Why What You Hear Changes The Way You See The World


Sunday, 6.35am

Sheffield, U.K.

The basic premise that children must learn about emotions is that all feelings are okay to have; however, only some reactions are okay. – Daniel Goleman

The course of my life changed with a word.

Just one word, a choice I made, between saying “can” and “may”.

I was asking a teacher if I could do something and I started my request by saying, “Can I…?”

I was reprimanded, told in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t.

A little while later, the teacher asked if I knew why permission had been refused and said it was because I hadn’t said, “May I…”, and was being rude.

That happened a long time ago and it doesn’t matter if it was right or wrong – words and usage evolve and the grammarians have mixed views.

But what did happen was that I avoided that teacher, in the process not taking courses where I might have to be taught by that person that were a more natural fit for my interests and aptitudes – ending up closing off options for particular careers and going down a different road.

I have had an expensive education but I am not sure it has been a good one.

Some people have teachers that inspired them, ones that stood out and that helped them make something of themselves.

I can’t remember any of those – they were good people, doing a good job, but I am not sure any of them were life-changing in that way.

I took more from seeing how my parents did things.

I wake up early in the mornings and write and work because my father does and did that, like his father before him.

When I was struggling with studying my parents sent me to a friend who taught me how to keep notes – introducing me to ideas that I still use today.

And, above all, books have been my teachers – words that thoughtful people have set down to illuminate their thinking about a subject.

In the beginning was the word

We often think that communication is about what we see – the belief that most of it is non-verbal.

That view is popular but not what the research actually says – what is said is just as important as how you say it.

As is what is heard.

The thing that makes humans different from animals is not our ability to communicate but our ability to think about what is said and respond.

How can I prove that statement?

I can’t really, so at this point it’s worth a digression into how I plan to explore the ideas that I’m going to write about in these posts.

For example, how would we think about biology and language?

Language is clearly not something restricted to humans, not if we take language to mean a form of communication.

Birds tweet, bears growl and whales sing – they’re all communicating.

The topics they’re talking about are fairly essential ones – there’s danger coming, you’re in my space, call for a good time.

Humans do this kind of talking as well, probably most of the time.

But we’re also able more complicated thinking, the kind of stuff that seems uniquely human – like what is language and how does it work and why is it different.

Why do words matter so much and how can we learn to use them better?

Creating models of what’s going on

Now, we could look at the structure of the brain and learn about the layers that are involved – learning about the actual biological basis.

Or we could come up with a model that helps us explore the idea.

For example, we could think of the human brain as an animal brain with an extra bit stuck on that does the “human” specific bits.

That animal part is the older bit, the bit that in us as a result of millions of years of evolution and the human bit is the newer bit – added more recently.

Something like a high-powered graphics card you insert into your older PC to make it work better.

When information comes in it’s processed by the animal part and the human part – and what happens next depends on how that processing goes.

Let’s look at this model as an object in itself for a minute.

It’s built using common sense – stuff that you can see and think about for yourself.

And there’s a little bit of research in there – stuff you might have heard about or the kind of brain science introduction you might read in a magazine.

You could be quite pedantic about it – do the information signals flow to the animal brain first, and then the human or the other way around, or do they both get the data at the same time?

And if you know the answer then it can help with how you refine the model – but even if you don’t you can still use the model to ask questions and see if it helps you to make sense of what seems to be going on.

The model is a temporary structure, a transitional object, an intellectual device – something that helps us think and talk about what is going on.

Its job is not to be right – we’ll leave that to the scientists.

Its job is to be useful.

As we progress through this Listen book project, this is the approach I will use to make sense of the ideas I come across and try to explore in these posts.

And we’ll start by looking at novels and why they are bad examples of good communication.


Karthik Suresh

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