Talking to yourself: The use of language in thought

Language is very often viewed as an external expression of your thoughts, views, opinions, etc. Primarily, talking and writing is how we make other people aware of the things we wish to express. Obviously, this is crucial for forming social ties and bonding with those who are dear to us. It may come as a surprise, therefore, that most of our language use is internal, in our own private thoughts.

The profundity of this fact had never crossed my mind before, until I heard Noam Chomsky discuss it with Lawrence Krauss. It is worth dwelling on the idea that when you can put words and sentences to your feelings/drives/emotions, it is nothing short of magic. Wordless feelings can be confusing and result in agitation and annoyance. Sometimes we don’t even know what we’re feeling, we just know we don’t like it, and indeed, maybe even the opposite is true. We often seek the counsel of our friends and family to talk us through our feelings, asking questions and throwing out words that can be used as hooks to tame the primitive and nameless beasts rampaging in our subconscious.

Our internalized language system allowed us to understand ourselves, or at least has given us more to work with.

The use of our internal monologue as a means of tarring our feelings with words and sentences is very hard to suppress. As Chomsky quips (18.39), “It takes a tremendous act of will not to do what we call talking to yourself.” I know that I struggle with this all the time, and I’m glad that I have house pets that can be used as an excuse as the intended recipients of my nonsensical ramblings.

I’m convinced, though, that there are times when our brains resist the use of words. These are the times when our primitive brains become hyperactive. During a burgeoning sexual encounter, for example, words start to take a back seat. In fact, words can even become annoying during these times. Poetry might be an aphrodisiac, but the sustained use of words during sex can quickly become a contraceptive.

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