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Entry #3 Why I Talk To Myself

As a professor, one of the most effective strategies when engaging with students during the writing process is to get them to speak about what they are trying to say.  For whatever reason, there is lucidity available through the sound of words more so than their appearance on a page. Perhaps because the ability to converse, and the act of conversing, is seemingly ingrained within our DNA.  Though discourse can occur through writing, such as emails and letters, there is an overall lack of immediacy and challenge that is typically provided by the reader. Writing, which is a much more adolescent human invention than speaking (especially for the masses), does not appear to be as natural as speech.  And that’s because it’s not. If two children were placed on a remote island without any caretaker, as they aged they would naturally develop a language between one another. This can be assumed through basic observations that linguists, like Steven Pinker, have made in regards to how humans learn to speak. For those interested, Pinker lays out our natural linguistic tendencies in his book, The Language Instinct, in a way that is both enjoyable and easily digestible. We do not need a teacher, or a mother or father, to speak.  We will speak without guidance. Even if the language might appear as gibberish to the remainder of society, mechanics, structure and syntax will naturally arise - look no further than the pidgins developed throughout our history of cultural collisions.  However, the stranded and lonesome children may not write, as writing is something that must be taught, and based on today’s standards, is a teaching process that can span over one’s entire lifetime.

So, it appears that people tend to understand themselves better if they say what they’re thinking, rather than write it, and even better if they have someone to express their thoughts to (therapy), which is when speaking shifts to conversation.  But this is the digital age, and I think it is safe to say that we have become conditioned to communicating with one another through text based interfaces such as texting, social media etc. Even video communication programs, such as Skype and Facetime, dissolve the physical distance once required for conversation, and the pixels and screens of which may distort microexpressions and cut off body language.  A bit of anecdotal evidence; I have a friend who will mostly refuse to take phone calls because it causes them distress. Of course there may be many reasons for this, but it would be foolish to think that a text based society has nothing to do with it.

A little more anecdotal evidence; when I ask students “What do you mean by this? Try to say it to me as if we were having a conversation,” what springs from their mouths is almost always far more legible and sophisticated than what they have written on the page.  So my usual response is “just write that.” Of course, students and people tend to view writing, especially academic writing, as entering into a more civilized pseudo-language, and therefore paradoxically fail from the awkwardness of playing pretend, “sounding smart,” to accommodate or impress instructors and peers.  The dirty little secret that rests beneath all writing courses is that from the time we are very young we are told to write in a way that no one speaks. In English, this is known as Standard English and its what your teachers have been beating into your brain since kindergarten. In reality, nobody speaks in Standard English, and if they do, they would certainly sound like an alien trying to learn a human language.  But, from a young age we are told to write in a particular fashion, and this has stuck with us. For the many that are unable to fully grasp this foreign tongue of standardization, the process of expressing their thoughts is much like dressing up in a tuxedo but forgetting to wear your trousers; it looks kind of formal but there is something painfully absent. I believe that, on some level, the rules of writing are always peering over your shoulder like that one teacher that gave you a C in 9th grade English class because you wrote your whole paper in the passive voice.  In other words, individuals write for someone else, for another set of rules, and this process of “dressing up” one’s thoughts blurs the original intentions of the thought. On the other hand, speaking and conversing is spontaneous, emotional, and, perhaps most importantly, simple. Text, as a “middle man” or cypher of thoughts, is not as all encompassing as speech, and therefore, not entirely effective in communication. Think about it like this - is there a punctuation mark for a sad sentence?

So, we have a population of people that were raised being told that “we don’t write the way that we speak,” that are now communicating informally with text-based digital technologies - almost every minute of every day - and using a system that lacks some fundamental / necessary components of successful communication.  No wonder people have trouble expressing themselves.

When I was young, my father used to take my brothers and me to this cavern in upstate New York that I can’t recall the name of at this moment.  But there was one activity that these mountainous grounds provided that stands out to me - finding gold and little gems in a nearby stream. Children were given handheld filters, which they would then submerge into the bottom of the stream.  As it reemerged, all the sand and mud would seep through, and all that remained in the net of the filter was pretty little stones from beneath the murky water. Your ideas, your thoughts, are much like this stream - seemingly infinite, flowing, and with objects you aren’t even aware of yet.  The filter I used to capture those stones as a child is much like trying to capture your ideas through text, it is limited, and though a few gems may pass through, not everything will be collected.

