Thursday, March 10, 2022


Silence is the language of god. All else is poor translation. ~Rumi

Our species, Homo sapiens, emerged some 300,000 years ago. Language came into being some 150,000 years later. This means that for half of our existence we did not use language to communicate. Of course, we did communicate with one another, probably in ways that other mammals communicate today, through gestures and body language, but what I've been thinking about is what it must have been like to exist without all those words going through my head.

I'm just speaking for myself here, but most of what passes for thought takes the form of words, syntax, and sentences. Most of what keeps me awake at night is language frantically bouncing around my head. Whenever I'm planning for the future or ruminating on the past, there are words there as well. When I think of others I hear their voices more than I see their faces. Indeed, I can hardly imagine thinking without language.

There is meditation, with its goal of "stilling the mind," which is largely about shutting up our internal dialog. Meditation might get us closer to experiencing how a mind might work without language, but I've never heard of anyone capable of maintaining that state while simultaneously getting on with their life of doing, which is what our most of our ancient ancestors must have done as they engaged in the quest to survive and reproduce.

Perhaps the closest we ever get to this experience of a language free consciousness is as newborns. On Monday, I quoted Daphne and Charles Maurer, from their book The World of the Newborn:

His world smells to him much as our world smells to us, but he does not perceive odors (as we do) . . . His world is a melee of pungent aromas -- and pungent sounds, and bitter-smelling sounds, and sweet-smelling sights, and sour-smelling pressures against the skin. If we could visit the newborn's world, we would think ourselves inside a hallucinogenic perfumery.

From this, maybe, we get the idea of a consciousness without language, but since the experience is filtered through language it is, even if the baby itself had spoken it, second-hand information.

But maybe there are moments when we glimpse an infant's intellectual word: when we stub our toe, for instance. The pain comes first and for the briefest of moment we become that pain. Our shout is involuntary as we react to the all-encompassing sensation. Then, in time measured in nanoseconds, language races to the scene, often in the form of a curse followed by the language of self-recrimination ("What an idiot!"). But there, in that first flash of the experience we are, I imagine, close to what it means to live a language free existence, an infant's existence. It's in that moment that we are finally connected to what it might have been like to live, day-after-day, feeding ourselves, clothing ourselves, sheltering ourselves, living and loving, without the mitigation of language.

Our species' language did not emerge overnight, but rather over the course of tens of thousands of years, gradually coming to replace whatever used to be there with words. It must have been unsettling for those earliest language learners to hear voices in their heads. How confusing it must have been to hear, for instance, an ancestor who you watched die in the jaws of a tiger, still speaking to you. And how truly disturbing it still is to have voices -- our own and others -- waking us at 3:30 in the morning. I often wonder if what we call schizophrenia is a matter of some Homo sapiens having become somehow stuck in this phase of human development.

As a parent of a newborn, I was in a rush for her to speak. Our doctor told us that we should fill her world with language. Her teachers advocated for a language rich environment. But I've come to doubt this advice. I find myself returning to the idea silence.

The vast majority of babies are born fully wired to learn how to use language, the result of our 300,000 years of evolution. They are born with the instinct to attend to the human voice, although perhaps not language itself. They will learn to use language, they will begin to understand it before they speak it. They do not need us to hurry them along, yet, like we do with walking, literacy, and so much else, we seem compelled to unnecessarily, and perhaps harmfully, hurry them along. We hang stimulating mobiles over their cribs, we play classical music for them, we chirp and sing and chant at them. 

But what about silence? Where in all of this do we simply allow them to experience being alive directly rather than second-hand, to be with us, to be the human being that they are right now? This is a unique moment in their lives, these first months and years, this time during which language hasn't come to dominate their thoughts. As adults, we cannot imagine it any longer, even if we were all once there ourselves. We have, as Homo sapiens, evolved this stage in development for a reason. We might not be able to understand it because we are, by now, products of language, but perhaps we should strive to honor it with our silence.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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