out the left side and one out the right side. In a four hundred year old Kabbalistic text that was written without the benefit of contemporary scientific knowledge, it is even said that there is a breath inside the left ear and another inside the right ear. If we stop everything and listen carefully, it is said, we can hear it!

Whether we want to stop everything to hear the so-called "breath" in our ears is another matter, but, if we do listen very carefully, in a quiet environment — which is probably something most of us have done — we do hear a pulsing sound in our ears though, in the Twentieth Century, we don't think of it as air.

So there are the sounds in our two ears and the in-and-out breaths of our right and left nostrils and the in-and-out breaths in our mouths and the air from deep breaths that sinks deep into our chests. And these are all inside us, deep inside us and can be distinguished clearly from the sensations on the outside of our bodies, on our skins, and from the sounds outside ourselves and from the visible world which is outside ourselves, a world of trees and animals and people and the sky. It is as if each one of us is like an onion: in the deepest core are all the airs of the breaths. External to this is a layer of blood vessels with their blood. And then there are layers of the inside and outside of our muscles, and so on, until we reach the outside and the earth and then the sky that surrounds us and that are brought to us by our eyes and ears.

And all this is given to us by language which can, in these texts, lead us on long "journeys," long meditative exercises in thought and imagination. It will probably not surprise the reader to learn that the breath is often connected in such texts with the soul. Sometimes different breaths (for example, the breath of the nose as opposed to the breath of the mouth) are connected with different souls. And there is the idea that wind or breath was involved in the creation of the world and also that correct breathing can lead to longer life and even to immortality.

All these thoughts are expressed in language. This is not the simple arousal of emotions or the stimulation of the imagination. It is hard to say what it is. It seems, at times, that language is being used to point out to us different parts of reality that we have forgotten or never noticed. At other times it seems to break us out of conceptual schemes that have frozen us in a limited view of reality and takes us to the very edge of our experience, so that we can live it, fresh and unfettered. At other times it seems to promise things we long for and lead us to falling into thinking that they are, that we can taste them and live them, even if later reflection makes them recede and dissolve. We can forget what is real and what isn't.

Once we remind ourselves that we have been pulled away from where we are through words, we can "snap out of it" and close our ears and try not to listen, but, while we are "in it" it is our realities. It is as real as any reality, while it is happening, even if it turns out, later, to be just a bunch of words. This is the power of language.

We may get so confused by the ways and byways of language that we even begin to wonder if there is a reality outside language, and we may have to remember, the hard way, that there is. We may not want to listen to a captivating radio commentator while we're driving or even listen to our own thoughts too much if we are on guard duty.

And it is easy, at least for a certain type of person, to get lost in layer after layer of linguistic enterprises. Philosophers will remember Berkeley's exercises in which he has us imagine a tree in the park, and, for a moment, for the eager reader, there it is, the tree in the park, and the reader forgets that it is "only" in the imagination, an imagination stimulated by words. Even now, while we speak about Berkeley and his readers and their imaginations and the parks and trees in their imaginations, our own imaginations are stimulated and peopled and confused with all kinds of imaginary figures that we forget, more or less, are unreal — and all this due to the seduction of words.

It is not that these excursions are wrong or bad, and I don't think we can avoid them. In fact, they can, I think, help us integrate all the deepest regions of ourselves with our lives in the world that is outside us. If we can't avoid language, perhaps we can become more aware of when we are using it, when we run into situations we feel are beyond our linguistic powers to capture and describe, and how we use it, for good and bad, in our affairs with others and in the deepest musings of our own hearts and minds. Language can tangle us (and others) in knots, and it can be used to understand the tangles and, possibly, to avoid them in the future. On the positive side it can help us cast things in new lights, formulate and hold on to original approaches, and charge us up when we need to be charged.

Psychologists, in working with patients, must allow themselves to be drawn into the wildest roamings of the imaginations of their patients. They must "go along with" and try to understand. And it is often very difficult to understand, and it's almost true that we misunderstand as much or more than we understand.

