When questions about mind and language are asked in this way, sophisticated thinkers are usually inclined to find them laughable or at least misguided. After all, while the effects of language and thought on the physical universe are certainly complex and not fully understood, there is precious little scientific evidence to support a naïve magical worldview.
On the other hand, it’s hard to find scientific evidence for propositions that have never been tested. And there are few in the scientific community willing to risk their careers and reputations to investigate “fringe” topics. It’s at least conceivable that properly designed studies focused on limited and well-articulated propositions related to thought and reality could lend support to holistic views that do not starkly separate thought and reality.
For example, you might imagine a simple test of the power of visualization exercises. Students could be asked to perform a visualization exercise prior to taking a standard test of competency, and the impact of the visualization could be calculated based on the student’s performance. That’s not far-out woo-woo parapsychological research; it’s common sense investigation of psychology and education.
The article “Gender Is Dead! Long Live Gender!” on the NPR website last week looks at relevant research described in Cordelia Fine’s new book Delusions of Gender. While I haven’t yet read Fine’s book, I’m intrigued by the studies she describes and how they seem to shed much light into the relationship between language, thought, self, and behavior.
NPR’s Alve Noe describes a few examples from Fine’s book. First, this one about the impact of visualizing one’s gender:
Conjure before your mind the image of a physics professor. Imagine what his life is like. Now pretend, for a few moments, that you are that person. Try to get a feel for what it is like to be him.
Now let’s start anew. This time think of a cheerleader. Picture her; imagine what her life is like. Now pretend to be her. Imagine what it is like to be her.
When psychologist Adam Galinksy and his collaborator at Northwestern University asked subjects to carry out this sort of exercise, they made a startling finding. After the exercise, subjects were asked to characterize themselves. Those individuals who had imaginatively adopted the perspective of the professor were more likely to describe themselves as clever than those who had been assigned the cheerleader persona. And those who had adopted the cheerleader perspective, were correspondingly more likely to describe themselves as gorgeous.
But that’s not all. The exercise had actual effects on how people performed on tests. Those who had identified with the professor performed better on tests of analytic intelligence than those who had identified with the cheerleader!
A second study (one by Matthew S. McGlone and Joshua Aronson) reached similar conclusions, but with an even more subtle research question:
Students at a private college were asked to perform a spatial reasoning task. Before the test one group of students filled out a form on which they were asked to report their gender. The other group was not asked this question but was instead asked to name their university. In this way, one group was “primed” to consider themselves in the light of gender identity, whereas the other was primed to think of themselves under the category “private college student.”
Men primed to think of their gender showed a marked improvement in performance over men who were primed to think of themselves as students at a private college. Exactly the opposite was observed in women. Women primed to consider their status as students at a private college significantly outperformed women who’d been primed to think of themselves as women.
It is as if the mere questions ? male? female? student? ? by reminding the students what kind of person they are, determined how well they could perform on the test.
There is much more that we don’t know about the connection between language, thought, and reality than we do know. And what investigators are beginning to discover when they take a close look is that the world operates at a far more interdependent and interrelated way than most modern thinkers assume.
My predisposition is these matters is similar to that of the Dalai Lama who said, “I am open to the guidance of synchronicity, and do not let expectations hinder my path.” When a connection between a word (like cheerleader or professor) and self-image and behavior appears — especially if it’s a link unexpected by the rational mind — I am inclined to believe that this fact is worthy of receiving greater awareness.
Some see this pursuit as stepping down the road to magic and the occult, but Beyond Language will not be embarrassed to track where evidence leads, speculate a little in cautious ways, and not get hung up on the appearance of sailing off the cliff of rational thought. I have a few surprises planned for readers of this blog, and I’m sure I’ll be surprised many times.
Now, sit back and relax. Think of being a regular reader of Beyond Language and telling all your friends about this blog. Pretend you are adding links to this blog from your own websites. Get a feel for pushing the boundaries of consciousness into new areas of awareness…