Excerpt from The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul

(Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005)

Pages 333-335

Language begins when social creatures actively communicate information to their fellows. A bee returning to the hive from a flower field does a waggle dance to tell the others what direction to fly in. An ant secretes pheromones to tell other ants that she’s recently encountered an intruder. We humans share information by grimacing, gesturing and making noises with our mouths.

Our languages have evolved both to describe the world around us, and to represent the thought patterns in our minds. “What are you thinking?” “Well, let me tell you.” In an essay on language, Jorge-Luis Borges quotes a relevant passage from G. K. Chesterton’s admiring biography of a Victorian painter, G. F. Watts, (Duckworth, London 1904), p. 88. I originally found the quote in Jorge Luis Borges, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” in: E. Monegal and A. Reid, eds., Borges, A Reader (Dutton, New York 1981).

Man knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colors of an autumn forest; … Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semi-tones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire. (143)

My optimistic opinion is that, given time, willingness and a sympathetic listener, Chesterton’s stockbroker really can communicate the tints and semitones of his (or her) soul. It’s a matter of piling on detail, using analogies, and enhancing the words with the play of the voice. To ensure the transmission, the listener reflects back summaries of the message, so that the speaker can emend or amplify the explication as required. By the way, computer networks do something similar, with receiving nodes sending back requests for retransmission of packets of information lost on their way from the sending nodes.

Speaking of computers, it will be useful to describe a brief example that brings into relief a point about how language works. Suppose that a machine called, say, Eggpop has carried out a time-consuming computation to produce a high-resolution graphical image of the Mandelbrot set fractal. We can think of this image as being akin to an idea in Eggpop’s mind. Now if Eggpop wants to communicate this image to another machine, there are three possible messages Eggpop might send.

Language. A description of the algorithm and the parameters used to create the image.

Art. A file containing a pixel by pixel representation of the image.

Telepathy. A link pointing to the combined algorithm and quote in Eggpop’s own memory.

Language is an all-purpose construction kit that a speaker uses to model mental states. In interpreting these language constructs, a listener builds a brain state similar to the speaker’s.

Art represents a very different approach: an idea is rendered by images, sounds, sculpture, or the like. In many cases a picture is worth a thousand words ¾ and then some. But certainly there times where a few well-chosen words have deeper impact than a detailed image. In these cases, the words manage to trigger powerful, pre-existing thought modes.

And how about a human analogy to machines communicating by giving each other hyperlinks (and access permissions) to locations in their own minds? Conceivably we might someday come up with something like a brain-wave-based cell phone, which I like to call an uvyy. Perhaps with an uvvy you could reach out and sensually touch another person’s thought patterns rather than having to build your own copies of their thoughts based upon verbal descriptions.

In this vein, I can imagine a future in which people converse solely by direct links into each others’ minds. Language might become an outmoded social art — like handwriting or ballroom dancing! But I doubt it. I think language is so deeply congenial to us that we’d no sooner abandon it than we’d give up sex.

Although I just used “telepathy” for the notion of having direct links to another person’s thoughts, if telepathy is just a matter of having someone at a distance know what you’re thinking, then language already is a form of telepathy and a person walking down the street with a cell phone is essentially in telepathic contact with a friend.

I compare language to telepathy to point out how powerful language is. In the intimate conversations that you have with a lover, spouse or close friend, language feels as effortless as singing or dancing. The ideas flow and the minds merge. In this empathetic exchange, each of you develops a clear sense of your partner’s proto-self and core consciousness.

One imperfect feature of human language is that our rate of information exchange is limited to very low rates. Yes, you can send a multi megabyte-book manuscript by email in a matter of seconds, but the human listener at the other end will take hours or even days to read it. We’re stuck with low bounds on both the speed at which we can listen to someone talk and on the speed at which we can read with full comprehension. Telepathy might speed things up.