Where do my words come from?

Gary asked:

For a while now I can’t work out where, when I’m speaking out loud, the words come from; it seems like magic. The words come out without my knowing where they originate. They seem to emerge out of nowhere, even when I’m having a normal conversation.

When I want to think, I think in English (my only language), and I can comprehend what I’m saying to myself (obviously?). I’ve successfully ‘gagged’ my internal voice and when I do so, I can’t think. I can see pictures and have feelings, but no more. Perhaps like meditation? This is worrying me a little because it feels that ‘I’ am not in control – something is living my life for me and ‘I’ am merely an observer. I’m sure I’m not mad – can you enlighten me?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You are quite right in sensing that you are “not in control”, but the other part (something is living my life) does not follow. Your brain is still your brain-the core of your persona. You need to understand that this organ has to work at speeds which are unimaginable to us and therefore simply inaccessible to consciousness.

But the answer to your question of “Where do the words come from?” is relatively simple. Learning to speak involves amassing words, phrases, adages, synonyms, slang and their semantics in memory, together with pronunciation, idioms, syntax, grammar. This is your resource. It is activated when you speak, your thoughts passing through the speech cortex into the appropriate motor cortices (throat, tongue, lips, jaws, sometimes nose too). But the same rules apply here, as with other faculties of the brain. All this happens so fast that “you” are barely conscious of either thinking or speaking, which is one reason why we often say things we didn’t mean or grab the wrong words. – You should ask yourself how much thinking you do during a rapid-fire debate or argument. Mostly minimal, sometimes none at all. The secret, if I may call it that, lies with your intentions: as long as they are translatable into speech, your cortices will do that work for you.

The crux of this matter is, accordingly, your intentions. The brain and its faculties exist to facilitate them. The speed at which they operate does not exclude you from control or your sense of selfhood. To grasp this, consider anaesthetised people. Their body and brain are still alive and functioning, but for some time they cannot exert their intentionality.

So you’ll also find an answer here to the endless debate about whether we think in or with words. My answer is “no”, because it’s possible only in circumstances of quiet and deliberate concentration. This is the slow train to the goal of finding a good or the best articulation of what you wish to express, which you can then memorise or write down. It is obviously impossible in any animated or excited environment, such as mentioned above. The redeeming factor is that a rich verbal resource makes it easier for the relevant cortices to extract the most suitable means of expression for your verbal intentions.

In sum: “You”, as a person, are always in the driver’s seat. This does not necessarily entail consciousness-no more than you are conscious of the activity of kidneys, liver, pancreas etc. They purr along all by themselves, and only rise into consciousness when something goes wrong. Likewise your brain does all the hard slog of finding the words and phrases you wish to speak in a matter of microseconds, that otherwise you would have no hope of dredging up from your verbal memory.

The real mystery is, of course, caught by the word ‘intention’. We still don’t know what it is, how it works, nor how many of our body processes are entangled in it. So I would risk a variant on Kant’s “Unity of apperceptions” for the proposition that a person is the “Unity of intentional faculties”. Hope this goes some way to answering your question.

One thought on “Where do my words come from?

  1. Speaking is just a special form of acting. We know how to intentionally move our legs and arms and fingers (as dancers, as piano-players etc.), so why not move our tongue intentionally to some effect?

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