Sunday, November 4, 2012

Reading a post on the blog Zunn left me thinking about the relationship between language, thoughts and emotions. With beautiful description she states:
"It is a Faustian bargain that humanity has to make - without words, there would be a chaos of thoughts and feelings where everything might appear to be in a flux. But with words, we reduce the vastness of experience into manageable cubby holes for ourselves and others to fit oh-so-snugly into."
I have tried to gather my own thoughts on the cognitive relationship between them in this post. Since I am not well-versed in linguistics and cognitive science, what is presented below are my own speculations and impressions, building on my limited knowledge, and it may or may not be valid from a scientific point of view.

Can emotions be experienced without them being translated into thoughts? Yes, I believe so. While it seems obvious enough to me from introspection, it is also supported by the fact that different regions of the brain are involved in the production & processing of emotions and conscious thoughts.

Can we have thoughts without a language? Yes, I believe so. Language cannot exist without thought, but it appears to me that thought can exist without language. After all, higher animals and babies do have thoughts, even though they don't have a language. Similarly, the faculty of language can be destroyed in the brain by stroke or other injuries, without completely destroying the faculty of thought. 

We can think without language, and we can think in a language. However, it seems to me that while the faculty of language is functioning, it completely dominates the subjective conscious experience, such that we cannot will ourselves to think without a language.

Both thoughts-in-a-language and thoughts without language can be non-verbal. Non-verbal modes include visual (said to be predominant in autistics), tactile, musical, mathematical. Perhaps there are non-verbal modes of thought without language for which there is no corresponding language, such as, I imagine, olfactory (in animals).

Language is verbal, that is clear enough, but can thoughts without language be verbal as well? It is a matter of some controversy, but perhaps it is possible that thoughts without language exist in a sort of proto-language. (Some call it 'mentalese').

The scope of thoughts-without-language is considerably limited compared to thoughts-in-language. The scope is limited not just in the complexity and abstraction, but also in the extent of communication. This would seem tautological once we consider the definition of a language: a system of complex communication. The point at which tactile thoughts-without-language become tactile thoughts-in-a-language is set by a certain level of complexity.

The following diagram shows the interaction of emotions and thought. Emotions can get translated into thoughts, which can be thoughts without language and thoughts-in-a-language. I do not think thoughts get converted into emotions, but thoughts can definitely induce and modify emotions (hence the arrow towards left).

In majority of cases we do not experience a difficulty in converting emotions into thoughts, but occasionally emotions arise that cannot be converted into thoughts, and if forced a conversion takes place only with a distortion of emotion. (Like a key that doesn't fit in a hole, but you chip away the edges of the key until it slides in.) One may call it a failure or distortion of communication between the limbic system and the neocortex: we experience an emotion and struggle to express it even to ourselves.

It is also possible that an emotion may get converted into a thought, but it fails to be converted into language. Such a thought may be unconscious or subconcious, and may find other expressions, such as in the symbolism of dreams.

Coming back to the post on Zunn, the author thinks that in cases where emotions cannot be converted into language, we adopt two strategies:

1) We forcefully distort the emotions into fitting the language and what cannot be distorted is suppressed. The advantage is that we can now communicate. The disadvantage is that the real emotions are no longer there.

2) We hold on to the emotions, and try to communicate partially what we can. The advantage is that we are still in touch with our emotional reality. The disadvantage is that the communication has been compromised.

Please experience it in the poetic words of the author:
"[W]ords are an ideal outlet, because they immediately offer a common ground. [...] [But people subscribing to this sort of strategy] also have to give up on the range of disparate and unrelated emotions they might feel, because they need to whittle these all down to one coherent idea. So yes, feelings need to get suppressed, or better yet, processed, because even if they ring true, to continuously unleash them would apparently lead to what is perceived through such a lens as chaos.
The other extreme in this approach of dealing with communication is to hold on to the entire range of emotions, feelings, ideas, thoughts *insert synonymies aplenty* because they offer a wider array of information, and can be understood at a raw, unprocessed, unfiltered form.
Unfortunately, communication of this sort ends up relying only partially on words. Which means that two people communicating using a whole array of levels of communication are rarely going to end up having a coherent, shared platform, or context. [...]
[B]ecause they hold onto the primacy of the feelings over the importance of words, they keep searching for words that never quite fit. And so even though they might have extremely intense connections in the brief moments that the ranges of their emotions find multiple overlaps, they struggle to form extremely loyal bonds that become more important than anything else, because they just can’t have that continued shared context."

She goes on to link these strategies to the differences in gender communication styles. I do not agree with her on the application of these ideas to gender, but her views on emotions, thoughts and language were expressed with such vividness and style that I was forced to ponder on their cognitive background.



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