Sunday, May 29, 2011

More Language Matters

Lest, Gentle Readers, you think the previous post was merely an aesthetic rant:

The way we use language affects the way we think, the way we pay attention, and ultimately, perhaps, the structures of our brains.

'The kind of attention we pay actually alters the world'. [The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, Yale, 2009, p. 5. This book is a far cry from the clichés of the 1970s about left brain/right brain, much of which has proved wrong; the situation is far more complex and subtle.] 'The right hemisphere underwrites breadth and flexibility of attention, where the left hemisphere brings to bear focused attention. This has the related consequence that the right hemisphere sees things whole, and in their context, where the left hemisphere sees things abstracted from context, and broken into parts, from which it then reconstructs a 'whole': something very different'. (pp. 27-28) In other words, the left hemisphere works with a representation of the reality the right hemisphere sees whole and direct.

'And it also turns out that the capacities that help us, as humans, form bonds with others—empathy, emotional understanding, and so on—which involve a quite different kind of attention paid to the world, are largely right-hemisphere functions'. (p. 28)

If we choose language that opens the mind of the receiver, such as the American version of the prayer in the previous post (without the repeated word 'ones'), or the proclamation 'Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us' (without the British interpolation of 'lamb'), the multi-layered meanings contained in them force the listener to suspend the everyday schematizing mind to be receptive to what I have called the 'deep mind', the part of the mind which is out of our sight. (see 'Jesus in the Balance' in this blog, 8 March, 2010 and the discussion in October 2010 about 'experience').

'The right hemisphere takes whatever is said within its entire context. It is specialised in pragmatics, the art of contextual understanding of meaning, and in using metaphor. It is the right hemisphere which processes the non-literal aspects of language . . .This is why the left hemisphere is not good at understanding the higher level meaning of utterances'. (p. 49)

The spiritual task could be stated in non-religious terms as the need to relocate the energy centre from which we live from the self-conscious mind (which can hold perhaps 40 items at any one moment) to the deep mind (which can hold perhaps 11 million, according to one account). While we must not make the mistake of thinking simplistically that there is a direct correspondence between mind and brain, in the sense that the self-conscious mind and the left hemisphere are really the same, or the deep mind and the right hemisphere, yet the brain is, as McGilChrist puts it, 'the place where mind meets matter'; what we do with our minds affects that matter.

The way we use language, especially in a liturgical setting, can facilitate the task of what I have called 'the work of silence' by helping the mind into the self-forgetful receptivity of the hidden, deep mind; or it can make the task more difficult by throwing the listener back into the self-conscious mind, reinforcing the concerns of the left hemisphere, which is what happens when the interpolations are made in the prayer and the proclamation mentioned in the previous post ('heal the joyous' vs 'heal the joyous ones'; 'Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us' vs 'Christ our Passover lamb is sacrificed for us').

The same can be said of music. There is nothing subtle about rock and hiphop: they are self-conscious music forms, and make the listeners self-conscious. While most rhythm is handled by the right hemisphere, the repetitive thumping — 'basic metrical rhythms' (p. 74) — of pop music are handled by the left hemisphere. These are but two of the reasons that pop music is inappropriate for liturgy, which, if it is doing its job, is opening us to the liminality ('betweenness' p. 72) of the apophatic and opening the apophatic to us.

But there is more: the way we think has an impact on the formation of our brains. For example, 'brain areas in individuals may actually grow in response to use. . .the right posterior hypocampus, the area of the brain which stores complex three-dimensional maps in space, is larger in London cabbies, taxi drivers with extensive navigational experience.' (p. 24) There are also well-known studies on changes in brain structures and functions of people who have meditated or prayed all their lives.

There are implications in these studies for everything we do in Western Christianity: the language of liturgy, the language of translation, the kind of music we use, the amount of silence within the liturgy, the gestalt—for the right hemisphere misses nothing. We speak of religion as communicating with reality, but if it is making us more self-conscious, focusing us on superficial details and virtual representations, shattering us with noise, then it is less than useless; it is destructive.

McGilchrist's book is fascinating, if somewhat hard to get into at first. It is essential reading for anyone who has a serious interest the relationship between mind and brain; how these affect the way we see the world and the way we create it for ourselves. And particularly for those with a serious interest in pulling Western Christianity back towards its empirical base, lest it die of triviality, banality, and an excess of words piled on words that have no longer have any referent.


Post a Comment

<< Home