I like to think about words. I’m no linguist, I just like thinking about words. Words are symbols. Now, I’m also no neuroscientist, but I’ve read that we use the symbols to represent the various chemical reactions and electrical connections that occur as our brains process the stimuli from our environment. Those reactions and connections are sometimes called our “thoughts”, but they say thoughts are truly just chemical reactions and electrical connections in the brain. The symbols, the words, can also catalyze reactions and connections, when our brains process the sounds we hear as stimuli into symbols.
So, our brains are continuous electro-chemical reactions, and we’ve devised a set of symbols (actually many sets, called languages) to let others know how the connections and reactions are proceeding, and to stimulate or redirect the reactions and connections. It makes intuitive sense that the reactions and connections that occur in our brains in response to identical stimuli should “yield” the same symbol. After all, we’re made of the same stuff, right? Likewise, the same symbol should generate the same reactions and connections in all of us. There’s nothing different about the symbol.
That’s true for simple stimuli. Place an apple in front of someone and they are likely to produce the word “apple”, the symbol that represents the reactions and connections to the visual stimulus the brain processed. Granted, they might produce the word “manzana” if they speak Spanish, or “apfel” if they speak German, or “pomme” if they speak French, but these are just symbols from different symbol sets representing the same reactions and connections the brain made from the stimulus.
If we say the word “apple”, and thereby enter the sound into the auditory stimulus chain, the reactions and connections will likely produce the same result. An apple. By the way, kudos to those readers who can work seamlessly in more than one symbol set, you have my undying admiration.
But that’s not true of more complex reactions and connections and of more complex stimuli. In fact, this may well be the reason we’ve developed so many symbols for similar, but not quite identical, reactions, connections, and stimuli. We have a unique set of reactions and connections that we are trying to symbolize, but none of the old symbols work. They just don’t feel right. And there’s the rub.
The part of the brain responsible for symbols is the cerebrum. The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain. It’s also the most recent addition. But it is tightly tied to the more “primitive” parts of the brain, including a part called the amygdala, which is responsible for our emotions and emotional learning, among other responsibilities.
Even though the symbols used to represent the reactions and connections generated while processing the stimuli in our environment is solely a function of the cerebrum, the amygdala gets in there and adds in its two emotional cents worth to change the symbol. And there’s nothing we can do about it, it’s how we’re wired.
Well, actually, there is something we can do about it. We can recognize that the word or symbol that we feel perfectly represents our current reactions and connections may well catalyze an entirely unintended set of reactions and connections in someone else, because emotions and emotional learning are never identical. We can choose our words carefully. After all, what would we do with the thesaurus if there weren’t so many words with similar meanings?