Words : the Magic Drug; How They Literally Define Who We Are

Welcome to Mental Space Monday! Where we journey inside the rabbit hole of collective consciousness and submit to the whims of curiosity.

In case you haven't noticed, I have a thing for words. There is something about these wonderful little "thought vehicles" that seems completely and ironically indefinable. On the most surface level, doesn't it seem magic that I can write them on a page (or a screen) or I can speak them aloud and you can understand my thoughts? It's almost like magic: I say "pink elephant" and you immediately conjure one up in your mind's eye. I have magically created an image in your head simply through the use of words. In fact, the power is so strong that it is virtually impossible to hear those words and not see one. That pink elephant is unavoidable. Resistance is futile. 

Humanity, or the collective consciousness, can be likened to a body. We all contribute our part as cells in the life cycle of this larger collective being. We combine together to form one big, meta-human whose life span is that not of us individually, but of humanity as a whole. It could even be said that we are each a neuron within the larger body of life. We contribute to the thoughts of the collective, we form the next incarnation of reality by our actions just like neurons. In this metaphor, just as in life, there is a gap between us. (See my blog series on The Gap here for more.) We all exist and carry out our daily lives next to one another, but there is an inescapable separation between us, just as there is between the neurons in our brains.

Biologically, that gap, or synapse, is momentarily bridged through electrical impulses when they relay a message. We too, as neurons, relay a message to one another though our electrical impulses that bridge the synapse come in the form of words. We, as individuals, are literally and figuratively more connected to one another through our words (for better or worse). And through this connection everything is possible. We can hear a different perspective, we can unite in one cause and through connecting are no longer isolated within our own thoughts. Words wire the brain of the collective consciousness; they are the impulses that allow us to transmit thought and emotion from one place to another. 

Oddly enough, the etymology of "synapse" goes all the way back to Greek meaning to connect or bind together. Ironic, yes? This little gap exists in a state of disconnect until there is a thought to relay - and now the synapse gets a chance to live up to its name as it connects one neuron to another and relays the thought from one part of the brain to another. In my example of the meta-human, the synapse still serves as a connection between ourselves and others using our words as the relay method.

I have to question Shakespeare with his famous Romeo & Juliet quote: 

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”


My theory would say that this is both true and untrue all at once.

True, a rose smells great whether it's a rose or a peony or even if I decide to call it George. But I would argue that George the Rose would not smell as good if I named him vomit or sorrow (or Aunt Edna. You know who you are, Aunt Edna I'll leave it at that). While we use words as labels to transmit the more complex entities of our thoughts, they also shape our understanding of the world around us on an intrinsic level. If I blindfold you and have you smell a rose, you would agree it is sweet. If I tell you I am going to have you smell a rose and then hold nothing under your nose, you will smell sweetness regardless. The sensation is likely less intense without the actual stimulus present, but regardless, our brain creates the reality from the label provided.

So, while school kids continue to holler, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" and while I understand that we need to rise above the judgments of others, I am simultaneously aware that words are an integral part of our understanding of reality - again, for better and for worse. There is a fundamental relationship between our thoughts and emotions and the words we choose to label them with. 

Radiolab featured an entire podcast on this topic, including stories about humans who were raised with no words and discussing the effect that it had on their understanding of the world around them. (Link here.) Through a number of widely varied examples, Jad Abumrod and Robert Krulwich examine WordsThere are far too many nuances to discuss in one blog post but in a far-too-small nutshell, words are quite literally the vehicles through which we understand our consciousness, our awareness of the world around us. They are the lens through which we see our awareness of self but even more essentially, they are our method of communicating and combining our awareness with that of others. Words are the currency of thoughts. We give money as exchange for things, we give words as exchange for thoughts and understanding. If you ask me, that turns awesome words into priceless commodities. The more accurately they can describe our reality or experience and convey that to others, the more value they intrinsically have. 

I have this sense that the secret to life exists within a deeper understanding of these multi-faceted labels we have created over centuries to define (and, as a result, even shape) our realities. ...And I am not the only one. This theme of the power of language is hidden throughout our culture. As a very easy example of this - we call words "labels" for thoughts and ideas and even concrete things. The word label has its roots in the actual piece of fabric that is applied to something to identify and classify it. As a literal example, clothing brands speak volumes to the world about who we are, the values that we are attempting to carry and convey about our selves. 

Even literature echoes the potency of words on our reality. Think of Shaw's Pygmalion or, more recently, My Fair Lady. Eliza, through changing her words, has changed where she fits in society and more fundamentally, how she understands the world around her. You know it always goes back to a Harry Potter reference for me. Yes, this is a figurative example, but in this case (and in many other fairy tales), the spoken word has the power to actually kill. Even as a metaphor, that is quite significant.

This conversation could continue ad infinatum ('ad infəˈnīdəm/ : adverb : 1. again and again in the same way; forever.) There is so much to say and so much evidence to support it. And while I would literally love to spend days at a time googling the etymology of anything that comes to mind and simply seeing where that takes us and teaches us about life and our role within it - I will leave you here for today or I will have no time left to exchange words with those I love later tonight...

Articulate well, lovelies. Embrace the delusion defined by the words you choose; enjoy the results.