My brain on words
February 12, 2021 11:02 AM   Subscribe

In the past few weeks I've been thinking how much the reality I perceive is actually a story I construct (sometimes very different from the story other people construct about the same reality!) and how much my perception of reality is limited by and contingent on my words and language. (Does that...make sense?) I would like to read what wiser people have said about this topic from a psychological point of view.

Is there a name for what I'm talking about?
Can you recommend accessible books that talk about this and have interesting ideas?

I'm not talking about mass communication. Also, no fiction or allegory.

I want to read about what happens in the individual brain as it...constructs reality for itself, and the role that language plays.

I'm a bit miserable at how badly I'm expressing myself here! Do you have suggestions?
posted by Omnomnom to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Your description sounds like you're interested in something that's in the same ballpark as the basis for cognitive therapy (or cognitive behavioral therapy). See also rational emotive therapy.
posted by akk2014 at 11:11 AM on February 12

Do you know about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? It's been debunked, but the (long!) wikipedia page on linguistic relativity may give you some ideas to chew on, terms to refine what you're looking for, and other reading suggestions. (Most of the books I'd recommend are SF novels that are interested in Sapir-Whorf stuff, but I see you don't want that.)
posted by miles per flower at 11:13 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

You also just referenced the Sapir Whorf hypothesis/ling relativity(if you're not seeking therapy). Also recommend googling Sapir Whorf Aboriginal culture cultural anthropology.

Enjoy this rabbit hole.

You may also enjoy perspectivism. Try googling Indra's Web or Mise en Abyme.

I would say Sap Whorf is usually a tool for anthro instructors to get students excited about ling and language. It usually works, debunked or non.
posted by firstdaffodils at 11:14 AM on February 12

I see some relationship with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. One of the skills this framework tries to teach is a sort of ... deconstruction of the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences. It’s possible some of this literature would pique your interest, though I can’t tell from your post whether you think this storytelling is a bug, and I think the ACT perspective is that it’s a bug (a very human bug).
posted by eirias at 11:21 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]

Response by poster:  I can’t tell from your post whether you think this storytelling is a bug, and I think the ACT perspective is that it’s a bug (a very human bug).

I think it's built into the system of how we understand reality, really.

But this is really interesting, thanks for all the suggestions and leads so far!
If you have any specific book suggestions I would welcome them.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:25 AM on February 12

If you’re interested in grammar and not just vocabulary, I recently downloaded the Kindle sample (but have not read it) for this book:

Grammar for a Full Life: How the Ways We Shape a Sentence Can Limit or Enlarge Us
posted by bananacabana at 11:25 AM on February 12

Oddly enough, I ran across this wikipedia article recently when I was thinking about something similar. I didn't read the whole thing, but I don't know, it might be a place to start.

Sapir-Whorf is... like, it's interesting, sure, but I don't think it's really what you're looking for and, seriously, it has been debunked. S-W is best described as the idea that if you don't have a lot of words for snow or the color blue, you perceive it differently than someone who DOES have a lot of words for those things. It's not any kind of robust theory of the way narrative and words inform our sense of self and the world.
posted by hought20 at 11:28 AM on February 12

Have a look at Quantum Psychology by Robert Anton Wilson. I think that's very close to what you're looking for.
posted by holborne at 11:44 AM on February 12

I read this a long time ago, so I'm sure much of it is outdated/debunked but I found The Ape That Spoke to be a pretty interesting exploration of the link between language and consciousness, and I think it may spark interesting ideas and connections even if it's not accurate to our current understanding. The basic thesis is that you have to have a word for a thing in order to think about it when it's not present, and so language is a driver for consciousness rather than the other way around.
posted by duien at 11:46 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]

That wikipedia article reminded me of a book I'd forgotten about: George Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. It's academic but accessible, IMO, and it's a more nuanced take on Sapir-Whorf than "If I don't have a word for this thing, I can't see it properly." It's about the metaphors and idioms embedded in language--so if you think of metaphor as a kind of storytelling, the book might be relevant to what you're thinking about.
posted by miles per flower at 11:50 AM on February 12 [4 favorites]

I’d recommend Jacques Lacan—what you’re talking about is essentially his theory of the unconscious—but he’s quite difficult, so perhaps what I’d recommend is other writers’ summaries of Lacan. I’m not trying to be insulting by that; I just recall that his work has reduced PhD students I know to tears. But his work is important and fascinating, and probably very interesting to you right now!
posted by Edna Million at 12:01 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

If you want to put in a large perspective, look at social constructivism (overview, leading book) which looks not just the question of you create your version of reality but how it is co-created in a social setting. One really important impact of this, is that can look at how power influences what is accepted as real.

The psychological approach that looks at this, not just at the individual level but also situating the individual experience in the larger culture is Narrative Therapy. Narrative Therapy helps people identify and question the ways that we create our story and the filters that embedded in them. It also asks how we learned that those things are true and encourages people to make choices that support their own values and preferred identity.

