Up to the Twentieth Century, reality was everything humans could touch, smell, see and hear. Since the initial publication of the chart of the electromagnetic spectrum, humans have learned that what they can touch, smell, see, and hear is less than one-millionth of reality.
But scientists have also found that the thing we think of as ‘reality’ is not only a filtered fraction of a much greater whole, but is also extremely malleable, due to the fact that – for each of us – what we think of as reality is actually an approximation, a model we have built in our minds, built on information taken in from our environment. And one of the major filters affecting how that model is built is the language we think in.
As Mark Pesce points out in his excellent article “The Executable Dreamtime“, from the time “that language invaded and colonized our cerebrums, we have increasingly lost touch with the reality of things. Reality has been replaced with relation, a mapping of things-as-they-are to things-as-we-believe-them-to-be. ”
Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky gave some examples of how ‘reality’ changes based on our language and culture in a recent TED talk (embedded below), such as the cosmic model of the Kuuk Thaayorre people of northern Australia, who conceive of time and space in a completely different way to most of us.
What’s cool about Kuuk Thaayorre is, in Kuuk Thaayorre, they don’t use words like “left” and “right,” and instead, everything is in cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. And when I say everything, I really mean everything. You would say something like, “Oh, there’s an ant on your southwest leg.” Or, “Move your cup to the north-northeast a little bit.”
In fact, the way that you say “hello” in Kuuk Thaayorre is you say, “Which way are you going?” And the answer should be, “North-northeast in the far distance. How about you?” … that would actually get you oriented pretty fast, right? Because you literally couldn’t get past “hello,” if you didn’t know which way you were going.
In fact, people who speak languages like this stay oriented really well. They stay oriented better than we used to think humans could. We used to think that humans were worse than other creatures because of some biological excuse: “Oh, we don’t have magnets in our beaks or in our scales.” No; if your language and your culture trains you to do it, actually, you can do it. There are humans around the world who stay oriented really well.
There are also really big differences in how people think about time. So here I have pictures of my grandfather at different ages. And if I ask an English speaker to organize time, they might lay it out this way, from left to right… But how would the Kuuk Thaayorre, this Aboriginal group I just told you about, do it? They don’t use words like “left” and “right.” Let me give you hint. When we sat people facing south, they organized time from left to right. When we sat them facing north, they organized time from right to left. When we sat them facing east, time came towards the body. What’s the pattern? East to west, right? So for them, time doesn’t actually get locked on the body at all, it gets locked on the landscape.
…For the Kuuk Thaayorre, time is locked on the landscape. It’s a dramatically different way of thinking about time.
Boroditsky also discusses how various languages have differences in how colours are categorized – and thus, how we see the world – and that many languages assign different genders to objects, and this affects the way people understand those objects:
If you ask German and Spanish speakers to, say, describe a bridge – “bridge” happens to be grammatically feminine in German, grammatically masculine in Spanish – German speakers are more likely to say bridges are “beautiful,” “elegant” and stereotypically feminine words. Whereas Spanish speakers will be more likely to say they’re “strong” or “long,” these masculine words.
And Boroditsky also makes an important point when she notes that, through language, we humans are able “to transmit our ideas across vast reaches of space and time…we’re able to transmit knowledge across minds.” She jokingly says that she can “put a bizarre new idea” into the minds of her audience, proceeding to speak the phrase “Imagine a jellyfish waltzing in a library while thinking about quantum mechanics.” It’s nonsensical, but through language she has been able to implant that thought in each of our minds.
The point is important because a lot of what we say is not nonsensical. Language is able to persuade, and this brings with it great responsibility for each of us. As Mark Pesce sagely notes in “The Executable Dreamtime“:
To speak and be heard means that you are sending your will out onto the world around you, changing the definition of reality for all those who hear you. We do this from the time we learn to speak (imagine the two year-old asserting his will in a shrill cry for attention, and noting a corresponding change in the behavior of those around him) till the moment we breathe our last. For most people, most of the time, this is an unconscious process, automatic and mechanical. For a few others, who, by accident or training, have become conscious of the power of reason to change men’s minds, a choice is presented: how do you use this power?
“We are all pan-dimensional wizards, casting arcane spells with every word we speak. And every spell we speak always comes true.” Owen Rowley, my mentor in both the magical mysteries and in the mysteries of virtual reality, taught me this maxim some years ago, though it took some years before I began to understand the full magnitude of his seemingly grandiose pronouncement. More than anything else, it places enormous responsibility on anyone who uses language – that is, all of us. Because we are creatures infected by language, and because language shapes how we come to interpret reality, we bear the burden of our words. We know that words can hurt, we even believe that words can kill, but the truth is far more comprehensive: all of our words are the equivalent of a hypnotist’s suggestions, and all of us are to some degree susceptible. With this responsibility comes an awareness of the burden we bear. It is how we encounter this burden – as individuals and as a civilization – which shapes reality.
Though written a number of years ago, Pesce’s words seem particularly apt at this juncture in time, given the disregard that many people in 2018 have for the truth…we are subjected to a never-ending stream of propaganda that seeks to transform our model of reality.
We would do well to be conscious of how we use language each day to construct our models of reality…and how certain others are seeking to use their own words as magical incantations against us.