book-of-the-dead Painting

Organizing Our Experience

Evolution can be viewed as a process of problem solving, of creative responses to environmental challenges. No wonder then that communication—from the most basic behavioral signal to complex analytical models—emerges as the most significant tool. The current work to unravel the deepest historical roots and fundamental building blocks of communication may well give us keys to addressing the critical challenges of our time.

Here we use the word language broadly to mean any system of communication: that is, any system for transferring information from one party to another. This includes body language and mathematics, as well as speech and writing. It includes communication among animals, between humans and animals, and between humans and objects such as clocks or computers.

People use languages to express their experience. However, each language is uniquely adapted for expressing only certain parts of our experience and is less effective for describing other parts. We cannot completely describe a painting in words, or describe emotions with numbers. And because experiences differ widely from one culture to another, we cannot completely express the concepts and nuances of one culture in the languages of another. The Ohlone Indians of the western United States, who had a stable population for 5,000 years before the Spanish arrived, had no word for “famine,” presumably because they had never experienced that condition.

To refine the notion of language further, we call symbolic a language that represents information in the abstract, outside of its immediate context. For example, we can understand the word “five” or the digit “5” as symbols in a loose collection of ideas involving quantity, size, order or appearance, regardless of whether we are counting, measuring, writing, comparing or describing anything at the moment. The concepts, “It’s shaped like a 5,” and, “It will take five days,” are related only distantly.

Vervet monkey warning
Compare, for example, the layered complexity of Morse code: information is transmitted as auditory signals, which represent letters in a phonetic alphabet, which in turn represent the sound-units of a spoken language, which combine to form words, which stand for ideas, and so on.

Basic Awareness and Behavioral Language

In common with other animals and most probably with our early hominid ancestors, we use behavioral language to communicate our most basic type of awareness. This is when we perceive something in real time as it is occurring and, without reflection, communicate it. Laughter, and other emotional reactions are good examples; and, of course, many species have languages for warning each other of danger. Behavioral language doesn’t have to be premeditated. Taking off your jacket or loosening your collar can show others that you feel too warm, whether you are aware you have communicated this or not; a frown, shake of the head, or slight shrug of the shoulders, can reveal disagreement.

…this prototype of our capacity for language may well have originated with the last common ancestor we shared with chimps.

It is generally thought that animals in the wild only communicate behaviorally about immediate experience, and that the sounds they emit have little in common with human speech. They appear to be involuntary sounds, mainly under emotional control – chimpanzees can’t help the sounds they make when the see a predator or a source of food, and they will make these sounds even if nobody is around.

However, a study of two groups of chimpanzees suggests that chimps are able to communicate rather than just be governed by their emotions. One group from Holland joined another from Edinburgh. The study found that as social bonds between the two groups developed, the Dutch group changed the grunts they made to refer to specific foods, using the same sound that the Scottish group uses, enabling both groups to communicate with each other. Of course, it’s hard to say whether the change is in “accent” or in “word” but as Dr. Katie Slocombe, the paper’s author suggests, it implies that vocal learning is much older than we thought, and that this prototype of our capacity for language may well have originated with the last common ancestor we shared with chimps.

And a recent study of nine chimps living in the Taï forest of Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa may lead to a more complex understanding. It found that these chimps modified the pitch of their call according to the fruit they located and the size of the trees on which they found their favorite fruit. According to the study’s co-author Christophe Boesch “This study highlights the often neglected contribution of ecological complexity as a driving force for flexibly modulated animal vocal communication, and potentially also for the advent of language within our own hominoid ancestry.”

Mental Models

In the ancient tale of the blind man and the elephant, six sightless gentlemen want to find out what the strange creature is that has arrived in their village. They do the best they can, coming up with mental models based on their individual experiences.

Mental models describe the way in which individuals organize the enormous amount of information, physical sensations, sights and sounds that we experience from moment to moment. In a sense mental models act like filters, affecting the way we see and interpret the world; or like shortcuts we use to assess, anticipate and relate to situations and events.

At a very basic level, you might organize two events into a cause-and-effect scenario, because you believe that one of them causes the other, and thereafter will expect that if the first event occurs, the second one will also occur. (If I step on a burning ember I can expect to feel pain).

In human thought there’s likely to be an array of mental models to choose from, and which one an individual selects will affect his memory, response and expectations with regard to that information.

