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Language and the Brain

18 Nov

How does language provide opportunities for growth and change through conflict?

Years ago, I took an Intro to Linguistics elective at Salt Lake Community College. One of the things that stuck in my mind was the concept of Nativism, that babies are born with the knowledge that languages are patterned, and with the ability to seek out those patterns. This capacity for language acquisition, known as a Language Acquisition Device (LAD), is genetic and not the result of a conscious decision on the part of the speaker. The LAD helps children understand the universal grammar of a language as well as the parameters of that language. This concept changed my interest from the mechanical aspects of language to the social use of language and the ways in which people communicate.

Recently, I tweeted a link to an article about how human brains have the capacity to remember the linguistic pattern of languages heard in a child’s infancy, even if the child no longer speaks/knows that language. Fascinating. The brain retains that information! This shows us how deeply entrenched language is in the human experience.

During my studies as an undergraduate, one of the first communication theories that I found truth in was George Herbert Mead’s theory of Symbolic Interactionism. In it, Mead discusses the connection between Meaning, Language, and Thinking. Meaning is the construction of social reality, Language is the source of meaning, and Thinking is the process of taking the role of the other. Here is a summary provided by afirstlook.com (the website for my old Comm Theory textbook).

  • Meaning: The construction of social reality.
    1. First principle: Humans act toward people or things on the basis of the meanings they assign to those people or things.
    2. Once people define a situation as real, it’s very real in its consequences.
    3. Where a behavioral scientist would see causality as stimulus–>response, for an interactionist it would look like stimulus–>interpretation–>response.
  • Language: The source of meaning.
    1. Meaning arises out of the social interaction people have with each other.
    2. Meaning is not inherent in objects.
    3. Meaning is negotiated through the use of language, hence the term symbolic interactionism.
      1. Second principle: As human beings, we have the ability to name things.
      2. Symbols, including names, are arbitrary signs.
      3. By talking with others, we ascribe meaning to words and develop a universe of discourse.
    4. Symbolic naming is the basis for society—the extent of knowing is dependent on the extent of naming.
    5. Symbolic interactionism is the way we learn to interpret the world.
      1. A symbol is a stimulus that has a learned meaning and a value for people.
      2. Our words have default assumptions.
      3. Significant symbols can be nonverbal as well as linguistic.
  • Thinking: The process of taking the role of the other.
    1. Third principle: An individual’s interpretation of symbols is modified by his or her own thought process.
    2. Symbolic interactionists describe thinking as an inner conversation, or minding.
      1. Minding is a reflective pause.
      2. We naturally talk to ourselves in order to sort out meaning.
    3. Whereas animals act instinctively and without deliberation, humans are hardwired for thought.
      1. Humans require social stimulation and exposure to abstract symbol systems to have conceptual thought.
      2. Language is the software that activates the mind.
    4. Humans have the unique capacity to take the role of the other.

Essentially, language creates and sustains our social reality, gives humans the ability to create complex social structures, and has the power to shape the world in which we live. This makes communication one of the most powerful forces on Earth and each person on the planet is born with the ability to use this power.

Okay. What’s the point?

The point is that an individual’s understanding of the world is controlled by the meaning that the individual has assigned, through language, to the world. This is where conflict comes from, because people have assigned different meanings to the same things.

Today I came across this article, How Your Brain Decides Without You.

In it, the author states, “We form our beliefs based on what comes to us from the world through the window of perception, but then those beliefs act like a lens, focusing on what they want to see.” Put another way, we form our beliefs based on what comes to us from the world through the window of our assigned meaningsand then those beliefs act like a lens, causing us to focus on what we want to see.

Basically, Symbolic Intetactionism or seeing life through theory, as Deetz put it.

This may be why individuals seemingly struggle with the same problems over and over again, the same conflicts over and over again. S/he has assigned a specific meaning to a situation/person/group/object, based on experience. Until s/he has an experience that provides him/her with an opportunity to change his/her assigned meaning to a given situation/person/group/object, it will not change. That experience is vital, as pointed out in the Brain article, because, “we are stubborn in our decisions…. Studying subjects’ brain activity via EEG, [researchers] found that people’s “memory signals” were much the same toward… incorrect information as they were toward… things they correctly remembered. Their interpretation of the event had hardened into truth.

“This hardening can happen without our awareness.”

Capital T Truth cannot be changed by information alone. It is changed through experience. Experience changes Truth because experience creates an opportunity for new meaning to be created and assigned by the individual.

When you experience conflict, I encourage you to engage it open mindedly. Use it as an opportunity to change your world.

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Posted by on November 18, 2014 in Conflict Studies, Language, People

 

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