Friday, February 20, 2015

The Ineffable

I've always loved the word Ineffable. And I just can't seem to put into words exactly why.

What does it mean? Look it up in a few dictionaries and the basic gist is:

Something so awesome no words can describe it. And you can't even find words to begin describing the awesomeness.

Ever since I learned the word I would often think about it. Surely there are words you can use for everything? How could there be things we know and experience that you can't put into words? Words are what we think with after all?

But then I started to think about this, and really, we learn words when we're very young, but we were thinking before this. We just didn't have words to translate our own thoughts to us. You can teach a parrot words, and some of them can even attach meaning to them, like that African Grey parrot that is capable of telling the difference between a circle and a triangle, and when you show it two triangles of the same size and ask which one is bigger, the yellow one or the red one, it responds with "same".

In essence we humans use words to label our thoughts. This is what allows us to convey our thoughts to other humans, much as I am doing right now. But every now and then we get stuck for words. Maybe we are tired and can't come up with the right words. Or maybe our memory misfires and we get frustrated by this word that is "right on the tip of our tongue" but that we just can't get out.

But in reality there are a lot of thoughts and experiences that have no words. I personally believe there is a part of every language-speaking human being that still thinks without words.

(I must be crazy, choosing to write a bunch of words about things that have no words).

There are words in other languages that belong to thoughts, feelings or experiences we don't have English words for, and single words that we have entire sentences for and vice versa, but I'm not really talking about that.

We can form entire concepts and narratives in our mind at lightning-quick speeds that are too slow for words, but I'm not really talking about that either, because if you thought about it you could eventually put it into words.

I'm talking about the part of you that is on a level that there are no words for in any language.

And as you may have suspected, I'm having trouble finding the words to describe it.

Maybe I should share with you how I visualize the human mind, whatever the word "mind" means to you, which is a discussion I am not going to go near. Today, anyway.

I picture layers of words in concentric circles. There are the words at talking pace, which is the outermost layer. These scroll along like an internet news feed and are the words we generally say out loud. They tend to be censored, filtered, adjusted to suit the audience, shoehorned into politically correct statements.

Next is the inner monologue, the one that moves at lightning speed. This is where your spoken words start from, then move into the outer layer. These are concepts, impressions, feelings and ideas that we have words for, complete with all the swearing, racism, sexism and dirty jokes. Don't worry, the outer layer will filter all that stuff out.

Last is the bit right in the middle. This is where it all starts. There are no words here. This is raw data. This is where all the information that the brain receives, from within and without, is spurted into your conscious awareness. It is from this place that you then start allocating words to the data. Words and phrases such as "ouch, my tummy hurts" or "wow, those jeans make you look fat!" and "gee, it's hot today".

Of course, conducted by organic machinery as this process is, it's not perfect. Every now and then something will come all the way out into the open air leaving us saying "Um, did I just say that out loud?". Likewise, some thought, concept or impression will find it's way to the outer layer that does not, and cannot, have words allocated to it, because there are no words suitable. This is why expanding your vocabulary is a fantastic idea; it increases the likelihood you will have appropriate words to allocate and your mind machinery won't come grinding to a halt.

But even then, this is not really what I'm talking about.

Assuming you have a functioning brain, you have a sense of "self". There is actually a part of your brain that is dedicated to giving you the sense that you are a distinct entity in this world, and if this part of your brain is damaged or switched off for whatever reason, you will experience the dissolving of the ego and oneness with everything that has been described by people before in numerous scenarios.

Over time and as we grow and mature, this sense of self becomes very detailed. We store what we think of ourselves, what we think others think of us, the person we want to be, the person we think we are, the way we think we act, the way we think other people perceive how we act, all in this tiny little box we call our "self". It becomes more than just that specific region of our brain; it becomes our own image of ourselves.

If you're a reasonably self-aware person, you can probably look at this system image from time to time and assess how you're measuring up to it (a habit that can be unhealthy unless it's done the right way). You can even sum up it's attributes and allocate words to them. This is my personality section. This is my "what I enjoy doing" section. This is my music section. This is my favourite film genre section. This is my "who I am when I'm with my friends" section. This is my "what I think about when I'm by myself" section.

But if you keep looking long enough you will find a section you can't really describe. What is it? There aren't really any words to describe what this section of me is, but it is still a distinct section. And I use it, but I can't really describe what for. What does it do? Well, I know it's there for a reason, but I can't really describe when, where and how it does what it does.

The reason I bring it up is because, far from being an unnecessary mental appendage, I believe it is an essential part of who we are, and I believe it is important for us to keep trying to put words to it. The reason being, I believe this is the part of us that inspiration comes from, and the process of continually trying to put words to the wordless is where we get all our new ideas from.

Some are better at this than others - I quite often look at different people and think "how the heck did they come up with that? And why didn't I think of that?" So I do my best to grab a hold of the ineffable part of me and keep trying to allocate words to what comes out.

Some of you have no idea what I'm talking about, and others know exactly what I'm talking about. Get to know your ineffable self - there aren't quite words to describe how awesome that part of you is. (Groan).

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