Because of its interest in whose world view is given weight, Narrative therapists are trained privilege the client's world view/values/understanding of reality over their own or the conventional social defintitions. So the focus is not on "curing" the client based on extrinsic measures but working with the client to understand what is seen as a problem for them, why it is a problem and what they would prefer. Along the way, they look at how they learned that this was a problem, if there are other ways of looking at the problem and what they resource have to stand against the problem Here is an overview written by a narrative therapist about how she uses her narrative training to think about what she does with her clients.
posted by metahawk at 12:03 PM on February 12 [3 favorites]

Yes! This is all related to the ways that figured language is built on conceptual schema (essentially the way we learn to categorize things based on our life experiences). You might find these books interesting:

Interpreting Figurative Meaning by Ray Gibbs
The Body in the Mind by Mark Johnson (he has worked with George Lakoff quite and bit; this gets into the link to physical experience in forming schema as well)

Also, this touches on Constructivism and Narrative Theory, specifically how we interpret things through the lens of our cultural stories. I find these academic articles especially interesting:

The life story schema by Susan Bluck and Tilmann Habermas
Performing Identity: Touristic Narratives of Self-Change by Chaim Noy

They're a little dense but get into some of the theory on how our lives and identities are created following cultural formats, and are continually created through ongoing interactions with others. This also might be arguably related to hegemony, in that we are both the creators and reproducers of the conceptual tools we are using to process our lives. Foucault would probably be the go-to on that topic but, to be honest, recommending reading Foucault is an act of academic violence (so dense!) so maybe read some summaries.

I'll leave off here rather than ramble forever, but if you have any interest in a model I'm playing with on this or need help accessing those two academic articles, feel free to MeMail me!
posted by past unusual at 12:11 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

Your entire self is a story!

The Ego Tunnel - Thomas Metzinger

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind - Shunryu Suzuki
posted by Balthamos at 12:13 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

How about The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes? I don't know how accurate it is but it was a fun read that had some interesting ideas.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:32 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

You may be interested in the ideas around narrative identity.

And then this essay "Against Narrative Identity", which argues that it's not actually fundamental.
posted by BungaDunga at 12:58 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

Lera Broditsky? how language shapes thought. or TED talk or EDGE interview. "I'm interested in how the languages we speak shape the way we think. The reason I got interested in this question is that languages differ from one another so much. There are about 7,000 languages around the world, and each one differs from the next in innumerable ways. Obviously, languages have different words, but they also require very different things from their speakers grammatically."
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:14 PM on February 12

There was this FPP from last year which includes the paper BungaDunga links:
posted by DeepSeaHaggis at 1:32 PM on February 12 [2 favorites]

Relational Frame Theory will be a helpful search term (and rested closely with the ACT/CBT suggestions above).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:00 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

I have no formal qualifications to give an opinion but at 67 I am struck by watching the interaction between my daughter-in-law and my 18 month old grandson. Humans are social beasts and sociology is about shared narratives (based on my college skim course). "Is the doggy happy to see you?" "Does the snow man look funny?" "Do you like ringing the bell?" "Why are you crying, do you need a nap?" And you can kind of see where these kind of single sentence stories evolve over dozens of years until you get a grouchy old man like me after a lot of social constructivism. (:->) Or maybe my view is colored by the writings of Noam Chomsky during my college years.
posted by forthright at 2:20 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]

I ind this lecture by Charles Taylor quite interesting. The intro is in Polish, but he teaches in English.

He also published lots of books of course but i prefer the lectures, the books are not that easy to read unless you have a background in the humanities, which i don't.
posted by 15L06 at 4:05 PM on February 12

A couple I've thoroughly enjoyed and suspect you will as well:

Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter
The Mind's I by Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett

The bibliographies of both of these are also full of lots of lovely things.
posted by flabdablet at 3:21 AM on February 13

Philosopher of cognitive science Daniel Dennett is famous for his discussion of the idea of the “narrative self”. Key text here
posted by Joeruckus at 5:52 AM on February 13 [2 favorites]

I find it fascinating how people's answers to your question differ. We are all answering in our own languages, and thus they differ and contradict as they must. Here's my "contribution" -- Experiencing and The Creation of Meaning.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:17 AM on February 14

If the emphasis is on story as in the sense of narrative (related to this is so-called "main character syndrome" (and Christopher Nolan explores this idea in TENET, where he has the main character literally say, "I'm the protagonist.")) then the Wikipedia article for "narrative identity" seems to fit your bill. Nietzsche also explores this idea of creating a story for ourselves, I think, in Birth of Tragedy and elsewhere. But in a broader sense, if you're more intrigued by the linguistic nature of our perception of reality: in addition to Sapir-Whorf as others have mentioned, you might be thinking of /want to look into postmodernism, which revolves around the idea (if I'm not mistaken) that the reality individuals experience is not a direct experience of an objective reality but rather something that is the result of construction and linguistic interpretation.
posted by Busoni at 7:31 AM on March 31

In addition, this article seems to suggest the distinctive feature of our human brains is that they perceive reality in terms of causal chains and sequential events, which move in only one direction (through time), i.e. A causes B, in contrast to the syllogistic architecture of computers, which deals in terms of identity and correlation, i.e. A is B, B is A, A correlates to B and vice versa.
posted by Busoni at 7:57 AM on March 31

One last comment: Victor Frankl, the psychologist and Holocaust survivor, explores the idea that humans are fundamentally driven by their need to create meaning our of their existence (in contrast to being primarily driven by sex, or power). His account of "logotherapy" is explored in Man's Search for Meaning. This idea is also central to existentialism.
posted by Busoni at 8:02 AM on March 31

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