The Word-Wise Spiral

To think more wisely, cultivate your word power.

Posted May 20, 2013

I teach English and my most exciting moments are when students are straining to spit it out, to put into words the thoughts just at the edge of their ability to put things into words. That’s them feeling and straining against the very limits I’m there to help them break through.

Teaching English is more than just enhancing students’ fluency in writing and speaking, but thinking and wondering too. You can’t think what you can’t say.  I’m teaching an addiction, a quest for more words and wondering, a co-evolution of ways to say and see things. The more ways you have of saying things, the more subtle your thoughts become and the more subtle your thoughts become, the more language fluency you need.

Many of us are comfortably corralled within the limits of our power of thought and speech.  We don’t think anything we can’t say and we can’t say much. More often than not a closed mind isn’t stubborn, just stunted in its growth.

To get by, all you need is a few things to think and say and a few ways to stop thoughts from running beyond what you’ve already thought, ways to say “shut up” to thoughts that might make you think outside the perimeter of your corral.

I’m out to bust my students through their own corral railings, not so they can reach any particular thought I want them to have but so that their minds become more and more free-range.  A more open mind is a more verbal mind, better equipped to think a greater variety of thoughts.

Subtler language skills free you to let ideas play and spar with each other. I encourage students to use all of those words that play like U-turn signals and about-faces, for example although, still, nevertheless, on the other hand, in contrast and yetWisdom, I believe, is a product of playing ideas off against each other, wisdom defined as in the serenity prayer, the wisdom to know the difference between situations that call for serenity and courage which you wouldn’t pray for if you didn’t notice the ways that serenity and courage spar with each other.

I’m a big fan of the cumulative sentence form, a form that gives you the capacity to double click on anything identified or implied within the base sentence and say more about it. For example, taking the base sentence “He drove the car carefully” and embellishing it:  “He drove the car carefully, his shaggy hair whipped by the wind, his eyes hidden behind wraparound mirror shades, his mouth set in a grim smile, a .38 Police Special on the seat beside him, the corpse stuffed in the trunk."  

Words aren’t just a way of conveying what we think; they are a requirement for thinking. What you can’t say, you don't have means to think. You can only think what you have means to say. 

Increasingly psychologists, cognitive scientists, philosophers and evolutionary biologists converge on the idea that the human capacity for language is what really sets us apart. We are the symbolic species, the one known species fluently able to name things.

Names make possible a compounding effect with explosive possibilities. Naming things we can hold them still long enough to talk about them. About is a powerful word. We can name a belief and then talk about the belief. Through words we become multi-level-headed, able to scale up and down through levels of analysis.  It’s called going meta, meta meaning “about,” as in meta-cognition—thinking about thinking.

In contrast, just is a power word for shutting thought off. Just means ignore all other possibilities, as in “just do it,” don’t consider other things to do.  Just is a fundamental structural member in the corrals we make.  Notice that here I’m talking about “just,” a move we make that, once named can be talked about.

I’m addicted to many things, most of them by my age good addictions. Sure, I’m addicted to life-shortening shortening, the fried fats that taste just so damned delicious. But I’m also addicted to playing music, to physical exercise which shortens the effects of shortening, and above all to the upward spiral produced by the co-evolution of words and wisdom. 

My word-wise spiral is a great addiction but it comes at some cost. One is that it becomes increasingly difficult for me to bite my tongue or slow my thoughts. New acquaintances often ask, “do you ever give your mind a rest?”

My resting state is a mind at word-play.  I’ve been cultivating fluency with words and thought for so long that thinking, wondering, writing and speaking are my easy default state. 

To some, my wordiness and thinkingness comes across as neurotic. It doesn’t feel neurotic inside me—more erotic. I love licking the subtle contours of reality, form-fitting my internal impressions to what I see and sense. It does limit the kind of the company that wants to keep me nearby for long. And that is a cost.

There are other costs too. I warn my students that while as college students they aspire to jobs where they can spend their precious few years on earth thinking and wondering, many jobs call for less thinking, and more obeying.

Finding me wordy, many people promote the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Until recently I haven't understood the point of meditation, in part because I think its practitioners are unimpressively confused about what it is, in part because it's sometimes oversold as a cure-all, and in part because I so heartily embrace the word-wise spiral.

Still, for company’s sake I'd like to add to my repertoire a greater capacity to shut words and thought on and off, so I'm exploring ways to cultivate moments of wordlessness and thoughtlessness—literally the absence of thought, that comes from the absence of words in my head or on my lips.  

Such thoughtlessness meditation is a pragmatic effort on my part. I don't hope it will bring me insights--I get insights through words. I don't think wordlessness will bring me meta-cognition, which again I get through words. Since I define mind in humans as largely the word-wise spiral activity, I'd say going wordless is largely emptying oneself of mind. Mindlessness would be a better word for what I'm after, when I seek to silence the words and therefore the thoughts in my head. 

I suspect that a meditator’s mantra or breath-counting is designed to drown out one’s capacity for word and thought.  Maybe if we treat meditation as simply an exercise in not-thinking, in visiting temporarily the wordless state that is for other species the default state, meditation’s benefits would be easier to see and appreciate.  Wordlessness is a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.

For a fascinating and well-rounded tour of the power of both words and wordlessness, check out this Radiolab masterpiece called Words.