Yet the psychologist, even while working to understand the material of the patient (and his or her own material), must remember that, even though the material is real, in a sense, in the moment, new twists in language's meanderings can (and should) make it look different, less or more real. The psychologist does not have the luxury of the religious believer of allowing him or her self to take any particular formula or formulation as the only one to which we will commit. The psychologist must remain fluid. At the same time, there seems to be truths that are very deep that we want to, along with others, begin to name and describe in a manner that others can understand and utilize. As we expore new psychological territory, we bring language with us to help us cope with what we find and describe it to others.

Demonstration of the subtlety of language

This section is a continuation of the last and is an attempt to demonstrate how subtle the seductiveness of language can be. I will start the demonstration by pointing out a distinction with which we are all familiar. It is a dramatic one. On the one hand there is death, the reality of death, the fact that we will all be dead one day. On the other hand, there are thoughts of death, fantasies about death, fears of dying, thoughts about what it might be like to die or to be dead (including thoughts about the possibility of a life after death). So, on the one hand there is a reality, and, on the other hand, there are thoughts and fantasies about the reality. Death on the one hand; imagining on the other. Reality vs. fantasy. —

However, and this was the goal of the demonstration, though it seems the two sides of the equation are completely different — what could be more different than reality and thoughts of reality? — yet, in reality, both sides are only thoughts of reality. They are both talk, language. Death is real, but "Death is real" is an English sentence that inspires thoughts of death, fantasies of death, fears of death, but are not death itself. For most of us, now, death is not in the room.

There is a distinction between death and thoughts of death, but talking about it is talk which involves thought and imagination but not necessarily any corpses. Yet we forget. We drift into thinking that if we are opposing death with thoughts of death and if we add the word "reality" and talk about "the reality of death" to empasize how different cold, stark reality is from thought, that we are somehow, thereby, magically in the presence of death or closer to the presence and reality of death than when we merely think about deatj. But talking of the reality of death, even of the cold, hard, brutal, stark reality of a corpse, is just talk and thought. If we think we have escaped thought we are deluding ourselves: we can't escape thoughts with more thinking.

All this talk and thought and words would become like last week's dream if death suddenly did come into the room. If we think of this — and all we are doing is thinking of it — then it becomes easier to see how language is hypnotic, how it pulls us into the imagination without our doing anything but listening. Even language that turns us to what is in front of our eyes or in our chests, that is, even language that turns us towards the reality of our senses, has to pull us into itself for a second, hypnotize us, capture our minds, turn our minds from reality, in order to then turn it back to reality. This is another way of saying that using language is a way of exerting power, like it or not. — In fact, this paragraph is part of the demonstration. I have tried to make it long enough so that most readers will be pulled from the reality of their senses into the images and thoughts created by these words. It is only now that I want to stop talking, stop influencing the reader, stop this demonstration.

But I want to make the statement that, no matter what you do, no matter how you try, it is the nature of language and speech and writing and thinking, that, once someone starts using language, and we start listening and understanding, we are, at least to some extent, lost to ourselves. When we listen or read (or even think), it is very much as if we watching a movie — but there is no movie theater and no movie. This isn't bad. It can be very good and useful and informative and important, but it is still a movie. This goes for what others write, what you write, and what I write and wrote and am about to write. And, at some point, we all have to leave the movie theater and go out an live.

Demonstration of two ways of defining things

Psychotherapists and anyone interested in self-knowledge will become aware of two different ways language works. I will give three examples to demonstrate this. The examples concern three concepts: experience, evaluation (or feeling tone), and emotion.

The first way of defining things

Let's start with the first two concepts. There is a thought I want to express regarding experiences, but experience is a problematic concept. Let's say I were to say that every experience has a feeling tone connected to it. And I explain what I mean by saying that every experience is either positive or negative or neutral in feeling tone. And I add that another way to say this is to say that we can evaluate every experience we have as positive or negative or neutral. The problem is that many people do not seem to feel they have a clear understanding of what an experience is. Not only that, the people who do not have a clear understanding are often the very people — say in psychotherapy — who we often think could benefit from such a discussion.

