Friday, October 26, 2007

Lost In Translation

On our way back up to work from coffee today, Ironman and I were forced to circumnavigate an inconveniently parked Canada Post truck. Ironman was vocal in his condemnation of the mailman's parking skills. I suggested we should write an angry letter.

A ridiculous conversation followed: how, exactly, would one address a letter destined for the actual postal service? I proposed (probably incorrectly), that you could probably just leave the address off entirely, and assume that it would find its way. During the short elevator ride, we were unable to satisfactorily resolve this thorny dilemma. Ironman, to me: "You should blog about it".

And here we are.

There's something "meta" about addressing a correspondence to the very entity responsible for the delivery of said correspondence. From one point of view, it's as simple as tipping the paperboy, acknowledging the existence of the physical machinery responsible for the abstract concept of "delivery". From another, it's one example of a self-referential meta-psychosymbolism that informs all human language and thought. And guess which of these points of view we will be discussing?

It's pretty widely accepted that language plays a pivotal role in the healthy neurophysiological development of the human brain, particularly in childhood. Stories about children raised by dogs, or abandoned to their own devices from the age of three, never fail to include a chapter on the shocking underdevelopment of various essential brain functions. Language teaches us to think, and vice-versa. But only to a point.

We use language to describe things, and in so doing, create our own personal symbolic dictionaries for dealing with concepts. Semantically, the word "rock" is not a rock, nor does it describe or refer to a particular physical rock. It triggers instead a chain of recursive psycho-symbolic dereferentiation that eventually unravels into a semantic symbol of "rock"-ness. And that mental image somehow stands in for all the rocks in the universe, or at least those we can perceive.

It is almost ridiculously simple for the human mind to construct a psycho-semantic representation of concepts like "infinity", or "everything". I mean, you can't actually conceive of all the physical objects, or actions, or concepts that fall under the umbrella of "everything", at least not as easily as "rock". But language, and the semantic associations it invokes and informs, is crucial to our ability to describe the concept that describes the indescribable.

Everything is basically meta data, describing other meta data, along an inferential chain of semantic associations, that end in a sort of shorthand notation for the world around us. In computer languages, this chain is finite, ending with "machine-language" instructions that interact with the actual, physical hardware of the machine. This simplicity is sacrificed in the human brain, in favor of the capability for higher thought.

Rather than a "chain", think of an infinitely branching "tree" of associations. While your brain is busy translating the word "rock" into the mental symbol it's meant to represent, it will apply the semantic value of the word, the pragmatic value of the context in which the word is used, the syntax, or structure of the inter-relation of other symbols used in the context, and a bunch of other stuff I barely understand. And through the application of all of these contextual signifiers, will prune the tree for the possible meanings of "rock" into the one symbol that makes sense.

When this mechanism breaks, as in Aphasia or some other cognitive disorder, it basically breaks language. A stroke victim, unable to communicate, may or may not still be able to understand "rock". May or may not lose the capability for abstract thought, the very capability that was created using the scaffolding of language.

If it's possible to address our mailman's callous disregard for parking etiquette by writing a letter to Canada Post, then it follows that we can fix a broken mind by communicating with it. This can be tricky, like arson at the Fire Department, when the part of your brain responsible for communication is the part that's broken. Imagine the effectiveness, in this scenario, of a language based on smell, or temperature, or light.

It does not follow that it's possible to break a healthy mind by withholding meaningful communication, though it would be fun to try.

And now I'm bored of this (I can only imagine how you must feel), so in conclusion,

Dear Canada Post,
Please don't park on my fucking sidewalk.
A concerned citizen.

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