Chapter 4 … The Power of Language

The Big Ideas of Lesson Four

  • The world is not just how we see it.
  • How we see is affected by how we think.
  • How we think is affected by how we talk.
  • We do not think much about how we talk.
  • So words control us rather than us controlling our words.
  • If we can explore and expand our words,
  • we can explore and expand our world.



On her first day as a sign-language interpreter for a local community college, Susan Schaller spotted a deaf man sitting alone and intensively studying the people around him in a Reading Skills class. She introduced herself with a greeting gesture and her name sign, as if to say, “Hi, my name is Susan.” He copied her, as if to say back, “Hi, my name is Susan.”

What’s your name?” she asked. “What’s your name?” he responded. He studied her carefully, copying her every move, and asking for her approval with his eyes. She soon realized that this 27-year-old man, named Ildefonso, had no concept of language. “We were only inches apart, but we might as well have been from different planets; it seemed impossible to meet.”

She could not help but recognize his desire to learn, and felt called to teach him. It was long, arduous, and frustrating work. Nothing she did seemed to break through.

Eventually, she settled on the idea of doing an “imaginary Ildefonso skit” in which she would talk to an empty chair as if Ildefonso was sitting there, then pop over to the other chair to respond, thereby modeling a conversation between herself and an imaginary Ildefonso. It was a bizarre scene and felt strange. Week after week she had these imaginary conversations. “I began to worry about my sanity,” she writes.

After a grueling, mind-numbing, and apparently hopeless session, Ildefonso suddenly perked up. “The whites of his eyes expanded as if in terror,” Schaller writes. He was having a breakthrough. He sat still, as if pondering the revelation, and then excitedly started looking around the room, “slowly at first, then hungrily, he took in everything as though he had never seen anything before.” He started slapping his hands down on objects and looking for Susan to respond. “Table,” she signed as he slapped his hand on the table. “Book,” she signed as he touched a book, and then “door,” “clock,” and “chair” in rapid succession has he pointed around the room. Then he stopped, collapsed his head into his arms folded on the table, and wept.

“He had entered the universe of humanity, discovered the communion of minds. He now knew that he and a cat and the table all had names … and he could see the prison where he had existed alone, shut out of the human race for twenty- seven years.”


PNG20060527TumArrival 134.jpg
Just a few of my favorite language teachers in New Guinea. [2]

When I first arrived in the rainforests of New Guinea, I saw three things: trees, bushes, and grass. Of course, there was a wide range of different types of trees, bushes, and grasses, but having no language for them, they disappeared into a large mass of stimuli that I simply knew as “the forest.” I had no language to make sense of what I was seeing – no web of meanings to create the background upon which what I saw could take on some significant definition. I could not tell food from foul, or medicine from poison, and I was completely mystified by the meanings my friends could glean from the forest as we walked. With their eyes always scanning their surroundings, they were constantly reacting to the messages they could see and hear, variously lighting up with delight and sighing with disappointment, laughing, groaning, shaking their head this way and that as they went.

Anxious to explore their world of meanings, I set about learning the language. The first phrase I could identify seemed to be a common greeting, as I heard it over and over again every morning as we watched people stroll by the house on their way down the mountain toward their gardens. “Neliyongbipkatopbani!” they would sing out as they passed. I wrote it down and repeated it to my brother Lazarus, asking him what it means.

“It means, I am going to the garden.” he said. “Great!” I thought to myself, a subject, verb, and an object. I could use this to start unlocking the language using a technique we call frame substitution. With frame substitution, the researcher uses a known phrase as a “frame” and just tweaks (“substitutes”) one part of it to see what changes.

“How do you say, He is going to the garden?” I asked. “Eliyongbipkatopbana.” The words were too fast for me to decipher where one word stopped and another began, so I ran them all together in my notebook.

A pattern was emerging. The change in subject from “he” to “I” had changed the beginning and end of the phrase (Neliyongbipkatopbanvs. Eliyongbipkatopbana).

