The Words Got In the Way

I remember being about nine years old (that would have been oh, 1971) when I realized to my utmost horror that because everyone’s experiences are different, that no one will ever understand my words with the exact same “flavor” that I mean them. This shocked me to the core, and I was inconsolable, silently numb for several days.

The whole reverberation only added to my sense of growing isolation. (“They don’t know what I am talking about. They will NEVER know what I am talking about.”) There is a word in Japanese, “yoin”, which means the experiential reverberation that continues to move you after the external stimulus has ceased. That moment was a negative sort of yoin.

My vocabulary (although large for a person of my age) lacked the sufficient abstract and philosophical terminology that would allow me to share my myriads of thoughts, so my failed attempts only served to worsen the angst. Then again, I am not sure how much the people around me, the children, teachers or parents, really tried to understand what I was getting at. Either they did not have the concepts themselves, did not believe a mere child could have such abstract concepts, or did not feel inspired enough to make the effort.

Because of my rearing and education, I (wrongly) perceived this inability to communicate highly abstract thoughts as being stupid, rather than as lack of knowledge. (Just as when I was trying to figure out how to optimize the size of a building one could create from a single sheet of construction paper, I thought I was stupid because I couldn’t do it mathematically. In truth, I couldn’t do it because the calculations I needed required the calculus that I would not study until decades later, rather than the simple arithmetic I had thus far been taught.)

Words are but an approximation, a systematized code to give a mutual “handle” on concepts. Because words are artificial constructs, and each person brings with them a slightly different version of the word, the meanings for words are always created anew, and evolve within the context of the discussion. Both the sender and receive give slightly different interpretations, based upon their ever-changing personal experiences.

Part of what it means to be an intelligent organism is the desire to share experiences with others. Intelligent apes and dolphins communicate things, although on less complex levels*. Humans communicate things not only by words, but also by other forms of expression, such as music, dance, and art. There are some days when any good communication seems a miracle! (Is anyone out there working on that Vulcan mind-meld?)

But when you do find someone of like mind, Oh! but when you do, it is the most amazing thing. The words barely keep up with the tumble of concepts that are flashing back and forth. Yes! They know what I am talking about! Yes! They have thought the same thoughts. Yes! They have seen things with much the same perceptual filters; they have the much the same Umwelt**.

These moments of rare experiential/perceptual connection to another person are a positive sort of yoin. They are yet rare; I can count them on the fingers of one hand. Perhaps finding others of similar neurological bent will increase the incidence for all of us, n’est-ce pas? We are all ever alone — but — I would add that we are able to upon occasion reach beyond our individual alonenesses and connect to others. The utter joy and delight, an almost transcendent sense of epiphany one can find in sharing an understanding with some people can be a profound thing.

But many times I have come off as being stupid or foolish. How do you explain to someone that they really cannot always assign mental processes to the results they see? (I think this is one of the reasons I like entomology; people are less likely to assume they can understand what is going on in the wee brains of “alien” insects; and yes, many insects are even capable of learning.) I cannot tell you how many times people have come off with some entirely off-the-wall assumption about me from what they observe.

I remember an incident from when I was four years old, and they were testing me for entry to kindergarten (my birthday is after the school year has already started, so I was always the youngest). An adult held up a pen and asked me, “What color is this?” I wondered silently to myself, “Does that mean the color of the case of the pen, or the ink inside it?” I could not really see the ballpoint tip to tell. I knew that some pens have colored nibs on their ends to indicate the ink color, but that not all of them do.

Then while I was pondering this, I had a horrifying realisation, “How can she not know what color it is? This is a grown-up!” I was shocked and concerned and trying to think of a rational reason why an adult might not know their colors that I sat there, silent and not answering. It’s not that I did not know my colors, but rather I could not figure out why she would not, and why on earth she would be asking me. I was just a child! Children don’t help adults – other adults do. Why wasn’t she talking to the other grown-ups?

Of course I was being clueless as usual, and did not realize that she was testing me; I took the interaction at face value. Meanwhile, this person told my mother that I was a foolish child who did not know her colors, and then she used the pen to write something down on a form. Fortunately my mother was there to assert that I did indeed know them, and once it was explained to me what I was supposed to be doing, I rattled off all sorts of color identities about objects, including pink and grey and beige.

In the end, it’s our respective perceptions that allow and limit communication. When we fail to do so, we must always realize that we all carry highly individual conceptual sets.

To borrow a line from a song, “I wanted to tell you that I love you, but the words got in the way.”

* Many animals (including insects) can both learn and communicate, but are not considered intelligent because they cannot apply the learning in novel ways to new situations.

** The Umwelt is a term coined by von Uexküll in the 1920s, meaning the unique sensory world of an organism — the stimuli to which an animal is responsive in a given motivational state; contrast to the Merkwelt, the set of all environmental factors that are important to the species, whether or not they can actually be perceived.