Of course, good writers are better at this, and emoticons and GIFS are helping to spice up our digital interactions.  But conversation isn’t only for communication, it’s for understanding and reevaluating / challenging your own thoughts and ideas.  There is a reason why the statement “I’d prefer to talk about this in person” happens with almost all important topics and prior to almost every break up.  But, why are we limited to only talking about conventionally important topics in person?

In my experience, if you want to better understand yourself, as well as expand your understanding of others’ ideas, you should speak.  Of course, as I mentioned earlier, I have a friend that dreads phone calls. The unfortunate reality is a lot of people aren’t into the whole face-to-face, or even voice-to-voice, communication anymore.  And that’s totally fine, because you can talk to yourself. I’m not suggesting sitting on the subway and having a full out presidential debate with yourself (clapping and all). But let's say you’re trying to grapple with some awful stuff going on in the news - perhaps instead of going right to Facebook to virtue signal to your surrounding population, you sit for a moment to work out exactly how you feel about the situation, and why you’re feeling that way, outloud.  In the clarity provided through vocalizing your thoughts, you might find that you’re not as upset as you originally thought, or you might stumble upon a point that helps you empathize with the other side of the debate (which would be more likely to happen if you were having a real life conversation, rather than shouting into the ether of your Twitter feed). These days, technology is here to help to. Almost every smartphone is equipped with a microphone and a voice memo app.  This means that you can record your thoughts and then listen back to them. Talking to yourself has never been easier.

I guess what I’m saying in this borderline-stream-of-consciousness-rant is that the digital age is both forcing you to write and respond to happenings very quickly, which is a bad combination, as many disgraced celebrities and politicians have learned.  A glance at human history shows us that we’re basically all noobs when it comes to writing, so can we really be surprised by our slow adaptation to these pressures? Is there anything worse than a recorded statement that will be accessible for eternity that wasn’t well-thought out?  As someone who has to constantly read students’ work, I can assure you that writing does not always capture what you are trying to say, especially the first time through, which is why I give my students multiple drafts to get it right. If you want to improve the efficiency and accuracy of what you’re trying to express, ask yourself “what am I trying to say? How would I say this in a conversation?” and then actually say it to yourself.  Contrary to the stigma surrounding the activity, I think talking to myself has actually made me more sane.


Thoughtscape: Entry #2 The Valuable Lesson From Joe Rogan's Interview With Elon Musk Is Not About Smoking Weed

Now that we’ve all taken three seconds to recover and take a breath after the apparently shocking phenomenon of Elon Musk smoking weed on The Joe Rogan Experience, I would like to shift people’s attention away from joints and onto Elon’s communication skills.  

Before I even had the chance to listen to the show, a handful of my friends told me it was weird.  I asked why, and they responded with something along the lines of, “well, he sounds like a super bizarre dude/he’s out there/I think there’s something wrong with him/he’s a robot.”  I was curious about these labels. Of course, a man who doesn’t sleep, shoots his car into orbit and spends 98% of his brain energy meditating on tunnels and becoming an interplanetary species is not going to be exactly...normal.  But people seemed to be taken aback by how out there he was.  As in this dude is already ON Mars.  Something about him seemed to be making people uncomfortable.

So I went into this show with the mindset of expecting a public intellectual and innovator’s reputation to be tarnished - he might not be the romanticized, suave real life version of Tony Stark we all thought he was.

Gasp.

But, 15 minutes into the conversation and I was confused by listeners’ commentary and reviews.  Joe Rogan is not an easy person to sit across from, he asks tough questions and has interviewed some of the world’s biggest names.  Even with this MMA behemoth of the podcast world as his opposite, I felt that Elon was doing an excellent job thinking through his answers so they were sculpted to be both genuine and informative.  

Then it dawned on me.  The reason why people thought he sounded weird, the reason he was being called a robot, was because he was taking time to think before responding.  Woah.  It wasn’t in what he was saying, it was the silence that festered between each response and in today’s world, silence is unacceptable.  As if long form conversations aren’t a rarity alone, toss somebody into the mix that takes more than one second to respond and he’s immediately dismissed as an enigma.  He must be a robot.

elonmuskweed.jpg

But the truth is, we’re just not used to hearing something live that allows somebody the chance to think before they speak.  News shows and interview platforms only allot a small segment of time for their subjects to gather their thoughts and respond appropriately to whatever prompt they’re confronted with.  Before you even know the question, you’re expected to know the answer. Due to this, it seems like we’ve been conditioned to anticipate and value quick responses over thoroughness. So much so that a person is interpreted as a weirdo, an alien, if they take a moment to ruminate before they make an assessment.  We’ve actually been programmed to aim for, idolize and experience computer speed processing as the norm. We are the ones trying to function at the speed of robots. Elon is the one utilizing and tapping into the contemplative, complex and, frankly, moderately slow human mind.