I sat still and pondered the revelation for a moment and then excitedly started asking for more words. I felt like Ildefonso awakening to a new world. I was having a breakthrough. I excitedly started scribbling notes into my notebook. Other bits of language I had recorded suddenly made sense. It was as if had broken a code and a world of mystery was revealing itself to me. Like Ildefonso pointing in rapid succession to tables, books, doors, clocks, and chairs, I also started gathering new terms using the framework of this sentence as a starting point. I asked how one would say “she is going to the garden” and found the beginning and end changed again. I started rattling off different subjects, from he and she and on to they and we.

Then I was ready to discover the pronoun and verb ending for “you.”

“How would you say, ‘You are going to the garden?'” I asked.

“Neliyongbipkatopbani,” he answered, which was already established as “am going to the garden.”

“No, no.” I corrected, “You are going to the garden.” “Neliyongbipkatopbani,” he responded again.

“No, no!” I responded in frustration. “You! You are going to the garden.”

“No, no,” he said. “I’m staying right here. You are still very confused.”


One of the biggest challenges of learning a language among people who do not read and write is that they do not necessarily think about their language as a collection of discrete words in the same way that we do.

Likewise, one of the biggest challenges of learning a language among people who do read and write is that they don’t not always talk like they write. Learning the written form may be entirely different from learning how to speak. One of comedian George Carlin’s favorite English words was “ommina,” as in “Ommina go catch the bus and head home.” Humans can make about 4,000 different sounds. About 400 of these are used in languages around the world, with most languages using about 40 different sounds. The sounds a language uses are called phonemes. These sounds include consonants and vowels, and in some languages there are also clicks and tones.

If you do not learn a phoneme when you are young, it can be difficult to speak and understand later in life. English speakers struggle to understand the tones in a tonal language. Japanese speakers often struggle to pronounce the “r” sound used in many languages. And the plethora of unique “clicks” used in Khoisan languages of southern Africa are difficult for everyone except the Khoisan. English-speakers learning Korean often struggle not only to say certain words but also to distinguish words like pul and phul, which both simply sound like “pull” to an English speaker, but phul uses an aspirated ‘p’ thereby distinguishing the word as “grass” rather than “fire.”

Sometimes these phonemic differences create unique abilities in the cultures and speakers that use them. The Piraha of the Amazon use just 11 sounds, including three tones. The heavy use of these tones allow the Piraha to whistle messages to one another through the rainforest across great distances.

In West Africa, speakers of tonal languages can use “talking drums” that allow the drummer to vary the pitch to mimic speech and send messages up to five miles. Tonal languages might also have an effect on human abilities. In one study, Diana Deutsch found that Mandarin speakers were nine times more likely than English speakers to have perfect pitch, the remarkable ability to precisely name any pitch, whether it comes from a piano or the hum of an air conditioner.

Though the local language contained a few new phonemes that made it difficult for me to learn, I was fortunate that many of the people in the village spoke Tok Pisin, a creole that had developed over the past few centuries of contact with Europeans. The language is a mix made up of mostly English-derived words along with some German and local words. I had no trouble saying “You are going to the garden” in Tok Pisin (you simply say “yu go long gaden.”) Tok Pisin has become a national lingua franca, facilitating communication for speakers of over 800 different languages in Papua New Guinea. With a relatively small vocabulary made up of many familiar words, I was able to converse in the language in a month and became fluent soon after that.

But it was the local language that enchanted me. As psychologist Lera Boroditsky notes, “If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world.” I sensed that I was on the verge of a new way of seeing the world.

“If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world.”
– Lera Boroditsky

I changed tactics and returned to the foundations of frame substitution to build on what I already knew. “How would you say, ‘he is going to the house’” I asked. “Emiamkatopbani.” Now the code was breaking again. I noticed that the only change between that phrase and the phrase for going to the garden was am vs. yongbip, and could conclude that these were the words for house and garden, respectively. I excitedly asked for more and started filling my notebook. I reveled in my new language abilities. Mastering a common greeting like this gave me something to hold onto in what was otherwise a sea of unfamiliar sounds. But then a new mystery emerged the next morning. A man walked by my house as I was sitting on the veranda and said, “Neli yongbip kametbani.” By the time I unraveled what he meant by the statement, I was forced to realize that they were not just speaking differently. They were thinking differently too.


Vivian: Have you ever transcended space and time?

Edward: Yes. … No. Uh, time not space. … No, I don’t know
what you’re talking about.

