The Power of Words
Please welcome today’s fantastic guest, Michael Sherer, to Murder She Writes! Mike was recently nominated for a Thriller Award for his book Night Blind, and I’m so happy for him. He’s a genuine nice person and has an interesting past as a freelance writer focusing on … food! (One of my favorite things — how is he so skinny?) Anyway, please give him a big welcome and we hope you enjoy this wonderful essay about the power of words … ~Allison
When people ask me how I became a writer, I tell them I majored in English in college because courses in and about my native language were the only ones I felt I could comfortably pass. And the only things you can do with a degree in English are teach or wash dishes. I washed dishes. That got old pretty quickly, so I took a small step up the economic ladder and became a writer instead.
As someone who makes a living from communicating through the written word, you’d think I’d have a ready store of them, a veritable treasure trove of graphemes at my fingertips I can use to describe the world. But I’m often at a loss for words, in more ways than one. As a writer, I’m often stymied by a blank page, unable (or unwilling) to commit words to it, and regularly stumped when trying top come up with a specific word that has suddenly become as elusive as a bonefish in shallow Bahamian water. And in social situations, my mouth becomes inexplicably dissociated from my brain, leaving me awkwardly trying to blend in with the nearest wallpaper.
My recent Thriller Award nomination from ITW also left me speechless and dumbfounded. “Gobsmacked” is a popular description making the rounds these days. But it also reminded me of how compelling and influential our words can be, how they can move people, persuade or dissuade them, anger or elate them. That thought inspired me to reprise here a post I wrote some time ago about the power of words.
Last year, I volunteered to give several presentations about writing to students at the local high school on career day. My own writing experience ranges from magazine features and public relations to novels and screenplays. I wanted to impress upon the students how many opportunities exist for them to find a career as a writer if that’s their interest or passion. Almost everything, I noted, from the instruction manual for their smart phones to the ingredient list and copy on a box of corn flakes uses written communication.
But I also wanted to imbue them with a sense of the importance of words, the power of language.
Listening to the radio one day a few weeks before my presentations, I heard a series of stories about words so captivating that I parked in a grocery store lot and sat there until the show ended.
The first segment, the story of how a deaf man discovered language for the first time at age 27, brought tears to my eyes. The second segment took the story in a new and fascinating direction. A researcher in England put rats into a white rectangular room and placed food in one corner. Before the rats were allowed to look for the food, however, researchers spun them around to disorient them. When they were released, they found the corner with the food in it about 50 percent of the time, which is what researchers expected.
Next, researchers painted one of the four walls blue, thinking that perhaps it would give the rats a visual cue, a navigational clue, such as, “the food is left of the blue wall.” When researchers repeated the experiment, however, the rats still chose the correct corner only half the time. Rats can see colors and have an excellent sense of direction, but they couldn’t put the two concepts—“blue” and “left”—together.
Another research scientist here in the U.S. took the experiment a step further. A Harvard psychologist specializing in children, she wondered if babies would be any better than rats at navigating using spatial cues. To her surprise, they weren’t. Like rats, young children understand what blue is, and they know one direction from another, but they can’t link the two concepts. She continued the experiment, progressively using older children, and discovered that at about age 6 kids could solve the problem.
She theorizes that age 6 is about the time that children start using phrases like “left of the blue wall,” and that the act of using language links the two areas of the brain that understand the words “blue” and “left.” (Researchers confirmed the theory by taking the ability to use language away from adults in the same experiment—they performed the same as the rats and babies.)
What’s astonishing about research like this is that it suggests language doesn’t just allow us to communicate with each other. It also allows one part of the brain to communicate with another. Language, in other words (pun intended), allows us to talk to ourselves—to think. Without language, we would have perceptions, but no thoughts.
For a writer, that’s an extraordinary notion. First of all, language is a combination of words, and by combining words in new and different ways, we not only communicate new ideas to others, but also influence the way they think. Talk about power… Shakespeare, for example, mashed words together in combinations no one had ever heard or seen before. (Many examples are given in another segment of this wonderful radio show.) And a large number of those word combinations are still commonly used today.
Can you imagine a world without words? A world without language?
The podcast is on Radiolab. If you haven’t heard it before, I highly recommend it.