A person can view and understand the very same piece of information differently, depending on the mental model he uses to interpret it. When we hear thunder, do we explain it as the anger of the gods, the noise made by an atmospheric event, or some other model?

Mental models underlie biases and stereotypes. Consider Mary’s chances over John’s of getting a job when interviewed by someone who’s mental model is that women are more stupid or less qualified than men, versus someone who thinks that women are just as good as, or better than, men. Because of racially-biased models, readers judge an essay written by John or Mary more highly than that same essay written by Jamal or Dashanique.

A person can view and understand the very same piece of information differently, depending on the mental model he uses to interpret it.

Understanding others’ unspoken mental models can be conscious or unconscious. In his book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, social psychologist Claude Steele describes how the African American New York Times writer Brent Staples whistled Vivaldi while walking the streets of Hyde Park at night to signal to white people that he was educated and nonviolent.

One of our extraordinary brain’s capacities is to rapidly sort through numerous possible models, select relevant details, and keep multiple models in mind simultaneously. Humor is often based on setting up the expectation of one scenario and suddenly switching to another; or by exploiting an ambiguity.

In his book The Language Instinct, the linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker gives many examples of humorously ambiguous newspaper headlines such as, “Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case.” In this example the juxtaposition of two widely different interpretations (mental models) of the phrase “violin case” triggers a chuckle. We recognize simultaneously that one scenario is plausible while the other is ridiculous.

Tales of Mulla Nasrudin, one of the world’s most famous folk heroes, frequently illustrate the limitations of our mental models. In this story, the Mulla’s model of “looking where there is light” leads him to make this classic mistake.

There’s More Light Here

Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground.

“What have you lost, Mulla?” he asked.

“My key,” said the Mulla.

So they both went down on their knees and looked for it. After a time the other man asked: “Where exactly did you drop it?”

“In my own house.”

“Then why are you looking here?”

“There is more light here than inside my own house.”

From The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, by Idries Shah.

In order to communicate, we must share a common language and enough overlapping experience to be understood. And we must also share the same mental models.

Consider the following exchange:

John asks, “Should I light the candles?” and Mary responds, “We’ll have cake and ice cream after the children have washed their hands.”

On the literal surface, Mary’s response doesn’t answer John’s yes-or-no question at all, and could be completely unrelated. However, you can come to some quite detailed, reasonable conclusions about this exchange using a particular mental model: The setting is a child’s birthday party and the candles are on a cake. John is not asking Mary if he should light the candles at all, he is asking if he should light them now. Her implied answer is that, no, he should wait until after the children have washed their hands, which he knows from past experience will take a few minutes. Then he should light them, the birthday child will blow them out, and the cake will be cut up and served with ice cream.

We could continue in this vein to make a wealth of other reasonable conjectures: John and Mary are probably adults or older children, since they seem to be in charge and are allowed to handle fire; they are likely to be relatives or friends of the birthday child; John is probably male and Mary female; there are fewer than 15 candles on the cake; and so on.

Do we know these things for sure? Certainly not, but we are hard pressed to find alternative models that produce such a plausible interpretation. If it weren’t for mental models, this brief communication would be meaningless without a large amount of additional detail spelled out explicitly.

The cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald believes that the mental models we are able to construct depend upon our level of awareness.

As you can see, the communicative power of two sentences is increased enormously through the use of mental models. Not just one but many models are invoked by this example: birthday parties, social conventions, child behavior, names, safety, hygiene, candles, time, and so forth. Each word or phrase generates its own scenarios which, in turn, evoke new details. And the human brain miraculously manages to sort and select among these in the blink of an eye.

The cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald believes that the mental models we are able to construct depend upon our level of awareness. Non-human animals capable of basic awareness can construct action or event models like cause and effect, but, since they are incapable of reflection, they are unable to conceive of mythical explanations for events or analytical theories based on rules of evidence and logic.

Straight Talk for White Men

Straight Talk for White Men

Nicholas Kristof, New York Times

Evidence is overwhelming that unconscious bias systematically benefits whites and men.

Featured Book

The First Word

The Search for the Origins of Language

Christine Kenneally

Human communication depends on the same genetic foundations as other animals. Some were born with a greater inclination to collaborate, forming the symbolic communication of language.


Symbolic Language
Oral Culture
External Symbols
Thought and Language
Human Universals: Traits all Humans Share

Further Reading

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