Like many things in life, my brain acquiring language at around age 2 had some pluses and some minuses. On the plus side of the ledger, I could use words to let people know what I needed, I could understand that they used words and took actions differently than me, and I could use words to socially connect with people (although many other things can connect us to others much more powerfully than words. Things like similarities of experience, humor, kindness, well-matched, interlocking trauma histories, simple proximity, energy intensity and resonance, for starters).
Those are a few of the pluses that accrue from language-learning. Turns out there are quite a few negatives acquired along with language as well. Most of them we usually don’t speak about. However, we know from anecdotal reports that taking a vow of silence – refraining from the verbal use of language – has powerful impacts upon the brain. A few years ago, John Francis gave a TED talk recounting his 17 speechless years out on The Ragged Edge of Silence. Some of the things he discovered were … he could earn a Ph.D. degree without speaking; he could travel the country on foot silently; he could teach college students without using language. Simply walking and not talking can make a profound difference in the world, John discovered. Frequently, when we talk it profoundly limits our capacity for listening.
We also have this account from Baba Hari Dass, founder of the Mt. Madonna Yoga Center outside Watsonville, CA. For more than 60 years Baba has remained speechless. If the “use it or lose it” theory of neural organization generalizes, it appears that what begins to happen as a result of going silent is that neurons in the areas of the brain that generate speech – Broca’s area – begin to wither and their connections become significantly diminished. Along with that withering goes a lot of mostly unneeded discursive thought. In addition, along with discursive thought happily dissolves the “narrative of me” – the story that simply unfolds as a by-product of attaching language to experience.
One example of such a story: I can readily recall as a kid the great excitement my brain and body would generate when I’d return home from a Great Lamprey Eel Hunt, regaling my friends with the harrowing accounts of how one of the eels almost latched onto my hand or leg, where it would be impossible to pull off in order keep it from sucking all the blood and guts out of my body! Gradually, over time, experience after experience results in story after story, up until the present moment defining (and greatly limiting) in my own mind, who my brain and my body think I am. Who am I if I am not my personal narrative?
Increasing the Stillness-to-Noise Ratio
As Broca’s Area begins to diminish in size, it appears that other areas of the brain naturally begin to grow more robust. More specifically the areas that move us away from the direction of self-referencing and self-concern. As these areas grow new cells and make more synaptic connections, we simply begin to lose interest in our own storyline, our own drama. Now what the brain and body begin to find much more interesting are how disorganized brains and bodies operate in the world in ways that contribute to great suffering for self and others. Much of it is the result of … discursive thought or what I call reactive, Bully Word Brain. Bully Word Brain, for example, is what Steve Jobs used to intimidate Apple employees in the company’s early years. He used the power imbalance of his position as company head to diminish, disrespect and dismiss the people in his care. That karma came back around when he found his own board of directors using Bully Word Brain to diminish, disrespect and dismiss him – betrayed by the very people he’d placed into positions of power. Steve possessed quite a powerful Narrative of Me.
The Thought Space Amusement Ride
Unfortunately, we can’t simply decide to “still the Narrative of Me” and tomorrow become completely focused on working to alleviate the suffering of others. It appears to be something most of our brains and bodies have to gradually grow into. It most often operates as a developmental unfolding. And we now have brain-scan evidence of just which areas of the brain lose connections, and which gain connections. The internal rewiring mostly seems to move connections from the posterior part of the cingulate cortex to the anterior part (See illustration at left). And like anything we grow into, it takes dedication and practice. For me, the practice mostly involves observing the multiple times throughout the day discursive thought thinks up painful thoughts of self-concern: “it’s raining and I’m bored,” “I’m hungry and there’s nothing good to eat,” “the dogs have left a ton of poo for me to clean up again,” “I can’t believe I spent good money on a putting green for the john.” Thoughts like these and 10000 others flow through my thought-space day after day. Over time I have gradually grown increasingly able to diminish self-concern and pay them little mind. The discursive flow centered around The Narrative of Me has essentially lost its compelling draw; at this late date most of the thoughts I have throughout any day are actually pretty repetitive, dull and boring. I’ve thought them all before. Yawn. And as my friend, Kathleen Singh reminds us in her wonderful new book, The Grace in Aging, “Lightening our attachment to self is the only thing that is going to get us through the decline, illness and loss that we will inevitably face from now until we die, with some equanimity and peaceful sanity …”