Radiolab[i] featured a program recently about words – or rather, about the absence of words. The program explores many questions: What happens when words are turned off in the brain? What would happen if somehow words never made their way into the brain in the first place? What comprises thought in the absence of words?
Words are so central to the therapeutic relationship. Words make-up everything – the who, the what, the where, the why, and the when. This is not to discount the information that is also shared in moments of silence, in the expression of feelings, or in the subtle (or not so subtle) shifts in the body that occur during a session. But words…words are somehow the way that humans are most comfortable sharing. Probably this is why therapy evolved to be what it is.
The most striking part of the Radiolab hour was the story of a woman who lost all of her words one morning. She described the absolute peace that she felt as she lay in her hospital bed. Losing words somehow removed the space between herself and her experience– she described seeing the sunlight and just experiencing it, rather than seeing the sunlight and thinking words– oh what a nice sunny day. This direct access to experience seemed like a transcendent moment along the lines of Buddhist philosophy[ii] that asks us to just try and be in this moment, rather than constantly squirreling around in the past or the future.
Words also make up a large part of our memory. Are words how we store memory? What happens to memories that are made before we have words? Why can’t (or can we?) remember being in the womb or being born? Do we lose access to these preverbal impressions once we gain access to language?[iii]
Memory leads me to wonder about thinking. Can we call preverbal memories “thoughts?” Is a thought always comprised of words? Do we have nonverbal “memories” that are truly void of words or are words so omnipresent in our minds that we don’t register them even when they are there? When I try and come up with a “nonverbal” memory, words are my tools for even asking the question: do I have any nonverbal memories? Try and think of one. Okay. Give me a minute. An image of the beach comes first to my mind. I can see the waves and I have a trace of the smell of salty water. But how can I really say that I hold this memory without words when words are my best manner of description? Not to mention my tool for conjuring the memory?
Which brings us to feeling. Can I remember a feeling without attaching a word to it? Just try to remember the pure experience of a feeling. Feeling may be the one experience that can have words attached to it – I felt so happy when… – or not. The memory of the actual feeling remains separate somehow.
Maybe that is part of the answer. Are our preverbal memories comprised of strong feelings that cannot be attached to words, because at the time of the experience we didn’t have words to use? Is that why we think we can’t remember? Maybe just the feelings remain. Maybe the feelings are always with us, even if we can’t figure out how to access them with our analytical, word-centric minds.
Cynthia Ransley, MA, Social Media Copywriter for MSP