So there is more to learn from this interview than how to make the lamest face ever while smoking weed.  Instead of listening to Elon’s words (which, you should also pay attention to), be mindful of the gaps between them. This is the space where ideas are cooked, examined, carved and perfected.  This is the space we’ve forgotten about.

We’re so used to the accelerated forms of communication that have become integrated into our daily routines, we’ve forgotten that instantaneous responses are not required for communication.  A desire for speed, in actuality, will raise the chances of distorting whatever you are trying to say and your words matter because they are the intrinsic links to and external symbols of your inner thoughts.

On the past few episodes of the Twenty Somethings Podcast, I’ve been advocating for an evolution in communication.  I believe it is a necessary step in the sequence of the emergence from the era we are currently living in. I don’t know exactly what a new age of communication will look like, but perhaps it can start with all of us becoming comfortable with space and inner dialogue before vocalization.  

Pause and process.  Be meticulous with your utterances.  If being quietly critical means judgement and being labeled as weird, then don’t be afraid to be a mute peacock amongst the chatty suits.  People are often baffled by the sheer amount of ingenuity that has emerged from the busy and chaotic mind of Elon, but perhaps his secret of production lies within a fearlessness in and capitalization on moments of silence.  



Thoughtscape: Entry #1 Changing Your Reality With Emotional Vocabulary

During our conversation on the Twenty Somethings podcast with Jesse James Keitel, we briefly touched upon language and its revolutionary qualities for promoting change.  During our discussion on the podcast I mentioned a paper I had been working on about how language works to regulate our emotions. This is an incredibly fascinating component of the field of linguistics taking place today so I figured I would share some more in depth information about the topic for you all to dig your teeth into.

Basically, your vocabulary changes your reality.  That’s right - the words in your mental vocabulary have the capacity to change the sensory experience of the world around you.  How does this happen? Well, it really goes back to simple biology. Imagine you were walking through the woods and you saw an object on the ground ten feet ahead of you.  It could be a snake, or it could just be a stick, but until you’re able to label the object, your body is having a physiological response that we’ve popularly labeled as “going into fight or flight mode.”  This is one part of the relationship that words share with regulating our psyche - studies have shown that if your vocabulary contains a word to identify an object, it eliminates the “unknown” stimuli that the object is giving off, and therefore your heart doesn’t start racing.

Ok, so that works with sticks and snakes, but what about emotions?

So emotions are weird and hard to express, right? The difficulty in understanding and expressing them arises primarily through the fact that emotions don’t not exist as concrete objects in our world, rather, emotions are considered to be abstract.  Abstract concepts often lack strong perceptual regularities that are present in their concrete counterparts (Lindquist 5). Perceptual regularities are things that everybody can agree upon. So think about the stove top being hot - no one is going to say it isn’t hot if they touch it and burn themselves - everybody has the same experience in regards to the stove top.  But emotions are experienced differently. Emotions are formed through the combination of two experiences: affect and exteroceptive sensations. Affect is the understanding of sensations from inside the body. This is the part of the body that allows for it to process what sensations are good or bad for it. For example, a racing heartbeat could be an effect that takes place in some situations.  Exteroceptive sensations are those that provide representations of information from the external world, outside of the body, which are then channeled to the body through the senses (Lindquist 2). For example, a loud noise would be an exteroceptive sensation experienced by the body. Both affect and exteroceptive sensations gain meaning as they synthesize to create conceptual knowledge. According to Lindquist, “conceptual knowledge refers to the rich cache of instances that populate what someone ‘knows’ about different categories” (2).  In other words, this is how we attach meaning to certain internal and external sensations. The conceptual knowledge associated with these experiences is how we develop emotional categories. For example, if one was a child and heard a loud noise when they were home alone and their heart rate started to race, then this person might categorize these sensations under the label of “fear.” Once this concept knowledge is acquired, people use the categorization of these sensations to make predictions and labels for their emotional states for most of their lives.  The problem is that humans cannot agree on a regularity for emotions because everybody obtains different variations of conceptual knowledge as they're growing up and having multitudes of experiences. Basically, what happy conjures within you might conjure a completely different experience in someone else. Woah, dude.