So it is tempting to phrase everything differently. We might say, "Every thing has a positive or negative or neutral feeling tone associated with it." However, there is a problem with this formulation also. Pretty near everyone will understand what it means to say that a beautiful river has a positive feeling tone associated with it, but it is easy to argue with this. Isn't the beauty or positive feeling tone of a river, it will be argued, relative to different people? One person, unfamiliar with the behavior of the river, might find it beautiful, but another, who has suffered from the river's flood, might find it to be horrible or even demonic. Not only that (it might be argued), aren't feelings and evaluations aspects of humans and not inanimate things of nature like rivers? So we might be forced into going back to what we said before, that it is experiences (not objects) that have feeling tones.

I am not trying to prove that one formulation is correct and one wrong. In fact, I'm trying to indicate the opposite: that words mean different things to different people, and that to express certain thoughts, it is not enough to be careful and to say what you mean. It is also necessary to consider how the words will be understood by the listener. This is probably true whenever we talk, but there are some things that are more difficult to express clearly than others.

To put this all another way, communication is a trial and error activity. It is work. It is often necessary to put out something, to wait to see if we are understood, and then to modify our not to modify our formulations accordingly. Communication is context specific, even though there is an obvious consistency to language that cuts across situations and that allows us to communicate at all. To use a metaphor, language is serpentine in its path. If we understand someone else doesn't (or we think we understand someone else doesn't), the moment of communication may take a long time to occur. There is no recipe to making it happen. It can take weeks or months or even years. Both parties involved, looking back at the moment, may think of it almost as magic or as a miracle. Passes must be made, runs and re-runs, new approaches, repetitions, and so on, before an agreement of view is achieved.

For a person who is not used to thinking about his or her own experience, it may be very difficult to find the right words. The problems are obviously multiplied if the person has some reason to dodge or to try to avoid his or her experiences. It is even more difficult when we write about such matters. In writing it is usually very difficult or impossible to find out if the reader understands the writer. But writers about experience are able to use language to hint at or even refer to and describe their subject matter. It is often enough to talk about "unpleasant sensations in ones body," and many people will immediately know what is being referred to. They will have no trouble focusing on an itch or a pain or a feeling of nausea.

And many, or most, people have no trouble understanding what a pleasant or positive sensation is. Certain foods taste good, the experience of a mouthful of water when you are thirsty is a very positive, pleasant experience. It has a positive feeling tone. More confusing might be the word neutral. The idea writers try to express using this word are the innumerable experiences we have all day long that are neither positive nor negative. These are neutral, but, I think it is more precise to say that these experiences are ones we don't know how to evaluate. We are not really sure if they are positive or negative.It may be possible, also, that different sensations or experiences can be both positive and negative at the same time, but this is another issue.

Now let's move to our last concept, emotion. If we try to scan all our experiences, or, let us say, all the sensations, that are going on at any one moment, we may find them, as a whole, intense and either positive or negative. These are emotions. And, if we are having, say, intense negative sensations in a big mass, it is possible we can identify them more specifically. They may be primarily connected with and centered in our heart and its beatings. We may feel this deep within the chest area or as related tingling in our skins, and there are other negative sensations that may be associated with these. In my opinion, when we have this type of global, intense negative experience, this is what we often call Anxiety.

There are other intense negative emotions. Tension is another that I think is more connected to negative sensations in the muscles. And then there are, I think, emotions connected first and foremost with the nervous system. Depression and Exhaustion and Envy, not to mention Anger, are four other emotions. I leave it to the reader to explore and to try to understand the sensations that may be involved with these emotions.

Generally, in my view, emotions are global responses of the body and its different systems. And, with systems, I include such things as crying and sweating as well as the skin in general. Each emotion probably involves most of the systems but seems to have a central focus or, sometimes, more than one central focus.

What leads to negative emotions is varied. It can be the perception of something we encounter in the world. It may be a release of an hormone or some sort of drug or alcohol. It may be a wild journey in the imagination that meets possibilities that may be encountered. It may be some thought or even logical deduction that leads one to conclude that a disaster may be about to occur. And so on.

