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Consciousness: Where Are Words?

Diana Ong/Bridgeman Images
Diana Ong: Brain child, 2008

Words, words, words. With the advent of the stream of consciousness in twentieth-century literature, it has come to seem that the self is very much a thing made of words, a verbal construction forever narrating itself and reconstituting itself in language. In line with the dominant, internalist view of consciousness, it is assumed that this all takes place in the brain—specifically, two parts known as Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area in the left hemisphere. So, direct perception of sights and sounds in the world outside the body are very quickly ordered and colored by language inside our heads. “Once a thing is conceived in the mind,” wrote the poet Horace in the first century BC, “the words to express it soon present themselves.” And we call this thinking. All our experience can be reshuffled, interconnected, dissected, evoked, or willfully altered in language, and these thoughts are then stored in our brains.

—Tim Parks

This is the fourteenth in a series of fifteen conversations on consciousness between Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks.

Tim Parks: Riccardo, you have been presenting quite a different theory of consciousness, which suggests that there is nothing “stored” in the brain. No images, no sounds, and, I assume, no words. As you see it, the brain is a powerful enabler that allows experience to happen, but this experience is actually one with the objects we see, hear, smell, and touch, outside our bodies, or again, one with the body itself in those cases where it is the body that is experienced. And we are this experience, not something separate from it. You have explained dreams, hallucinations, and non-verbal thoughts as more complex and delayed forms of perception, always insisting that each experience is identical to something outside the brain, something whose existence is relative to our body. But how can that possibly be the case for language? When I am thinking silently to myself, where can the language possibly be, if not inside my head?

Riccardo Manzotti: Imagine you’re lying in bed planning to furnish a house you’ll soon be moving to in a distant town. What do you do? You start thinking about different items of furniture to figure out if they will go together in the space there. This would normally be explained by saying that you are imagining mental objects—representations in your head—and arranging them together in a mental space, another mental representation, again in your head. But in our previous conversation, we reached the conclusion that there are no “mental” objects—no thoughts, that is—separate from real objects. Simply, there is no need to introduce this new entity, thought, between body and object.

When we say we are thinking, what we are actually doing is rearranging causal relations with past events, objects that we have encountered before, to see what happens when we combine them. We don’t need a mental sofa to put next to a mental armchair. We allow the sofas and armchairs encountered in our past to exert an effect in the present, in various combinations. Like a controlled dream.

Parks: But we were talking about words, Riccardo, not sofas and armchairs! Last time we talked about thinking things directly; this time we’re considering thinking in language, which is surely different.

Manzotti: Not at all. Words are really not so different from sofas and armchairs. They are external objects that do things in the world and, like other objects, they produce effects in our brains and thus eventually, through us, in the world. The only real difference is that, when it comes to what we call thinking, words are an awful lot easier to juggle around and rearrange than bits of furniture.

Parks: External objects you say. But what kind of object is a word? Is it a sound? Is it a visual sign? What about when it is neither spoken nor written, but simply thought in the head?

Manzotti: Exactly as with the furniture, what we have is a rearrangement of our causal relations with past events—in this case, words initially heard in the external world. If we take things slowly and simply observe what happens as we learn to speak and think, you’ll see that, once again, there’s no need to posit the entity you call “a thought in the head.”

Parks: Go on, then.

Manzotti: A mother repeats words to a baby. That’s how it starts for most of us. So, we have sounds, which are physical objects. The sounds are repeated, frequently, insistently, in reference to things, actions, emotions, to the point where they become labels that are perceived together with facts in the world. As soon as you have the fact, the sound/word is present; as soon as you hear the sound/word, the fact is present. And when you make the right sound, the food arrives.

Parks: I suppose you could say the same thing happens with certain movements that a parent teaches a child. Pointing, waving, clapping, or even using tools: spoons, forks.

