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You can never truly express a thought
You can never truly express a thought

You can never truly express a thought

Have you ever thought about what happens between the moment a thought is conceived and the moment it expressed verbally (or otherwise) to others? Does it change? Is what you say always exactly what you mean? I wish to argue that between conception and expression, the idea changes.

Let’s explore the mind quickly. You have a thought. A pure golden nugget of an idea of something that you deem remarkable. It can be whatever you want — they sky, a lake, a drop of water, but at this point it is no more than a small set of neurons that just got firing somewhere in your brain. There is no language attached to it at all. It as a completely pure straight idea.

The notion of a straight idea is something I took a while to get to grips with. Is it possible to think without language? Well, as it turns out, yes. How do you think ancient humans lived before language was invented? How do apes go by their day? In fact, every animal on earth has a consciousness, which means it must have thoughts, and most animals don’t have language as we humans do. Therefore it must be possible for an idea to exist without language to describe it (if only in one mind). Think about it — you probably do this hundreds of times per day. How frequently do you actively think to yourself “I’m hungry. I should buy food” before getting a meal? And how about “I’m tired” before lying down? You just eat and sleep naturally because you know why you need to. You don’t need language to describe your every thought

Back to the mind: after a straight thought is born, the intention to express it (let’s say verbally) is found and mixed in somewhere. At this point it is the job of your brain’s language center to get to business. There’s this pure nugget of an idea and it needs describing. There’s no single word for it, so it’s time to put a phrase together. Now I’m not a psychologist or neuroscientist, but from my experience I’m quite confident in saying your language storage is not a python dictionary i.e. depending on the state of your brain it will take longer to fetch certain words than others. And since human brains are efficient machines, your language center will likely grab the first word or phrase it finds that sufficiently describes part of your nugget (not necessarily the best word). Then, it repeats until you have a sentence which can then be pushed to your prefrontal cortex for actual speech implementation.

Try describe this water

Since you will never find a perfect string of words to express your original thought, it follows that whatever you say, you will never say what you truly mean. The example I grappled with that lead to this article was quite simple, but dragged the point across for me very well: I was on a camping trip and everyone was relaxing by the campsite when I decided to walk down to a small river that was flowing by, just a few meters down. I squatted to inspect the water, and a thought occurred to me: there was something remarkable about this stream. It wasn’t rushing to the point where a shout would be necessary, but it was moving at a slightly surprising pace. It wasn’t extremely loud, but the trickling was more audible than an open tap. The water was notably clear, but then again so is all water. I just had this feeling that this stream in its current state had something worth mentioning, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what. I ended up saying “this stream sure knows its business,” but it could just as easily have been any of a hundred other phrases. I mean, I just spent 5 sentences describing the idea, but I still haven’t gotten it across perfectly. I’m sure there’s an old-English word out there that hasn’t been used in centuries that perfectly describes the experience, but such a word would only be a good example of something your language center wouldn’t look for when trying to describe the idea.


I’m not the first to have the idea that language shapes what you mean. The philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein, famously said “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” Any multilingual speaker can attest to it. Some languages just do not have the vocabulary or idioms to express certain ideas.

My favourite example of this is the Afrikaans word gesellig. It’s used in social contexts to describe an atmosphere that’s friendly, warm, sociable, easy-going and so on. But there’s no good English equivalent, and certainly not one that’s this easy to use. While it is technically expressable in other languages, it isn’t often expressed (there’s no single word for it) and thus non-Afrikaans speakers never think about it. Perhaps this is why English socials get so dry.

Some brain science

I will now have to expose you to some ugly truths. Ready? Your left brain (where the language center is located) is brilliant with making sense of the world, even where there isn’t a whole lotta sense to go around. In a great video by CGP Grey, he describes how split-brain patients (having had their two cognitive hemispheres detached) experienced regular contradiction between the right and left sides of their body. In an experiment, a patient was sat down at a table and told to look directly forward. On the left side of the table was a screen that asked the patient to pick up an object. His right brain (controlling his left eye and arm) complied. From the table’s right side, the patient was then asked why he picked up the object. His left brain (not actually knowing why) immediately made up a false excuse. (e.g. “It looks cool” in stead of “I was asked to pick it up”).

The moral of the story is that your brain is great at explaining things away, especially when it comes to the way your very own body behaves. More often than not, you’re going to stand by what you said. After all, you did literally just say what you thought…

Another application of this unreachable thought problem is art. If art is a means of expression then the same should apply — whatever pure thought it is an artist is trying to convey, no piece of art will ever truly portray it, for paint will always be paint, stone always stone and canvas always canvas. Though one could argue even if a painting doesn’t perfectly resemble a pure thought, it is likely to be closer to the original thing than a piece of text. Most of us humans think visually. When I think about that stream, the first thing that comes to mind is the visual motion of flowing water, then later the sound, surroundings and feelings of the experience.

My favourite deduction of this whole enchilada is that being well-spoken or able to express your thoughts accurately, has significantly more to do with your language center than true intellect. So next time you see someone struggling to put forward a concept, just know he might be a brilliant man, with the wildest of thoughts between his ears — humanity will just never hear them.

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