The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

Losing the Language of Happiness

Losing the Language of Happiness: the consequences of ecological destruction.

If you haven’t read Daniel Everertt’s fabulous Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes about his work as a linguist in the Amazon—well, stop whatever you are doing, go directly to Amazon and enjoy.

After 30 years living with and studying the Piraha, a tribe living in the Amazonian basin, Everett has concluded that neither Chomsky’s argument—that language is innate to humans and there are universal laws of grammar—and Skinner’s argument—that language is completely learned and genetics account for nothing—are correct.

Instead, Everett posits that language and culture are completely intertwined and you cannot study one without the other. Furthermore, and this is where things get really interesting, Everett believes that grammar is significantly less important than culture-based meanings and constraints on talking” are the key.

So what’s the big deal?

This is the deal: About 40 years ago, University of Chicago psychologist (and Flow State guru) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argued that the human brain takes in about 400 billion inputs a second (some people now feel this number is as high as one trillion) but only 2000 bits of information make it up to consciousness.

Those 2000 bits are what we call conscious reality.

We are now pretty sure Csikszentmihalyi was right in his assessment—but what’s really curious is that none of us—no matter the species—experience the world exactly the same.

That is, we all see 2000 different bits of information, thus we all live in different worlds—quite literally.

Some of this is straight up anatomy. Cognitive Ethologist Patricia McConnell (also in a compelling article about Everett’s work) points out: “the sensory system of each species creates a different reality than other species.” Her example of this is bees—who see colors that humans can’t see (and we see colors they can’t see). Either way, when we glance at a solid yellow flower, bees instead see a swirl of lines and hatching and shading that literally acts as pointers and landing strips driving them towards the pollen within.

McConnell’s conclusion is twofold: “Thus, there really is no such thing as “reality,” and Everett’s work reminds us this is true within our own species.”

I have elsewhere argued that belief shapes perception which shapes reality. What McConnell and Everett are saying is that this chain goes back even farther: ie. language shapes belief shapes perception shapes reality.

And right now, this is a critical bit of information. The reason this is so important is that in a few weeks time, when the Copenhagen climate talks commence, one of the topics on the table is REDD—Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation.

The goal here is to find ways to protect indigenous tribes and the rainforests they live within. This is a big deal. Between June 2000 and June 2008, over 150,000 square kilometers of Amazonian rainforest has been stripped bare by loggers and miners and cattle ranchers.

The number are higher in a few other parts of the world.

When we speak about what was lost in this slaughter, people most frequently talk in terms of dead animals, extinct plants and—perhaps most critically—a vanishing carbon sink.

Clearly, these are all things we cannot afford to lose. But one of the greatest losses may be the indigenous cultures themselves.

For example, in 2008, the Permanent People’s Tribunal in Colombia warned that there are now 28 tribes in Columbia alone facing extinction because of habitat degradation and deforestation.

Now, since each of these tribes speaks a different language, then each of them have a altered worldview and thus occupy a different reality.

Once these folks are gone, we don’t just lose a group that makes the world more culturally distinct, we lose a way of being in the world. We lose a slice of reality. And, in turn, we also loose a way of interpreting the world that might just be critical to our survival.

What do I mean by this? Well, according to Everett: “Pirahas laugh at everything. They laugh at their own misfortune: when someone’s hut blows over in a rainstorm, the occupants laugh more loudly than anyone. They laugh when they catch a lot of fish. They laugh when there’s no fish to catch. They laugh when they are full and they laugh when they are hungry….”

Think about this for a moment. How many of us can actually laugh when our basic survival needs are not met? How many people start cracking up when they find out the bank is repossessing their house? How many people laugh when they don’t have enough to eat for dinner? Or breakfast? Or both?

Think about what this really means. The last time anyone checked, we are a nation where 10 percent of us are on anti-depressants.

Everett argues that the this depression is not just based on our “neurochemistry” (the reigning theory—thanks, methinks, in a large part to pharmaceutical company advertising)—but also on our language.

Something in the English language perhaps shapes our perception which shapes our reality which makes us freak out when stuff goes wrong…

But the Pirahas just don’t see the world that way.

And—since we also know that worldviews shift when you remove people from their home environment (or remove their home environment altogether)—one of the key things that is going away in all of this is knowledge about emotional contentment.

We are not just losing plants and animals, we are, also, losing a key bit of information that could keep us happy in the face of tragedy.

Considering how heavily medicated some of us currently are, this doesn’t strike me as a loss we can particularly afford.

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Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.

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