– I Heart Huckabees

The man was passing from the other direction, heading uphill, and that turned out to be the key difference. Kametbani indicated that he was going uphill, while katopbani indicated going downhill. Using frame substitution I found a vast collection of words indicating specific directions.

If you are standing on the star and you want to say, “I am going to the garden” you have to include an infix indicating precisely which direction you will be heading. This is a common greeting, so native speakers have a keen sense of direction. [3]

This does not seem particularly different from English, in which we might say “I’m heading down there / up there / over there / etc.” The key difference is not that we can say these things. It is that they have to. The direction indicator is built right into their grammar, so they have to say which direction they are facing or going every time they say hello. In this way, it is similar to Pormpuraaw, spoken by Australian Aborigines on the northern tip of Queensland, Australia. As Lera Boroditsky says, “If you don’t know which way is which, you literally can’t get past hello.”

In some languages these directional orientations take the place of left and right, so a speaker might say, “your north shoe is untied” or even “your north-northwest shoe is untied.” As a result, people who speak languages like this exhibit the uncanny capacity for dead reckoning. They know exactly which direction is which at every moment of the day. Even small children know exactly what direction they are facing, even in unfamiliar territory after long travels. Stephen Levinson recounts that a speaker of Tzeltal (a Mayan language in the Mexican state of Chiapas) was blindfolded and spun around over 20 times in a dark house, yet he still knew which way was which.

I knew very little about all this at the time. I only knew that my friends in New Guinea were experiencing the world differently than I was. I felt much like Wilhelm von Humboldt must have felt when, in the early 1800s, he started to realize that American Indian languages had radically different grammatical structures from European languages. “The difference between languages is not only in sounds and signs but in worldview,” he proclaimed. While he recognized that any thought could be expressed in any language, he became keenly aware of the fact that a language shapes thought by “what it encourages and stimulates its speakers to do from its own inner force.” In other words, if you have to figure out what direction you are facing every time you greet someone, you get pretty good at telling direction.

Enchanted by the possibilities of new ways of thinking, linguists and anthropologists set about documenting undocumented grammars in earnest. By the early 1900s, Edward Sapir emerged as one of their most prominent leaders. “What fetters the mind and benumbs the spirit is ever the dogged acceptance of absolutes,” Sapir wrote in his Introduction to the Study of Speech. Like Humboldt, Sapir saw a path toward new ways of seeing and thinking about the world through the documentation of languages. Sapir championed the idea as the “principle of linguistic relativity.” Much as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has done, Sapir thought linguistic relativity could disrupt our ways of seeing and understanding the world.

Sapir’s most famous student and colleague was Benjamin Whorf, a genius fire inspector with a degree in chemical engineering who was fascinated by languages. While working as a fire inspector, he noticed that several tragic fires were caused by people carelessly smoking next to “empty” gas barrels. Of course, the “empty” barrels were actually full of highly flammable gas vapor.

Most famously, Whorf became interested in Hopi concepts of time. He noted that in English we talk about time as a “thing” and objectify it as seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc.

Are conceptions of time universal in all cultures? [4]

It was a brilliant analysis starting from the insight that time is not really a “thing” but is simply the experience of duration, of a “getting later.” The Hopi, he argued, have “no words, grammatical forms, constructions or expressions that refer directly to what we call ‘time.'” He tied this into a broader observation of how our grammar shapes how we talk and think. For example, our grammar obliges us to provide a subject for every verb, so we say “it rains” or “the light flashes” when in fact neither the rain nor the light even exist without the action itself. When a light flashes the Hopi simply say rehpi. Whorf would go on to claim that our grammar made it difficult for us to understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which merges time and space, matter and energy, but make it easy to understand Newton, in which objects do specific actions. He suggested that if science had emerged within an Amerindian language, the Theory of Relativity might have been discovered much sooner.

Unfortunately, his claims about Hopi time may have gone too far. The idea that the Hopi have no concepts of time was discounted in the opening quote of Ekkehart Malotki’s comprehensive book on Hopi Time, in which Malotki quotes a Hopi man using several concepts of time that Whorf assumed did not exist:

“Then indeed, the following day, quite early in the morning at the hour when people pray to the sun, around that time then, he woke up the girl again.”