The second way of defining things

I have been defining experience, feeling tone, and emotion in one way. I have been using the method of trying to use language to point the reader to certain features of their own experiences. But there is a different way to define these concepts. This time let's start with the word emotion. It is possible to define it as follows: "Emotion is the awareness of a physical sensation." To show how this is a different approach to defining the concept, I want to point out that it is very easy to get entangled quickly in a whole series of arguments in relation to this definition. And this train of thought is on an intellectual and not on an emotional level. The definition is an intellectual one, a mental one, devised by thought, and the author of the definition and those arguing against it need not even have a real emotion to engage in their discussions.

There is the James-Lang definition or theory of emotion. There is the Cannon-Bard definition or theory. There is the Schacter-Singer definition or theory. And so on. The theory, developed independently by William James (in 1884) and Carl Lange, is the oldest of the three, the other two can be seen as a reaction to it. The relative place of stimulus, physiological responses, perceptions, brain reactions, and so on in emotions have been and will continue to be debated. In addition, there are arguments about how many emotions there are. Some say five, some say seven, some say more. There are scientists who have devoted their professional lives to studying emotions (for example, the study of the connection between facial expressions and the various emotions). There is at least one psychological journal devoted entirely to research on the emotions.

It is interesting for a psychologist to speculate on why people devote their lives to the study of emotions. We know that some doctors become doctors, because they were terrified with death when they were young or because a loved family member became sick or even died when they were young. Do people study emotions because they, or someone close to them, had some terrible emotional problem or disorder? Do they suffer from depression? Did their father's anger terrorize the family? Or some such thing. For those suffering from an overwhelming emotion, one that swept the body up into some infinite sea of intense negative feeling tones, how comforting it must be to believe there is some way of organizing it all into meaningful, discernible, definable, describable, distinguishable, and manageable parts. Naming and describing can be a beginning of power and control, as we already saw.

Whether or not these motives apply to some of the researchers into emotions is an open question. The two points I am making are, first, that this is not a bad motive, and it wouldn't hurt many people subject to emotional fits to want to understand them and bring them into consciousness and under some sort of conscious control. Emotions can be very dangerous to oneself and others. Some of our patients could be, and have been, benefited by reading about the emotions, reading some definition or other (it doesn't seem to matter just which one) of the word, studying a list of the emotions (again, it doesn't seem to matter just which list), and studying and trying to apply methods that have been developed for understanding and describing and handling them.

The second point, however, is that this very approach that attempts to control emotions by filtering them through the intellect and the will, though useful and important for certain types of people, can be the opposite of the doctor's orders for the opposite type of person. For those who are, by nature, distant from the emotions, who do not like them, who are trying to avoid looking at them, and for whom this flight is a problem for themselves or others, the second way of defining and theorizing about emotions can hurt. It can be a kind of dissociation, a splitting of the personality, and a method of evasion. It can be misleading even while it seems to be explaining the emotions and helping the people feel they understand the emotions and have power over them and are authorities on them.

For certain types of people, the talk and thoughts about emotions can become a world of its own. It can enrapt and absorb and involve, but, even while doing this, it can mislead into thinking that the emotions are being confronted and understood and dealt with. It is an emotionless world that is about emotion; it is a kind of emotionless miming of emotion. It holds emotion at arms length, even further, as far away as possible, and then talks about it. The researcher and thinker may become so isolated and insulated that he or she never feels an emotion or much of an emotion. No violent anger or jealousy or other passion because of the insulation from the world where these passions emerge and are nearly inevitable. There's a certain irony in an emotionless expert on emotion, an emotional researcher on emotion.

For a person who is, by nature, unable to become conscious of and name his or her own emotions, and who wants to move in this direction, the intellectual approach may, at first, feel like an avenue towards the goal. However, as is familiar to every therapist who has spent time with an obsessive patient or a patient who intellectualizes, the intellectual route never seems to lead to the gold. One theory leads to the next; every thought is just part of a long chain of thoughts that lead to another chain; and every experiment takes months or years to finish and is only a step in a process that can take generations to complete. All the time, emotions go on underneath, unnoticed, in an ongoing and endless underground river, as it were. It seems that the intellectual process turns the attention in the wrong direction when one is trying to go in another.

