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Why is Communication so Difficult?

March 10, 2010 7 comments

I start this thought process with a disclaimer:  I’m not a psychologist. Neither am I a doctor. All that follows is pondered from my life experience.

I’ve always been fascinated by how the brain works. Not merely about the phenomenon of being, but the possibility of replication. I’m a firm believer that the brain can be artificially created – or at least simulated. It’s an extremely complex organ capable of feats that still surprise modern day scientists, and I have a feeling we are in for much more discovery of what it’s capable of.

Despite all the complexity and wonder, despite religious beliefs and perhaps even taboo, people keep attempting to mimic the brain. The modern computer is our best effort so far. There are countless other automated systems, many of which predate the computer, that have been inspired by the notion of autonomy and intelligence. All these pointing to the fact that humans would like to master the secrets of intelligence. How does the brain do it? What’s the key?

I’ve attempted to address this question from a functional perspective and in relation to communication. I think the brain represents information internally as a structure I’ll call The Form. The Form can perhaps be likened to a shape or ‘image’ (loosely speaking). A shape I cannot describe for I have no idea how it would look. All I figure is that there is The Form.

The Form is as simple or as complex as the amount of information available about anything. For example, if you are on Twitter and communicating with an individual you’ve never met; your brain has a representation of this person based on what you’ve heard from them. There is already a shape in your brain representing the person. ‘The Form’ of the person. It holds all the details you know about the person so far and also includes other assumed bits of information arising from your experience in interaction with people. If you get to meet the person at some point in time, you add more information to The Form. The shape gets better defined and richer in detail. Some prior assumptions are either dispelled or confirmed.
This sort of dynamic information handling is carried out for anything you take in. Objects, music, feelings, and ideas – they all have forms.

How is all this connected to communication? Well interaction is communication. We have to interact in order to move our lives along seeing as we’re inter-dependent. You’ve got to do your job and submit results to your boss. You’ve got to pay bills, go to school, take vacation, do shopping, date, and raise kids and much more normal human activity. All this involves communication. Expressing your feelings, ideas, and understanding. Communication involves constructing words, speaking these words. It also involves writing, gestures, drawing, and in its most complex format, creating items and concepts that never existed before (invention).

The need for communication creates a problem. How does one transmit The Form from their brain to another individual’s brain taking care to maintain its integrity? Remember, we have no way of fully describing The Form. It exists in the brain. No one can look into our brains to see the informational content. This means that we have to adapt the only tools that are directly linked to the brain to act as transmitters of The Form to whoever we’re communicating with. These tools happen to be organs of the body – the mouth, eyes, hands, legs and indeed the body as a whole. The only problem is that they are hopelessly inadequate in representing The Form.

Let’s take the mouth for instance. With it you can speak a description of The Form. There is a translator in your head that interprets from The Form to whichever language you speak. The translation process is fraught with errors. We don’t all understand the same words in the same way. So, a lot of what was intended to be said gets lost. Once that translation is done, the resulting sentences are sent to the mouth for speech. Here, again there are problems. We don’t all articulate the same words in the same way, so quite a bit of what we’re trying to say get’s lost on the audience. Fortunately, humans also have the ability to fill in the gaps, so a lot of the time you don’t require a speaker to repeat what they’re saying. You simply fill in the blanks and move on. Enter the third problem. If you fill in the wrong words (or meaning) then communication is further compromised.

The spoken words are received by the listener via the ears. The ears have their own problems. We don’t all have the same level of aural sensitivity, so various portions of the spoken words could get garbled or simply lost. The sounds that finally make it to the brain encounter another translator. It interprets language into elements of The Form. The conversion accuracy (relative to the person that spoke the words) is dependent on the receiving individual’s understanding of the words and their context. The Form is finally where it was meant to go, but it’s terribly distorted in many cases. The problem is: the person listening to the words has no idea they understood them completely different from what they were meant to convey.

The same problems dog other communication organs. The gestures we make are a poor representation of what we’re trying to say, and even if the gestures were accurate, the person observing them might get it all wrong. The words we write, pictures we draw, music we compose. All these are various ways of attempting to transmit The Form from one brain to another. I mentioned earlier that inventions are a means of communication. Well if you think about how an invention comes about, it begins life as an idea. It is represented as The Form, but only in the brain of the person having the idea. The person then goes about the motions of getting the idea out of their head and into the external world. All the actions they engage in are in actual fact communication. The actions result in an object (or creation) that can be perceived by other people. This creation is the most perfect form of transmitting The Form from one brain to another. Think about it. It’s much easier for me to show you an object you’ve never seen rather than trying to describe it. So when an invention is created, it is the best way that the inventor can communicate her idea to the world outside her brain.

Conclusion? Communication is and shall always be imperfect until the day we discover how to transmit raw information, untransformed, from brain to brain.

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