Whorf fell into disrepute among many linguists after this, but nobody expressed the core insight that language can shape thought more eloquently or forcefully. His works revealed what Stephen Levinson called a “seductive, revolutionary set of ideas.” Levinson goes on to note that “many eminent researchers in the language sciences will confess that they were first drawn into the study of language through the ideas associated with Benjamin Lee Whorf.”

As linguists have turned away from Whorf, what was once known as the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” or as Sapir dubbed it, “the Principle of Linguistic Relativity,” is being re-shaped as what Guy Deutscher has called the Boas-Jakobsen principle. Deutscher points out that unlike Whorf, who pushed the notion that language shapes thought too far, Boas and Jakobsen championed a more tempered approach that, as Jakobsen summarized, “languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” In this way, language shapes how we think by forcing us to think about certain things over and over again – like direction for my friends in New Guinea.

Over the past 30 years, careful controlled experiments have shown that language does indeed shape how we think. For example, in one task researchers asked participants to look at three different toy animals in a row setting on a table. The animals might be placed from left to right, facing “downhill” for example. Participants have to memorize the order of the animals and then turn around and place the animals in the same order on another table behind them. This forces the participant to make a decision about which answer is “right.” One right answer would be to place the animals from left to right, but now left to right is not “downhill,” it is “uphill.” In such experiments, almost all speakers of Tzeltal (a language that requires speakers to know which direction they are facing) chose to orient the animals from right to left in a “downhill” orientation, while almost all Dutch speakers did the opposite.

Though this may seem like a minor difference, Lera Boroditsky points out that how we think about space can affect how we think about other things as well. “People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations,” she notes, “such as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, and emotions.” For example, the Kuuk Thaayore of northern Queensland in Australia arrange time from east to west rather than left to right. When they were asked to arrange cards that indicated a clear temporal sequence such as a man aging or a banana being eaten, they arranged the cards from east to west, regardless of which direction they were facing. Mandarin speakers think of time as moving downward so next month is the “down month” and last month is the “up month.”

Beyond time and space there are other interesting grammatical differences across languages that may shape how we think, but these domains have not been investigated thoroughly. For example, the Matses of the Amazon rainforest have the most complex system of verb forms that linguists call “evidentials.” They operate much like tenses but require speakers to indicate precisely how they know what they know. In Matses, if you want to say, “he is going to the garden” you have to indicate whether you know this by direct experience, you are inferring it from clear evidence, you are conjecturing based on previous patterns, or you know it from hearsay. In the West we have a vast complicated philosophical field called Epistemology to explore how we know what we know. The Matses may be master epistemologists just by virtue of how they are required to speak.


Homer would have seen the same blue sky and blue sea, but he never refers to them as blue in the Illiad and the Odyssey. [5]


That our grammar affects how we think is now well- established, but what about our words? In one famous example, often mistakenly attributed to Whorf, the Eskimo are said to have hundreds of words for snow. This is not exactly true on a number of counts. First, there is no single Eskimo language.  The word “eskimo” itself is not a local name but an “exonym” (a name used by outsiders) for the Yupik, Inuit, and Aleut, many of whom find the word “Eskimo” to be offensive.  The idea of “100 Eskimo words for snow” might originate from the fact that the Yupik use polysynthetic word structures that allow them to make an infinite number of words from any root. For example, a complex phrase like “Would you like to go window shopping with me” can be expressed in just one word. In such a system, there are endless possibilities building from the root words for snow (of which there are only two). However, in partial confirmation of the idea, linguist David Harrison notes that the Yupik identify at least 99 distinct sea ice formations including several that are essential to life and death on the ice, such as Nuyileq, which indicates crushed ice that is beginning to spread out and is dangerous to walk on. It should not be surprising that the Yupik would have so many words for sea ice formations. Of course, an avid skier also has several words for snow and ice that are unknown to most English speakers, such as chunder, powder, moguls, zipper bumps, and sastrugi.

Sastrugi: Wavelike grooves or ridges on the surface of snow formed by wind erosion.[6]

Just as we learned in the previous section, our language does not limit us from perceiving new things and inventing words for them, but once we have a word for something and start habitually using that word, it is much easier to see it.