This led psychotherapists in the 1960's to develop different extreme systems (such as Primal Therapy) to help patients access the so-called deeper levels of the psyche. Many patients and therapists turned to Eastern meditation, sometimes to Zen Buddhism, or, at least, to Western versions of it. Zen masters, it was said, asked their students questions called koans that had no rational answer and were designed to break through the thought processes so encouched in language. Perhaps the most famous koan was the one from the Zen master Hakuin, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Any answer the student gave using language was incorrect. The answer had to be beyond language, non-linguistic. Here the teacher tried to disentangle the student from the linguistic/thought web by entering it and utilizing a kind of linguistic/thought bomb.

It is fascinating to me that the same language that can lift one away from ones emotions to a height where emotions can be viewed in the abstract, maybe as chemical reactions or brain waves or as part of an evolutionary adaptation of a species, and where useful scientific discoveries about emotions can be made, this same language can, maybe via the use of metaphors, and maybe in the same sentence, twist and turn its way away from the abstract and, with spasms of self-knowledge, into the very depths of ones body and into the core of ones anxious feelings and the tensions that exist in parallel with the highest flights of intellectual talk and thought.

This is true for the three concepts we are discussing — experience, feeling tone, and emotion — but it seems true of any concept whatsoever whether it be of the common black ant or of the Lord in His highest heaven. In all cases, language can take us into the most abstract world of the intellect or into the personal experience of a specific moment.

A few comments on wisdom and peace

I would like to add a comment about wisdom and the words and concepts associated with them. It seems to me best to think of wisdom as an emotion more than as a thought or idea. This is probably not completely accurate, but I am trying to make a point. Fear and terror are emotions, as is wild terror. It seems to me that wisdom is what grows out of these emotions, as is peace. To put it metaphorically, wisdom and peace are close relatives of terror, they grow out of terror and are the children of terror. Wise words and peaceful thoughts are not wisdom or peace. Wisdom and Peace are just words, sounds or letters pointing to some thought or feeling or idea or concept or proposition or image, but they, again to resort to metaphor, are floating on the surface of real emotions. Real emotions "live" on another level of the body, the whole body, and wisdom and peace are transitions to other full-body emotions. Words can have an effect and can soothe to some extent and divert, but true wisdom and peace grow in the heart like plants. They are not found easily. They can be sensed and still be out of sight. Talking about them can divert a person from the search for them, a search which leads deep into the inner swamps, far from other people, and from the world in which communication takes place.

Remembering that wisdom and peace are real things, as real as war and as real as anger or terror and remembering that we are now using language to talk about these real things and also remembering that talking about wisdom and peace does not make us wise and does make us feel peaceful and also remembering that we might forget that the talk is not the thing and begin to drift into thinking we are wise and at peace — remember all these things, I would like to add a point to our discussion. There are two ways of looking at wisdom and peace. One way is that they are all or nothing phenomena. You either are 100% wise or you are not wise at all; you are either 100% at peace, or you are not feeling peaceful at all. It is like the story of the princess and the pea: one tiny pea, buried way at the bottom of a number of mattresses, can make for an unrestful sleep.

The other way to look at it is that there are degrees of wisdom and degrees of peace. Some are wiser than others, and, each of us, hopefully, can and do become wiser and wiser as we grow older. And the same for peace.

It seems to me that both of these positions have use and value even if neither is completely true. The first view can keep us from thinking we are wise or at peace when we are just talking about these phenomena and can make us remember just how difficult it is to find these states — assuming they exit at all. The second can make us not give up hope that, with courage and persistence we might be able to get there.

It might be worth adding that wisdom (and peace) may be situation specific. That is, a chunk of wisdom, hard won in one situation, may not translate into another situation. New pain requires new wisdom (and new peace). Something may carry over from battle to battle and war to war, but each brings some new twist to which we must adjust.