Manzotti: Indeed. But it’s important that the sounds/words don’t just come singly; they come in patterns, building up more and more complex objects, phrases, sentences. And many of the sounds don’t relate to an object/experience, but to the other sounds in the pattern. I mean words like, “and,” “but,” “as,” “because.” Then the patterns can be rearranged. Hear the beginning of the pattern and the rest follows automatically.

Parks: Surely not altogether automatically, or we would simply be forever repeating the same things?

Manzotti: True. Let’s say there are powerful automatisms, rules if you like, that govern this constant rearrangement of words we experience. The further you proceed in a sentence, the more your options close down. However, we’re not trying to offer a linguist’s description of language function here, simply to establish how and where language is experienced. It is a patterning of real, physical, external objects, and these are one with our experience. They are our experience.

Parks: But some words refer to imaginary entities, or abstract entities. Are they external objects?

Manzotti: All sounds/words are physical objects in the same way. But you’re right, once we get used to the idea that a sound refers to an object, we can start inventing sounds/words for imaginary or notional objects—angels, dark matter, whatever—and then use other sound/words to put them in relation to the experience/objects we are familiar with.

Parks: But how did we arrive at an imaginary or notional object, something that doesn’t perhaps exist, if you’re saying there is nothing to experience but real external objects?

Manzotti: What is an angel but a juggling of past experience: beautiful body, plus wings, as in a dream? What is dark matter if not a piece needed to complete a puzzle, a theory, made up of endless complex objects in the world? Sometimes, the imaginary object is a reshuffling of real objects and thus it is real in its own way; sometimes, it is nothing. Both these very different notional entities can be traced back to direct experience.

Parks: In other words, you’re saying that we don’t so much think in a language—English, Italian, whatever—but constantly rearrange our experiences, our world, of which the language we speak is a part. It’s world-ish!

Manzotti: Yes. Think of people who are born stone-deaf. Are they going to be thinking in sound/words? If they’ve never heard words, how can they be hearing them in their thinking? They can’t. In fact, if you ask such people about this—in writing, of course—they tell you they think in signs. They’ve learned their language visually, so they think words visually. Those are the external objects they are dealing with. Interestingly, some people born deaf say they think in images with captions.

Parks: Which brings us to the written word.

Manzotti: Right. At a certain point, the child who has learned to speak is invited to look at signs on paper or on screen, and relate them to the sound/words he or she knows. This introduces yet another object into the mix: the written word. Written words now prompt sounds and thus the child’s relations with object experiences. Words also facilitate the rearrangement of these experiences in all kinds of extended forms. We go back and forth so frequently between these different kinds of objects that we have put in strict relation to each other—sound, sign, referent—that as the world acts on our brains in what we call experience, so the sounds that we relate to each object/experience are also active in our brains. And we call this silent thinking.

Parks: To sum up, words and language amount to a kind of behavior—like learning a series of movements, or a dance, with infinite variations.

Manzotti: Correct, and just as you can’t find a pirouette stored in a dancer’s brain, so you wouldn’t have found “To be or not to be” stored in Shakespeare’s. At the end of our last conversation, I quoted E.M. Forster’s remark, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” This is exactly right. Language is a performance. We launch into it, we have a direction and we set off. But until we have said or written the thing, until we’ve performed it, we don’t know how it will turn out.

Parks: So, nothing is stored in the head.

Manzotti: All the objects we encounter, the objects we call experience, continue to be active in our bodies and brains, continue to be our experience. It is the nature of our fantastically complex brains that they allow these encounters to go on, and to go on going on. The encounters are not “stored” and are certainly not static. They are continuing to happen. They are us.

Parks: But there must be some order. Isn’t this a recipe for chaos?