I experienced this myself in New Guinea. As I learned the language, the forest came alive for me in the same way that the whole world came alive for Ildefonso as he discovered language. The more words I learned, the more I came to see and understand the significance of the world around me. The monotonous diet, which had consisted of little more than taro, sweet potato, and bananas, was greatly enhanced as I came to recognize over thirty types of taro and sweet potato, and over fifty types of banana, each with its own distinct texture and flavor.

Sometimes, the words people use to describe the world clearly reflect and support the social structure and core values of their culture. One particularly well-documented example is in the domain of kinship terms. For example, Hawaiians use same word (makuahine) for mother as they do for aunt, a reflection of the importance they place on family and their tendency to live in extended families. If you were born into a culture where wealth is passed through the father’s line (patrilineal systems) you might refer to your father’s sister as “mother-in-law,” indicating that her children (your “cousins” in our system) are suitable marriage partners. This form of cousin marriage can be advantageous because it keeps the wealth within the patrilineage. If you marry outside the patrilineage, the family wealth would need to be divided. Our own system, which distinguishes one’s closest blood relatives (mother, father, brother, sister) from more distant relatives (aunts, uncles and cousins), reflects and supports a social structure and core values emphasizing independent nuclear families.

The core idea here is that we use our words to divide and categorize the world in certain ways which then influence how we see and act in the world. But how far does this go? For example, if we imagined a culture that had no word for blue, would the people of that culture experience “blueness”? Could they see it? Would they see it just as you or I see it?

This is the question that struck William Gladstone in 1858 when he noticed something peculiar about Homer’s epic classics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. There were very few color terms throughout both texts, and the few times that colors were mentioned, they seemed a little off. Honey is described as green, the daytime sky is black, and the sea is described as the color of wine.

Homer described the daytime sky as black and the sea as the color of wine. [7]

There seemed to be no word for what we would normally call “blue.” After careful study, Gladstone came to the conclusion that the Greeks might have seen the world very differently from us, perhaps mostly in black and white with the occasional shade of red.

Nine years later, Lazarus Geiger found that the color blue was also missing from the texts of ancient India, and from biblical Hebrew. He attempted to unveil the deep history of numerous languages and found that the word for blue was a relatively recent invention in each one. Furthermore, he noticed that the order in which colors were added to a language seemed to follow a universal pattern. First a language would have words for black and white, then red, then yellow or green, then yellow and green, and finally blue. Over the next twenty years, anthropologists and missionaries gathered color terms from all over the world and the universal pattern was confirmed.

Geiger wondered whether or not people without words for such colors could see the colors or not. “Can the difference between them and us be only in the naming,” he wondered, “or in the perception itself?” Do they really not see the color blue? Thus opened up to science one of our favorite old philosophical nuts. Is the “blue” you see the same “blue” that I see? Is it possible to know?

Ten years later the question was one of the hottest topics of the age. Anatomist Frithiof Holmgren suspected that a deadly train crash in 1875 was caused when the conductor failed to see and obey a red stop light. He set about testing other conductors for color-blindness and promoted the importance of color perception for international safety. In this environment, Hugo Magnus suggested that color-blindness was a vestige of relatively recent human abilities. The ability of our retina to see colors had been evolving, he argued, and it would continue to evolve. Red was the first color we saw because it was the most intense, followed by yellow and green. He proposed that the ability to see blue was a relatively recent human ability, and suggested that so-called “primitive” tribes saw the world of color much as we see it at twilight, with muted gradations and only the most intense colors easily distinguished.

But color tests around the world failed to confirm that people of different cultures varied in their ability to perceive color differences. Nubians, Namibians, and Pacific Islanders had no trouble sorting and matching color samples.

But there was still the mystery of why Homer would describe the sea as “wine-dark” or honey as green, and why the word for blue would be so late in coming in the evolution of languages.

Sometimes we have some basic assumptions built into our questions that lead us astray. If you ask, “how did humankind’s sense of color evolve over the past 3,000 years since Homer?” then you are already assuming that our sense of color has evolved. It is easy enough to discard that assumption, but harder to see and discard a much deeper assumption about the nature of color itself. We think of colors in terms of hue, which is dependent on the color’s wavelength and is independent of its intensity or lightness. What is apparent now is that many languages, including that of Homer’s, were not describing “color” as we think of it at all, but were instead describing intensity. The Greeks did not classify colors by hue, but by darkness and lightness. Kyaneos referred to darker colors such as dark blue, dark green, violet, brown, and black while glaukos referred to lighter colors such as light blue, light green, grey or yellow.

