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Sometimes There Truly Are No Words

A psychological analysis of why some things are truly beyond words.

Key points

  • People often say that something they see or feel is "beyond words." But what exactly does that mean?
  • In many ways, our emotion and cognitive systems run separately. Things that are "beyond words" seem to tap our emotions disproportionately.
  • Much of the arts represent efforts to capture experiences that are, simply, beyond words.
Glenn Geher
Source: Glenn Geher

My feelings are ... well ... beyond words. Truly beyond words ...

While the phrase beyond words has a nice, poetic elegance to it, any rational thinker has to ask: What exactly could that phrase even mean?

Well, I say we think about examples used in everyday life and then see if some theme regarding this phrase emerges that maps onto what we know about the science of human behavior.

Here are some contexts when someone might use the phrase beyond words:

  • Love. My love for you is so deep. It truly is beyond words.
  • Sorrow. My heartache upon losing her was fully beyond words.
  • Fear. When I heard shots in the building, I was so incredibly scared. Beyond words.
  • Surprise. When I opened the box and found an engagement ring ... it just felt ... beyond words—seriously ... beyond words ...
  • Awe. As I sat at the banks of the mighty river, nestled among the glorious, knowing mountains, a full-on rainbow appeared across the sky. The whole thing was beyond words.

The Emotion/Cognition Disconnect

One commonality among these examples pertains to powerful emotions. Interestingly, positive emotions (e.g., love) and negative emotions (e.g., sorrow) seem to both lead to beyond-words experiences. One way to think about this is actually quite straightforward: Across a broad range of psychological areas, research regularly finds that there is, quite often, a disconnect between our cognitive systems and our emotion systems (e.g., Kaufman, 2011; Schachter & Singer, 1962; Roiser, 2013). Emotional processing and cognitive processing largely take place in different regions of the brain, with language-processing centers generally located in in the "upper brain" (or cerebrum) and emotion-processing centers generally located in the "lower brain," literally near where the brain meets the spinal cord (see Gazzaniga, Ivry, & Mangun, 2002).

Words necessarily rely on the language centers of the upper brain—regions of the brain relatively distant from the evolutionarily older emotion-processing regions.

Given this split between the "higher," cognitively-oriented parts of our minds and the "lower," emotionally-focused parts, it makes sense that putting emotions into words is not always easy.

Further, it makes sense that experiences that are predominantly emotional in nature may, in a very literal sense, be quite genuinely, beyond words—no matter how big someone's vocabulary might be.

Art as Expressing Beyond-Words Experiences

Sometimes, people question the role of the arts in the broader human experience. The arts often seem impractical and perhaps even luxurious. "Why should people spend time and money on things like music when there are real problems in the world?" a cynic might ask.

But when we start thinking about beyond-words experiences, we might actually be able to see an extremely practical function of the arts. Artists of all varieties thrive on evoking and cultivating emotions. A beautiful love song might make someone cry. A brilliant landscape might induce awe at an art museum on a rainy Saturday afternoon. A talented dancer might make someone feel a kind of glory that is never found in their everyday life.

Maybe a critical function of the arts is this: The arts express emotions that are, quite literally, beyond words. Sure, many of the arts, such as poetry, are word-based. But even a powerful poem has its power partly because the poet was able to use words alone to create an emotional experience that someone wasn't necessarily expecting to have in the moment. And a high-caliber rapper might make someone feel a broad array of emotions, from pride to anger to love, within the confines of 120 seconds. From this perspective, even language-based artists succeed to the extent that they give us deeply emotional, beyond-words experiences.

Bottom Line

The human mind is complex and often hard to predict. One reason for this foundational feature of human psychology is that our cognitive and emotion systems, both of which play integral roles in shaping who we are and how we behave, are often running independently from one another.

Experiences that we often label as beyond words are experiences that are deeply emotional. Our cognitive systems can put words to many emotional states. But when it comes to especially strong affective states, across the emotional spectrum, there often, quite literally, are no words that can do justice.

Today I found out that a key influence in my life, and an amazingly good man, just passed away. Steve DiGregorio was my 9th-grade social studies teacher and wrestling coach. He was one of the few educators I encountered during that phase of my life who seemed to really get me. And to really care about me. He went on to a storied career as a high school football coach, leading the Nutley, New Jersey, team for years, inspiring and lifting thousands along the way. When I heard of his passing today, at the too-young age of 60, my sadness was, truly, beyond words. Thank you, Mr. Di. Job well-done.

References

Gazzaniga, M. S., Ivry, R. B., & Mangun, G. R. (2002). Cognitive neuroscience: The biology of the mind. New York: Norton.

Kaufman, S.B. (2011). Intelligence and the cognitive unconscious. In R.J. Sternberg & S.B. Kaufman (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence (pp. 442-467). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Roiser, J.P. (2013), Hot and cold cognition in depression, Journal of Neuroscience, 18 (3): 1092–8529.

Schachter, S., & Singer, J.E. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological review, 69, 379-99 .

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