Manzotti: Words are one way we try to impose a rather crude order on a fantastically complex, nuanced experience. Language makes categories—for example, in the area of colors, where we name only a small number of the vast range of colors we see. In 1858, the British statesman William Gladstone, commenting on Homer’s references to color in The Iliad and The Odyssey, suggested that our experience was limited and determined by linguistic conventions. But in 1898, the ethnologist W.H.R. Rivers’s study of the inhabitants of Murray Island (between New Guinea and Australia), people who had no names for colors as basic as green and blue, conclusively demonstrated that human beings see all shades of colors even when they don’t have words for them. In 1969, the anthropologists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay established that color names do not change the colors one sees, and later studies have confirmed this.

Parks: So, by segmenting infinitely nuanced experience into a limited number of words, language allows us to impose a little order, though presumably at the risk of leaving a lot of experience out of the system.

Manzotti: It’s like a net we’ve made and throw over the world. It catches some fish and lets others slip through the links. But it doesn’t create fish, or stop them from existing. And we’re always tampering with our net to have it capture new fish, or exclude certain fish we want to pretend don’t exist. Sometimes, the net captures fragments of the net itself (for the net itself is an object), and it gets tangled and snarled. In short, it’s as if we’d built a world with Lego bricks that corresponds very crudely to the world as a whole, and we keep adjusting it to fine-tune the correspondence.

Parks: And just as there is no inner “cinema screen” in the brain on which visual images are seen, so there is no inner auditorium in which the voice resounds.

Manzotti: It is all echo and learned behavior. Our words are the words of our mother tongue, not other languages (or not until we’ve been exposed to them for a long time).  There is some interesting overlap here with the work of Julian Jaynes, a Princeton-based psychologist who in the late 1970s claimed that consciousness is not concocted inside the brain but is a learned process based on language. As Jaynes saw it, we talk to ourselves and hallucinate our own voices. His hunch was that, in the past, people have often mistaken this hallucinated voice for external sources, thus inventing gods, angels, demons, and the like.

Parks: Whereas you, I presume, would see all supposedly internal voices as simply a collection of past voices still rumbling on thanks to the brain’s capacity to allow immediate perception to continue.

Manzotti: Yes. In the 1950s, when the neuroscientist Wilfred Penfield used electrical charges to stimulate the cortex of his patients, they reported hearing the voices of people they knew. Since then, other scientists have consistently obtained similar results. As we said when we discussed dreams, all perception involves both immediate experience and, as it were, buffered experience, perception that remains in the background and comes to the fore, if at all, only when immediate attention to the here-and-now is not required.

Parks: But in that regard, words are rather different from, say, my visual memory of an exciting soccer game, in that I keep performing language pretty much all the time, and when I want. If it’s a hallucination, it’s an extremely controlled hallucination.

Manzotti: Yes, because we train ourselves assiduously and from the earliest age to give structure to the world in this way. Learning languages, even dead languages like Latin and Greek, has always been considered good for one’s education, because it promotes this organization of experience. Society demands language of us and promotes it most determinedly. In those very rare cases where a child is abandoned in nature, yet survives (so-called feral children, or wolf children), without having gone through the language-learning process, they are not, alas, like Kipling’s Mowgli, smart, bright kids. Unused to the constant manipulation of experience that language allows, they are cognitively impaired. Language, as Ludwig Wittgenstein insisted, is a game. Constantly playing this game, we learn how to organize those objects we call words and, eventually, with them, the world.

Parks: As always, you have systematically eliminated any entities that might intervene between the world and the body, all representations and so-called mental phenomena. As you see it, all experience is made up of external objects and the rearranging of external objects. But what I want to ask now is the crunch question: Who is doing that rearranging, who is focusing on this part of the landscape or that, who is choosing this word rather than that?

Manzotti: Where and what is the self you mean? Who says I? Who pulls the levers? A soul, a ghost in the machine? We’ll tackle this in our next, and last, conversation. But let me leave you with that all-too-famous quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson as he crossed a bare field in winter twilight:

I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

But instead of the Universal Being, God, perhaps we could just say the world: “I am a part of the world, that part relative to my body.”