And, also, one person's wisdom might be another's folly, so comparing one person's wisdom against another's, may be foolish. And this would mean that it is probably impossible to assess one's own present degree of wisdom.

Speculations on the origin of language

Obviously the origins of language are lost, deep within the dark past of human history. It is easy to speculate on what must have been. Perhaps, one day, some startling discovery or brilliantly devised experiment will give us real knowledge, but, for now, as far as I know, any thoughts on the subject are, and must be, no more than speculation. I think it is useful to divide these speculations into two types or models. The first model can be seen in Story 1 and the second model in Story 2.

Story 1:A family was sitting around staring at a fire in the hearth, and one of them, without thought or planning, made a sound we now would write down as "fire." Everyone, still gazing at the fire, for some reason began to imitate the sound, until the only sound that could be heard was the sound "fire, fire, fire, fire," almost like a chant. In this one moment fire got its name and the idea of naming entered into existence. Once the family got a hold of this idea, the family members began to find sounds for everything important to them: tree, man, woman, rain, thunder, deer, and so on.

Story 2:A family was sitting around staring at a fire in the hearth. When they go to sleep, the man (but it could have been the woman or even one of the children) dreams of making the sound "fire" and repeats it over and over in his dream, "fire, fire, fire." When he awakens in the morning, he looks over and sees his wife putting wood onto the fire. He feels warm and content and walks over and exclaims, "fire." After doing this a few times, his wife picks up what he means and starts saying it herself, and then their children pick it up, and from here on the story is the same as Story 1.

The only point I am making here is that there are two types of fantasies about how language arose. In one, the event took place in a public place in a waking state. In the other fantasy, language arose in the private world, perhaps the dream world of an individual.

How many languages are there?

This is not an easy question. There are the major languages like English, French, German, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, and so on. There are lesser languages (meaning languages spoken by fewer people such as Catalan or Haitian Creole). There are dead languages like Latin and Aramaic. There are old versions of current languages such as Old English and Old German. There are written languages and spoken and sign languages. There are technical languages (of math, engineering, of computer science, and so on).

For some languages, there is an official language is taught in the schools and from which many of us suffered growing up to the point that the very words language, grammar, spelling, Foreign Languages, Latin, Greek, and ones like them came to cause suffering. And we know that Latin was the official language of the Catholic liturgy to the point that people fought and died for the right to translate the Christian Bible into the vernacular.

And then there is the vernacular, the language of the streets. Victor Hugo spent a chapter on the slang of his day, praising it. And, of course, there are what scholars call dialects, that is the versions of the same overall language that is used in different regions (or, better, "grew" and "flourishes" in different regions).

We all know that we can go to different parts of a large city and hear different versions of the same language. Many young people in L.A. absorb (or try to absorb) the language of the ghetto which can rub their parents the wrong way. Others, at the university, pick up a way of talking with big words and carefully crafted sentences that appears stilted back in the "hood."

It is my view that each family has its own language. This is part of what makes family counseling difficult, especially at the beginning of the therapy. Things said mean different things to the family and the therapist; things said by one sound shocking to the other or artificial or indirect, until the meaning is understood.

It seems that there is no such thing as Language but only of the "language of so and so." In this sense, I think it is useful to think of each and every person having his or her own language and being in a constant struggle to communicate to and with others using it. There is even one step more which is that the same person's language changes over time. The meanings of words like love and work and country and father and mother and family and language and the like change from when you are a child, to when you were a school boy (or girl) to when you were an adolescent to when you were an adult and to when you were an old man or woman.

Language and the imagination: the example of mythology

I would like to give one more example to illustrate the subtle, almost hypnotic, power of language. It is tempting to say that the minute we start talking to someone we are hypnotizing them (from good or bad motives). It is inevitable, given the nature of language. And the same can be said for thinking: the minute we start thinking we are hypnotizing ourselves, taking ourselves away from the reality of the sensory world and into our imaginations. I will give the example of mythology.