What is apparent now is that many languages, including that of Homer’s, were not describing “color” as we think of it at all, but were instead describing intensity.

So why does “red” come first in the history of languages, followed by yellow, green, and finally blue? We do not know for sure, but there may be a mix of reasons both natural and cultural. Our closest primate relatives show increased excitement around the color red, which may signal danger (blood) or sex, and experiments with humans also show physiological effects. Red is of great importance symbolically in most cultures, and red dyes are the easiest to find and manufacture, with most cultures having some source for red dye that is often used in art and skin decoration. Yellow and  green are important in identifying the health and ripeness of many plants, and yellow dyes are also fairly easy to find and manufacture. Blue is not especially important or easy to find and manufacture. Indeed, blue dyes do not appear until about three thousand years ago, and its rarity conferred it a special status in early civilizations.

More importantly, some color words in other languages carry other important meanings that can change how they are used. For example, anthropologist Harold Conklin notes that the Hanunoo of the Philippines say that the brown-colored section of freshly cut bamboo is “green” since green is not exclusively a color term but a label of freshness.

While it is now well-established that people of different cultures can see all the same colors, there is some evidence that our color words shape how we see them. For example, neuropsychologist Jules Davidoff worked with the Hemba in Africa (Links to an external site.), who do not have a word for blue. When he showed them 12 color samples, 11 that we would call “green” and 1 that we would call “blue,” they could not determine that the “blue” one was the odd one out.


But, they have many words for different shades of green, and when shown a pallet of 12 green squares with one slightly different they immediately saw the difference, because they have distinct words for what we would call “different shades of green.” Most English speakers cannot make the distinction.

Can you see it?
discussion canvas

His work suggests that once we name a color, it is easier to notice it, and we often collapse color differences toward our modal version of a color, making it difficult to distinguish between different shades that match the same category. In other words, when people who have no word for blue look out at a sky that they categorize in the same color category as black, the sky probably appears a bit darker than it does to us.


Though grammar and words can be shown to shape how we see and think about the world, linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have proposed that the most profound influence on our thought is at the level of metaphor. They point out that metaphors are pervasive throughout our language and often unnoticed. For example, we often unconsciously use the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR to describe an argument. We say that claims are defended or indefensible. We attack and demolish our opponentsshooting down their points, hoping that we can win. To drive home the significance of this metaphor, they ask us to consider what it would be like if we lived in a culture that instead used an ARGUMENT IS A DANCE metaphor in which the participants try to dance together, find the beauty in each other’s moves, and ultimately create something beautiful together.

The key point of Lakoff and Johnson is not just that we use metaphors in how we talk. It is that “human thought processes are largely metaphorical.” As Neil Postman notes, “A metaphor is not an ornament. It is an organ of perception … Is light a wave or a particle? Are molecules like billiard balls or force fields? Is history unfolding according to some instructions of nature or a divine plan?”

 In virtually every domain of our lives and worldview, metaphors are operating, shaping our perception.

Most of the metaphors we use in our thought are what they call “dead” metaphors; that is, that we do not see them as metaphors at all. Take for example the metaphorical concept that Michael Reddy has called the “conduit metaphor,” in which we think of ideas as objects and words as containers for those ideas. We put ideas into the containers (words) and send them (along a conduit) to other people. After careful analysis, Reddy notes that about 70% of all expressions we use about language are based on this metaphor. We say that we have ideas, that sometimes they are hard to capture in words, and that sometimes it is hard to get an idea across.

This metaphor lies at the heart of many “common sense” notions of education, which, as it turns out, are incomplete and misguided. The common-sense notion is that a teacher’s job is to put ideas into words and send them to the students, who then will have the ideas. Massive lecture halls on college campuses have these assumptions built right into them, with fixed stadium seating facing the front of the room where the professor takes control of over a million points of light on giant screens, all specifically designed to help the professor “convey” the ideas into the heads of the students.

