When the brain doesn’t work right…When the brain doesn’t work–write!

Steven Pinker is one of my favorite authorities on the origins, mechanisms, and behaviors of language, in spite of the fact that I often find myself in disagreement with some of his conclusions about how language explains many aspects of our human nature. It’s beneficial to study the writing of people whose ideas are different from ours, since many times it helps us to clarify our own ideas. Steven Pinker is one of those writers who aggravates me and inspires me at the same time. In his 1994 book, “The Language Instinct,” he illuminates so many important aspects of how language supports our development as human beings and how it contributes to our very human nature, and he goes to great lengths to explain his ideas. One of the points he makes is responsible in part for the title of this posting. On the surface, both arrangements of the words in the title sound the same, but they have very important differences in meaning.

In “The Language Instinct,” he explains”

“Since people can understand and speak an infinite number of novel sentences, it makes no sense to try to characterize their “behavior” directly–no two people’s language behavior is the same, and a person’s potential behavior cannot even be listed. But an infinite number of sentences can be generated by a finite rule system, a grammar, and it does make sense to study the mental grammar and other psychological mechanisms underlying language behavior.

Language comes so naturally to us that we tend to be blase about it, like urban children who think that milk just comes from a truck. But a close-up examination of what it takes to put words together into ordinary sentences reveals that mental language mechanisms must have a complex design, with many interacting parts.”

My brother is currently struggling with the consequences of brain cancer. He has always been enormously talented and much smarter than the rest of us at home, and recently earned a degree in Arts and Letters at Penn State University. He has what the neurosurgeons at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia call a “glioblastoma multiforme.”

Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) is a grade IV tumor, which means they are the most aggressive, fast growing, and life-threatening. T1 sequences showing contrast enhancing aggressive looking tumor in the dorsal parts of the right frontal lobe with extensive edema (last image – FLAIR). Pathology examination revealed Glioblastoma. It is a highly aggressive tumor with poor prognosis. Follow-up revealed recurrence of tumor despite resection, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Standard treatment for GBM is surgical removal of the tumor mass followed by radiation and/or chemotherapy. Even when it looks like all of the tumor has been removed, microscopic tumor cells—cells too small for the surgeon to see—are almost always left behind. This is why GBM tumors frequently grow back near the original location (called recurrence). (Image courtesy http://radiopaedia.org )

Since his initial surgery, chemo, and radiation treatments, we have been spending a lot more time with him, and have enjoyed many wonderful opportunities to share our brotherhood and love, all the while, sharing in the joy that comes from our association, while still mindful of the obvious lessening of his abilities to be himself. His brain is not working right all the time now, and so when I woke up this morning, I came up with the title for this posting, while contemplating what I would write this afternoon in this posting.

Since his brain hasn’t been working as well as it usually does, he has taken to writing everything down, and it provides the explanation for the second part of the title, “When the brain doesn’t work–Write!”

My brothers and I visiting our brother, Mike. (In the photo left to right: Dennis, Mike, John and Joe)

The subtleties of language very often escape our notice in the normal course of our lives, and we take so much for granted when speaking to others, expecting that when we are speaking the same language, that we will be understood easily, and that it won’t be necessary to explain what we say very often. When the brain doesn’t work right, it can be a struggle to explain even the most common ideas and simplest thoughts. So…when the brain doesn’t work…Write!

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5 comments

  1. Anne

    John……yes Mike writes things down to help him remember, but maybe it would be therapeutic for him to write his thoughts and feelings down as well, not just tasks he needs to remember. WHat do you think?
    I definitely feel that 2 people could say the same words and the meaning could be interpreted in dramatically different ways. We are all unique, and there is so much more to communication than the actual words we say.

    • jjhiii24

      Hello again, Anne! There’s no question that writing down his thoughts and feelings would be therapeutic, but he has trouble typing he says, (it takes too long to get it right) and prolonged long-hand writing of the sort that would be helpful isn’t much better. He is looking into speech recognition software. We’ll see how that goes.
      Part of the reason why communication is so important is that it is the foundation for expressing our thoughts. Without expression, thoughts don’t go very far. Language is the method we humans have devised to construct a common framework for communication, which requires some general agreement as to the meaning of terms.
      The mechanisms for language are very complex and subtleties abound. Even across different cultures, people speaking the same language may experience confusion when those terms have a variety of subtle shades of meaning, or require context to comprehend which does not exist in the other culture.
      I think Steven Pinker’s book warrants the attention of everyone interested in these challenges surrounding language. Thanks for your comment!

  2. rococonnor

    Writing has always helped me to offload and clarify… and blogging is an extension of that. Love your writing.

    • jjhiii24

      Thanks for your kind attention to my writing. I am intrigued by your blog on meditation, and was pleased to see that you report both your success and your occasional frustration with the process. My writing here is primarily internally oriented, although as you say, I often find myself offloading and attempting to clarify. I appreciate your kind words, and hope that you find much of interest here….John H.

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