Well the only way to counter this is for all of us to start taking emotions and dissecting them into more specific categories - that is how words work, they are these verbal and written things that distinguish other objects from one another by slicing the world up. Woah. It’s true, humans have been using words for thousands of years to dissect the world into to smaller and smaller categories.  It is one big organizational system, and the more organized it becomes, the less objects fall under the scary label of the “unknown.” Let’s use happy as an example, go ahead and list all of the words that you know to describe happiness. Here’s a few:

Happy, elated, joyful, ecstatic, cheerful, content, delighted, gleeful etc.

They all mean happy right? Well not quite.  Sure, in common language they all convey a sense of well being, but each word holds a miniscule difference between the emotional states being described.  Ecstatic has a connotation of excitement and happiness, while contentment signifies an overall feeling of well-being. The problem is, most people’s emotional labels are binary.  If they are not happy, they are sad. If they are not angry, they are pleased. Whatever it is - people don’t have, or don’t use, enough words as they should to categorize their emotions.   

So why does this matter? Well, your lack of emotional vocabulary is probably distorting how you think you’re feeling half the time.  Let’s say you’re feeling anxious for an interview for a job that you really want. Your palms are sweating and your heart rate starts to go bo-dum-bo-dum-bo-dum.  In your experience, these physiological responses usually take place when you’re nervous. This is the conceptual knowledge embedded within you. But guess what? These same physiological responses also take place when someone is excited.  Remember, this is a job you really want, why not be excited?! But for years and years, you’ve experienced these physical responses in your body and have associated them with nervousness, which then turns into a cyclical process of being nervous because you think you’re feeling nervous and it all compounds and so on and so on and then you lose your mind.  Just kidding. But what if you could come up with a new word that embodies both the slight nervousness and overall excitement that you're feeling? What if you could reconstruct your conceptual knowledge of emotions? How would eliminating the negative connotation associated with nervousness change your experience of this interview? Well studies have shown it could be a tremendous shift in your experience.

A research study conducted by Elena Constantinou found that “assigning emotional labels has been found to reduce amygdala activation and increase inhibitory activation at prefrontal areas” (2).  So having an accurate label to attach to your emotional states will decrease that part of your brain that gets all loopy whenever you encounter something unknown to you. Furthermore, in the article Current Emotion Research in the Language Sciences, Asifa Majid describes the implications of the English metaphor ANGER IS HEAT.  Think “I’m heating up” or “I’m so mad I’m on fire.” Majid states, “linguistic metaphors are cognitively real.  Indeed, English speakers presented with anger-related words judge temperatures as higher” (436). That’s right - by simply associating anger with heat, humans perceive temperatures to be higher than they actually are.  This statement shows that the commonality of metaphorical statements that represent anger in the English language have actually altered the way people perceive their surrounding environments. This proves that, on some level, our metaphors and language sculpt our reality.

So basically, if you practice expanding your emotional category and getting more specific with how you label your emotional states, you can LITERALLY change your reality.  

Let’s review:

  1. Words are abstract and lack any perceptual regularities

  2. Everybody forms unique conceptual knowledge to understand their emotions

  3. Having more words to understand emotions widens one’s conceptual knowledge, and increases the chances of finding common ground with other people’s emotional states, which makes sharing and expressing emotions easier for everyone. Woohoo!  

  4. Widening one’s emotional vocabulary reduces brain activity in the part of your brain that makes you freak out whenever you mistake a stick for a snake

  5. It can also alter your sensory experience so you can stop feeling so damn hot whenever you're annoyed at your roommate for stealing your pint of Ben and Jerry’s

So, break out that thesaurus and dictionary and get to work, I promise it will make you feel GREAT.

Grant Crawford

Co-Host of Twenty Somethings Podcast

Sources:

Constantinou, Elena, et al.  “Can Words Heal? Using Affect Labeling to Reduce The Effects Of Unpleasant Cues On Symptom Reporting.”  Frontiers In Psychology, Vol. 5, Article 807, University of Leuven, 22 July 2014.

Lindquist, Kristen A, Jennifer K. MacCormack and Holly Shablack.  “The Role Of Language In Emotion: Predictions From Psychological Constructionism.” Frontiers in Psychology.  Edited by Cornelia Herbert.  Reviewed by Frederic Isel, Annal Hatzidaki and Marta Ghio.  University of North Carolina. 14 April 2015.

Majid, Asifa.  “Current Emotion Research in the Language Sciences.” Emotion Review. Volume 4, No. 4, Radboud University, Oct. 2012.