But this is not a complete picture of how learning works. Ideas do not just flow into people’s heads and fill them up. When a new idea enters the mind of another, it enters a complex system with its own structure of interests, biases, and assumptions. The learner does not just absorb ideas whole. But precisely what is going on when learning happens is difficult to describe, and so we must rely on other metaphors.

There are a wide range of possibilities beyond the “Mind is a container” metaphor that can open us up to new possibilities. For example, Reddy suggests that we might think of the mind as a toolmaker. When new ideas come to us that we think might be useful, we use the idea to make a tool. But because my experience, interests, problems, and biases are different than yours, I make a different tool.

This, like the “mind is a container” metaphor, strikes us as partially true, though also incomplete. But by expanding our metaphor vocabulary. we constantly open ourselves up to new possibilities for how we think about the most important aspects of our lives.

Consider some of those really big questions that are constantly on our minds in the modern world: Who am I? What am I going to do? Am I going to make it? All of them are propped up on unexamined dead metaphors. Understanding what these metaphors are and how they shape our thoughts and actions might help us find answers to these questions, or perhaps lead us to new questions.

For example, when asking the question “Who am I?”, we will often say that we are trying to “find ourselves.” This is a metaphor, and it can shape your thoughts and actions. The attempt to find the self assumes that there is a solid core self to be found. To find it, we might try different career paths, bounce between relationships, or travel from place to place looking for it. And each time we fail to find it, we feel a little more “lost.” The experiences seem wasted. But if we change the metaphor and instead see our task as one of “creating ourselves,” those same experiences can be seen as part of the creative process, each one becoming a part of who we are as we go about creating the self. Of course, neither of these is precisely right. They are both incomplete, but each fills in gaps the other missed. The notion of creating yourself overlooks the fact that we are all inherently different—that we all have different tendencies, capacities, and limits; while the notion of finding yourself can overlook our capacities to change and create new tendencies, develop new capacities, and overcome limits.

And then there’s the possibility that both of these metaphors put too much emphasis on the self altogether, and perhaps we should be considering a different metaphor. As the great poet Marshall Mathers once noted, “You better lose yourself, in the moment, you own it, you better never let it go.” Of course, losing yourself may mean moving beyond language altogether. This is what happened to neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor during a stroke: the language center of her brain shut down.

She says, “I lost all definition of myself in relation to the external world… Language is the constant reminder ‘I am.'” And how did she feel in this state? “I had joy. I just had joy,” she told Radiolab in an interview.

I found a peace inside of myself that I had not known before … pure silence … you know that little voice that says, “Ah, man, the sun is shining”? Imagine you don’t hear that little voice … you just experience the sun and the shining. … It was all of the present moment.

Though we are not likely to be willing to give up our language, we can try to take control of it, and doing so requires that we recognize that even simple verbs such as is or does are, in the words of Neil Postman, “powerful metaphors that express some our most fundamental conceptions of the way things are.” We are hungry. The Spanish “have hunger.” This distinction is perhaps not very interesting or meaningful until we put it into other domains. We might have the flu but we do not have criminality. People do crimes and we have large systems in place to find out exactly who did a crime and why. Of course, these ideas can change. Not long ago one could be angry but could not have anger. Now, new ideas about how anger works allow people to recognize how anger can be seen as a treatable condition for which people can receive much-needed help.

The key idea is that metaphors permeate our thoughts and deeply shape how we make sense of the world. They do not necessarily reflect the unchanging and absolute nature of reality. Metaphors are the primary lens through which we make meaning of the world. As long as our metaphors are dead and unexamined, they control us and our thought patterns. When we examine the metaphors that guide us, we gain the freedom to create new ones and become meaning- makers. As Neil Postman once famously noted, “word weavers are world-makers.”


A chihuahua chews on what is or might be a dog chew toy. [8]

Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University, ran a simple experiment in which she gave two groups of students an object. One group was told, “This is a dog chew toy” while the other group was told, “This might be a dog chew toy.” Later, when an eraser was needed, only the group that was told that the object “might be” a dog chew toy thought that it might also be used as an eraser.

The key difference is in how our minds pay attention to things and ideas we consider pliable and conditional vs. those we consider fixed and absolute. When we think of things and ideas as pliable and conditional we play with them, and by playing with them, we become more likely to find new, creative uses for them as well as remember them later on.

