Communication


Some avoid the word ‘communication’ because it is in some ways too vague and in others too specific. I like it because it does not make arbitrary boundaries between different modes of communication, reasons for engaging in it, or content. What is specific about communication is that it takes at least two to communicate; it is not about what is said, written, illustrated, singed, sang or whatever, nor about what is heard, read, seen and so on, it is about an exchange between two minds.

I regularly read a blog by E. Bolles called Babel’s Dawn (here). He reviews many books and articles on the origins of language but always comes back to his favourite idea, that there is a triangle of joint attention involving the speaker, listener and topic. Words pilot attention to topics, a bit like pointing a finger but more complex. I like this idea.

This fits with an idea that is a favourite of mine. I see a word as having no meaning by itself, its meaning is a result of its relationship to other words. There are a few words, proper names of places, people etc., that can take their meaning from actually pointing to something. Other words point to concepts and archetypes in the mind. And in turn, the concepts get their meaning from their connection with other concepts, a web of actual connections that by their relationships define their meanings. This is why we seem to rely on metaphor so heavily. If we have a group of entities (words, concepts, things) and they are joined by lines (relationships, actions) to form a structure that we know and understand, we can re-use that structure. As an example, we have place A, place B, moving from A to B, and the thing moving so that the structure is a journey. This can be elaborated with the reason/goal of the move, the path, events along the way, and other elements/relationships. A can be thought of as the start and B as the destination. We can re-use the metaphor for a hike, a drive, a train journey, a boat ride and every different use adds depth and complexity to the metaphor. Now if I want to steer joint attention to the end point of a plan, I can say, ‘think about our goal and how close we have come to it’. We can go further and use the structure for non-journey ideas: a career, a life, a task and so on. Using words to pilot joint attention only works because we share a large number of elaborate metaphors. We learn our language/s and our culture’s metaphors and meaning structures and because we share these with others, we can (almost literally) point to something in someone else’s mind. This is an amassing thing – instead of using my finger to point to a tree in the yard, I can use a word to point at a tree concept in your head.

Another idea that I find interesting is the synchronization of two people in communication. We do not wait until someone stops speaking to parse the meaning of what they have said. In really successful communication, we start timing our own thinking to be in the same timing pattern as the speaker. We predict what the other is going to say ahead of hearing it. We take in their whole person to understand what they are saying: voice, face, posture, movement as well as words. We do not communicate in just words but with our whole selves. Apparently this synchronization, prediction and shared concepts can be vaguely by made out in fMRI scans and these patterns break down as soon as the two people lose understanding of what the other is saying. We are actually able to share a joint attention to a topic that is a concept in our brains.

There is a question often raised – does our language reflect the nature of our thoughts, or does thought reflect the nature of our languages? I cannot think of this question in any other way than the structure and processes of the brain dictate the general form of language (joint attention, metaphor, synchrony and so on). But the shared culture is what makes communication work. We have to want to communicate, we have to share a language and very large numbers of metaphors before it clicks. Sharing a culture has a large effect on what we think (but not how we go about the thinking).

So now back to the topic of this blog. It seems that we communicate with ourselves as well as others and we do at least a fair amount of this internal communication through consciousness. The production of speech is not conscious, the perception of speech is not conscious. We have no feeling for how either of these things is done – it is opaque. But the meaning, the high level representation of the voice and words are usually made conscious. This may be because the formation of a grammatical utterance is quite complicated so that working memory is required to hold parts of the stream while other parts are prepared or processed. Anything that needs working memory is extremely likely to be made conscious and transferred to short-term memory. I cannot see how most speech could be produced or understood without making use of working memory. Short-term memory would also be needed for any utterance longer than a simple sentence or phrase; for a conversation we need to know what went before.

I assume that many (maybe most) animals have concepts, communication, working memory and consciousness. But over the last few hundred thousand years, humans have fashioned from these common attributes, the marvel of verbal communication. Again Babel’s Dawn has a constant idea that the reason language was acquired by humans and not other animals is in the nature of our societies. Put quite simply, we have come to have trust in sharing information with our fellows. Playing with language is as dangerous as playing with fire or wolves, but the gains are just as great, probably greater.