As a psychological aside, I think (and I have argued elsewhere) that mythological thinking begins when we are having trouble with the present situation in which we are embedded. Mythology has an evolutionary and legitimate function in our mental economy. Mythology takes us from a problematic situation, so we can explore alternatives and re-orient to the situation. It does this with the use of words. When we are using mythology to help someone else. We might say, "A long time ago ..." and the instant we use these words, the listeners, if they trust us and are willing to allow themselves to "really" listen and to "fall under the spell" of our words, are transported away from the present time. Or we might say, "Long ago and far away ...," and this time the listeners are transported to another time and place.

From the point of view of the psychologist, when we say a person is "transported to another time and place," we have to be very aware that these words themselves are hypnotic, and we have to be clear that, as psychologists, we must speak carefully and that, here, we are speaking about the imagination. Putting the point using this terminology, words tempt people, for better or worse, into the imagination. Words can pull a person back to the creation of the universe, to the beginning of time, and so on, and this can have a beneficial effect on the person (or the opposite).

However, words are so powerful that we don't even have to use introductory phrases such as A long time ago ... or In the beginning. We can transport ourselves and others into a different time and place as follows: "Mr. Skunk and Mr. Coyote are walking down a path in the deep woods. Mr. Coyote wants to eat Mr. Skunk but is well aware of the danger in upsetting him." Without any to-do, these words pull us, hynotize us (I can't think of a better way to put it) into another time and place. Those who have smelled the smell of a skunk may well start imagining the smell. Anyone who has heard or seen a coyote may very well "see" and "hear" Mr. Coyote walking down a path. And the word "Mister" suggests a certain human dignity to the animals that might not have been present in the imagination without the word.

To give emphasis to the subtlety of this suggestiveness, I will mention the difference between two types of creation myths. In one, the Lord is said to have created the universe — but let's focus on the Lord creating the sun and the moon. In the other, either an animal, maybe a coyote, created the sun and moon, or they came from pieces of turquoise or silver from the top of a mountain. Everyone will experience these stories differently, and I am not wanting to discuss the theories inherent in the stories. There are religious people who believe in one story or the other who might get upset about the other story, and there are scientists will see both stories as "mere superstition." But, here, I want to side-step these issues and to point at what is set off in each of us by the stories and the individual words in the stories. In one a coyote or chipmunk made the sun and moon, and for many people the words coyote, chipmunk, made, sun, and moon will set off images of external things, at arms length from them. On the other hand, if we say that G-d or First Man or First Woman made the sun and moon, these words, from a psychological angle, set off different inner images and feelings. For many people, the word God or the words First Man or First Woman feel more connected to oneself as opposed to the sun and moon. Each person has to close their eyes and think of these words, and see how they "feel" or what feelings they set off, and so on. But I suggest that the idea of a God or of a First Man or First Woman as found in some creation stories, is a much more personal story for many, and that, as we psychologists say, listeners tend to identify with these figures, and so the story ties creation to the listener instead of being experienced as an external event. I have written about this more in another paper, and here I have just wanted to demonstrate how subtle these linguistic phenomena are and how important.

To give still one more example of this subtlety, a story that speaks about "everything" or about "nothing" has different psychological connotations. I think, for many people, for example, when they hear the word everything their attention is turned to themselves as well as to what is around them. The same for the words the unknown. Since these words have no specific object of reference a feeling of confusion can be created in the person, and it is this feeling that becomes, as it were, the object of reference. Similarly for the word nothing. These words make many people (though probably not all people) more aware of themselves, and this may be part of their function in myths.