If I knocked on your door and offered you $10,000 for a 3′ x 7′ slab of wood, what would you do?


Most people become frustrated that they do not have a pile of wood nearby, but they are holding a 3′ x 7′ slab of wood in their hand, the door itself! When we name something (“door”), it tends to become fixed and absolute as that thing in our mind, and disappears as all the other things it might become. We fall into the trap of categories. As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr says, “Our thoughts have us, rather than us having them.”

To pay attention to these alternatives and to be aware of the pliable and conditional aspects of our world is to be mindful. The power of mindfulness is wonderfully summarized by Ken Bain, who notes that “all of us possess enormous power to change the world and ourselves by shifting the language and categories we employ. Maybe I’m thinking about this wrong. Is there a different way of seeing my problem? Are there different words I might use? The brain becomes more creative. Life becomes more exciting and fun.”

This power to change the self by changing our words is well-documented. In one experiment, Langer and her team ran a short seminar for maids at large hotels designed to inform them that their jobs were good exercise. “Although actual behavior did not change,” Langer reports, they “perceived themselves to be getting significantly more exercise then before.” Remarkably, their bodies actually reflected this change. Over the next month they lost an average of two pounds over the control group. They lost ½% body fat and their blood pressure dropped 10 points.

Langer points out that such results are largely the result of the placebo effect. And what is the placebo effect? It is the power of your mind to actually change your body and heal itself. When you change your beliefs in a way that is thoroughly convincing to your mind, your brain chemistry actually changes. In fact, every drug in the world is actually already present in the brain. That’s why they work. Our brain has receptors for them. “Every pharmacological agent or drug that there is,” Tor Wager told Radiolab’s Jad Abumrod, “there is a chemical produced by your brain that does that thing.” (Links to an external site.) But the power to change the self by changing your language does not stop with the physical self. It runs deep into the very essence of how you understand yourself as well.


Most of us have deep unconscious understandings of ourselves that are not always flattering. We tend to push away these dark parts of ourselves and rarely examine them. In doing so, we might also be pushing away the parts of ourselves that make us who we are.

When we adopt a mindful approach to the world, we see ourselves as pliable and conditional rather than fixed and absolute. We can see our capacity for growth and change. This helps us see those darker parts of ourselves because we recognize that they might not always be so dark. In fact, we might even see these dark aspects of ourselves as the source of our greatest gifts.

When Gillian Lynne was a little girl, her teacher was often frustrated with her. She would not sit still in the classroom, constantly dancing around the room. The teacher asked her mother to have her examined. After looking her over, the doctor turned on the radio and left the room to retrieve her mother. The doctor brought her mom to the door and asked her to look inside. Gillian was being Gillian, dancing around the room to the music.

“Your daughter is not sick,” the doctor said.

“She’s a dancer.”

Gillian’s mom promptly removed her from school and enrolled her in dance school. She went on to be one of the greatest dancers and choreographers of modern times, best known for her work in Cats and Phantom of the Opera.

What appeared to be a weakness in one context (dancing around the classroom) has become a great strength and widely celebrated in another (dancing across the stage). In this way, our weaknesses may in fact be strengths. Perhaps we are mistaken in separating them. As word weavers making new meanings, perhaps a new word can help us see parts of ourselves that otherwise remain hidden: strengthness.

A strengthness can be any apparent weakness that is a strength in another context or generates strength over time. For example, one former student struggled greatly with anxiety and panic attacks. Over her years of struggle with this weakness, she developed a remarkable capacity to calm herself in times of stress. Years later, when her boyfriend was struggling with the stress of graduate school, she was able to pass on some of her wisdom to help him calm himself. He went on to finish his Ph.D. thanks to her remarkable abilities, and so did she. Now a practicing Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, she has helped hundreds of patients overcome the same debilitating anxiety and panic attacks that once plagued her.

New words like “strengthness” can help us see ourselves and the world in new ways.

They shape how we see. We act based on what we “see.” As Neil Postman sums it up:

If we “see things” one way, we act accordingly. If we see them in another, we act differently. The ability to learn turns out to be a function of the extent to which one is capable of perception change. If a student goes through four years of school and comes out “seeing” things in the way he did when he started, he will act the same.

Which means he learned nothing.

Color Test RGB Values: