Language and Thought: A Narrative View

In a previous post, I discussed the relationship between language and thought, posing the question about how language limits your ability to think. Jimmy “The Fish” Rudden read it and recommended I read On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins, who I had just listened to on Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders podcast. The book, in which I am now engrossed and you can expect a great number of posts on its concepts forthcoming, discusses memory and pattern matching and it reminded me of the language post.

Your mind stores your memories as a sequence of patterns, a narrative if you will. One thing about language is that it is that it is temporal, that it occurs over time. Hawkins points out that just as you can’t tell a whole story all at once, but in a sequence of details, you can’t recall an entire story at once either. As an exercise, try to remember a familiar story (graduation, meeting this morning, how you met your best friend) all at once. Try to keep the details of the beginning, middle and end all together. You can’t. It just comes as a sequence, a narrative.

Your inability to load or cache such a large set of data poses some interesting questions on our abilities and limitations when it comes to complex thoughts. How do you put all the little observations together into a theory of relativity? Well, like a lot of original work, it started with an atomic observation that the speed of light is constant regardless of how fast you are going. Einstein simply – ok not that simply - predicted what would happen if this were indeed true. He applied other patterns (theories) to a new observation and made predictions. In fact that is what your brain is doing all the time: Creating sequences, pattern matching, and predicting what comes next. With some different assumptions, and the application of new patterns, you have creativity, the subject of a subsequent post.

Relating to my world of product marketing, every great salesman is a story teller. To get people to buy into a new technology requires relating to them existing experiences and then leading them to the conclusion you desire. Anyone who is matter-of-fact about a subject may be right, but they will not attract a lot of followers; they would be terrible teachers.

If you told a story in the right sequence, with the right patterns, you could always achieve the desired result. How much do you think of the right narrative when you present an idea, coax a friend, pick up a girl at a bar, or ask for a raise?

Adapting an old adage: You should read the horse to water, so it doesn’t have to think.