A possible experiment

Early in his career, Carl Jung became interested in studying people's psychological and physiological responses when they heard words read to them from a list. In the first years of the Twentieth Century, he and his colleagues adapted the Word Association Test that had been invented by Francis Galton (1822-1911) and was being used, in Jung's time, by other researchers in psychology (such as Wilhelm Wundt). In his research presented in Experimental Researches Including the Studies in Word Association (Princeton University Press; Princeton, New Jersey, 1981), Jung (and his colleagues) demonstrated that, when people hear different words, they respond to them differently. Some words evoke almost no physiological responses, whereas others set off all sorts of dramatic physiological reactions. These reactions, as a whole, can be considered to be the objective or physical side of emotions. Jung found that, if a word sets off a strong emotion in a particular person, other related words, related say in meaning, set off the same reaction. Jung developed a view that a whole group of words, ideas, thoughts, and images could be tied together in a person's mind, and become equivalent, as it were, each provoking the same reaction. He called these clusters complexes, though he did not invent the word. Often people with such complexes weren't aware the complexes were there. The story is that, when Jung first read Freud, he saw his proof of the existence of complexes as objective, scientific support for Freud's theory of unconscious content. Jung's experiments made him confident he had something he could offer Freud, and he wrote him, and Freud was, indeed, interested.

There is no need to go further with this story. I am just mentioning it, because the Word Association Test, as used by Jung, is a study of language and its effects and is relevant to this article. As mentioned, Jung would read a list of words (and phrases) to people and, among other things, he would measure some of their physiological responses. Here are some of the words he used in one experiment: liberty, unjust, to be lazy, coffee, sacrifice, wedding, grand-mother, wicked, and so on (ibid, page 157).

If Jung (and his colleagues) were correct in their conclusions, their experiments prove a point made earlier in this article: that words provoke emotions. This is a point that hardly needs proving in this day and age, over a hundred years after the birth of modern psychology, but I would like to suggest that a slight variation in the experiment could demonstrate some further interesting points about the subtlety of language and its interaction with our emotions and beliefs. All we would have to do in setting up the new experiment would be to substitute a new list of words and phrases for the lists used by the original researchers. In fact, in addition to words and phrases, the new list should contain complete sentences and possibly even paragraphs and groups of paragraphs.

But, to start, I suggest a list such as the follows:

1. Cancer

2. You have been diagnosed with cancer.

3. You have not been diagnosed with cancer. That was just a sentence on the paper.

4. There is a cure for cancer.

5. There is no cure for cancer, but there is life after death.

6. We are immortal.

7. Buddhism says we are immortal.

8. Buddhism

9. Christianity

10. Judaism

11. ∞

12. α and Ω

13. ABLANATHANALBA AKRAMMACHAMAREI EEE

14. HYVH

15. "† O Lord, Master of the earth, avenge me on the one who opposes me ... and pay him back at once, lord, so that he may fall into hands harsher than his own."
(from Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power; Edited by Marvin Meyer & Richard Smith, Harper SanFranciso, page 51)

16. "A † O By Jesus Christ heal Megas ... [of] every disease, and pain of the head and the temples, and fever, and shivering fever. A † O."
(ibid, page 38)

17. Judaism denies immortality.

18. Judaism believes in immortality.

19. Christianty believes in immortality.

20. No one knows if there is immortality.

21. How do we know that no one knows if there is immortality?

22. Take my word for it: there is immortality!

23. It's gullible to believe in immortality!

24. The most intelligent people who have ever lived said they knew there is immortality.

25. I read that the most intelligent people who have ever lived said they knew there is immortality.

26. I read in a scientific book that the most intelligent people who have ever lived said they knew there is immortality.

27 Everyone knows there is immortality.

28 Everyone believes there is immortality.

29 Everyone believes, deep down, there is immortality.

30 Everyone believes, deep down, he or she will live forever.

31 I dreamed we will live forever.

32 I heard an angel say we will all live forever.

33 I heard a priest say we will all live forever.

34 My grandfather said we will all live forever.

35 You will live forever.

36 "You will live forever."

37 I promise, you will live forever.

38 I promise, you will live forever if you do certain things.

It seems to me that collecting responses (verbal and physiological) to the words and sentences in this list would demonstrate, among other things, how subtle changes in wording can change everything in terms of responses to words. And this helps us understand just how easy it is for language to tangle us up and frustrate us and lead and mislead. It also would, I think, demonstrate how certain words, for certain people, at certain times might be able to heal or strike terror.

 

Related articles