An alternative way of thinking and discussing: language, art, and the deeper part of the brain
If you have read some of my previous blog posts you probably already have the impression that I am deeply interested in and strongly believe that art has a long and significant history within the different cultures of the world and it has often taken an important role as the questioner of society and social norms.
You might also know that I think this unique strength is a constant participant within society. Plus, I perceive this strength to come from art’s roots deep within the individual and from its unique ability to connect the internal part of the human with the external world—without being affected by the limitations often imposed on us by society and social norms.
Now, what exactly do I mean by this… if you want to read more on this specific topic then go to my first post here.
But, moving forward…
in accepting these statements as true, I am often left speculating how these artistic or creative practices can be better utilized in society as a tool for investigating, understanding, and discussing important social issues.
Last year I was inspired while reading anthropologist and scholar Maurice Bloch’s chapter "Language, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science” from the book How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy. He spoke about two things I was already starting to question and explore myself. He argues that social and cultural anthropologists—I would suggest all people can be included in this accusation—make the mistake of linking language with culture and defining that culture seems to be either “transmitted as a text through language, or that culture is ultimately ‘language like’, consisting of linked linear propositions”.
In other words, if we look at the structure of language, we see that it is quite one-dimensional and linearly structured. When using language, we explain one thing at a time and once that is said we then move on to explain its co-functioning counterpart (or the next statement that goes with it). However, this linear—one-after-another—way of explaining and understanding is not consistent with the way in which many things in this world function. In life, in the ‘real world’, many of the things we observe (and speak to with language) are not only transpiring at the same time, but are also in continuous and present interaction with one another.
It’s very multidimensional!
And in my view it is much more like looking at a music score with 4+ different lines which are playing at the same time—independent yet also in constant correlation.
At this point last year, when I came across these arguments, I was left feeling a bit betrayed by language and the false sense of clarity it seemed to provide. I recognized and had accepted society and humanity to be something that was so complex and multi-dimensional that it could only be understood in a none black-and-white way. But, language was supposed to clarify things! And now it seemed that the things it was supposedly ‘clarifying’ were not, in fact, being legitimately depicted.
What I came to conclude/realize is that neither language nor society are the linear structures we make them out to be, and by defining them in this way we actually leave them partially undefined. Furthermore, if I reflect back on it, maybe it was unfair of me to expect language to be the all-powerful, clarifying agent in the world…although it definitely helps…
Language’s multidimensional structure was made clear to me while reading an article titled, “Embodied Language Processing: a new generation of language technology”. An article where they try to quantify the structure or equation behind linguistics. But, what became clear is that in doing so—in attempting to create an ‘equation’ which language abides by—we inevitably arrive at a certain point where it is impossible to move forward without depending on the non-linear, concept-configuration that makes up most of our cognitive processing (Pastra, 5-6).
Because, in the end, every word and word combination is just a symbol for something that
comes from a deeper or different place in our mind or in the world. The surface level words, or the surface of words, can perhaps be defined and explained through other words and different linguistic equations we have created, but there will always arrive a point at which things can no longer be explained and understood in this linear way and we have to accept that our understanding comes in a different form from a different part of our brain.
Really, language can be crystal clear to a point, but just like everything else, it itself is not as linear, simple, and clear as we hope for it to be.
So, what was Bloch getting at when we talked about our mistake to perceive and explain culture as ‘language-like’ if language itself is not as linear and structured as we might think?
That we need to move beyond the complex that things can be understood as clearly as a linear structure would allow and that generally speaking language is associated with this linear structure.
It appears that a better depiction than the linear structure, to reflect how our mind works, is through a configuration of concepts. Which was the gateway to my next reading excursion…how the brain works.
From my understanding (keeping in mind that I am not a neuro-scientist or cognitive expert), our brain is divided into different networks, or hubs, which optimize our processing ability. This allows the different “hubs” to interact simultaneously, linearly, or whatever way is most efficient (Rex, 9). And thinking in this way is optimal and necessary for divergent thinking, or creative thinking, and is where the creation of new ideas and new concepts originate.
Therefore, if we go back to Bloch’s argument which asserts that inseparably connecting the linear structure of language with culture is a mistake, I propose that by gaining an understanding of the more profound, non-linear structure of language processing, we can also better understand the non-linear structure of society.
If we think about it, it makes sense that what we say and write has been intrinsically influenced by the world around us and our physical interaction with it. And what we say, write, and hear intrinsically influences the whole body—its nervous system and specifically its motor system (Pastra, 1 & 2). Just think about the way language can have a direct influence on different feelings in different parts of your body!
Therefore, I think it is important to understand and explore how this deep, conceptual, cognitive process which language draws from is intrinsically connected with the embodied experience informed by space and action (Pastra, 1).
It would appear that any activity that directly connects with the conceptual cognitive part of our brain gives us a better understanding of how our brain works and how it shapes humans and the societies we have constructed.
We can see evidence for this in many everyday activities—Bloch gives the example of how a child understands the concept of house or home long before he they know or can say the word (6 & 10).
And in my own experiences working out and understanding new concepts over the years, I am continually confronted with the moment when I understand the concept in a deeper part of my brain and can clearly question, explore, and express it through abstract symbols that seem to be related—such as shapes, images, sounds, patterns, movements—but do not yet know how to express myself clearly through language.
Why? …I would argue it’s because I do not yet understand the connections between the different parts and therefore cannot yet explain it clearly in the linear way that language asks for. For me, expressing myself through the structured (non-poetic) language is the last step in my process of understanding. It is when I have already worked through all the different dimensions and how they’re in relation.
Personally, this is the reason I am so passionate about dance, movement and art in general!!! It’s a small glimpse into the brain and a way to explore and express before a concept is linearly clear for us.
So let me summarize a bit where I have arrived with everything I have spoken about in the previous paragraphs:
Personally, I am very interested in how we might express concepts, ideas, and knowledge without having to “translate it” into a linear “language” or configuration as we do through linguistic expression. I assume art to be an embodied form of expression that aligns much more with the structure of conceptual cognitive thinking than language because it works within a network of concepts and patterns rather than as linear dialogue. As a result, it (art) can be used as an alternative to language to represent or communicate the non-linear ideas we are exploring, specifically looking at society which we have already established as non-linear.
Furthermore, if artistic practices are a medium to investigate and discuss the non-linear concepts within the mind and society, then in developing these practices we are adding to the network of knowledge within our brain. As Bloch stated, the more one develops one’s expertise within one area, the more knowledge/information the brain has available to draw on and use while processing other topics or ideas. This is a beautiful thought for me as it helps me to make sense of the idea that developing a deeper understanding of dance and movement within my body opens up more portholes for me to use as means to explore and expand my understanding of other topics and areas of questioning. Movement for me (as are other practices for other people) can become a processing tool for a whole range of different questions.
Bloch, Maurice. “Language, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science.” How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approachases to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998. 3-19. Print.
Pastra, Katerina; Balta, Eirini; Dimitrakis, Panagiotis; Karakatsiotis, Georgios. “Embodied Language Processing: a new generation of language technology.” Proceedings of the AAAI International Workshop on “Language-Action Tools for Cognitive Artificial Agents: Integrating Vision, Action and Language”, 2011, San Francisco, CA. 2011. Cognitive Systems Research Institute. Print.
Jung, Rex E.; Mead, Brittany S.; Carrasco, Jessica; Flores, Ranee A.. “The structure of creative cognition in the human brain.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7.330 (2013). Print