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After returning from a year-long hiatus to the United Kingdom and continental Europe, I thought it would be prudent to share my experiences. Having caught the travel bug several years ago when visiting the UK for the first time, a year long overseas working holiday seemed like a dream come true. What I didn’t envisage was the effects of this experience on cognitions, specifically, the feelings of displacement, disorientation and dissatisfaction. In this article I aim to examine the effects of a changing environment on the human perceptual experience, as it relates to overseas, out-group exposure and the psychological mechanisms underlying these cognitive fluctuations.

It seems that the human need to belong runs deeper than most would care to admit. Having discounted any possibility of ‘homesickness’ prior to arrival in the UK, I was surprised to find myself unwittingly (or perhaps conforming to unconscious social expectation – but we aren’t psychoanalysts here!) experiencing the characteristic symptomatology of overall depression, including sub-signs of negative affect, longing for a return home and feelings concurrent with social ostracism. This struck me as odd, in that if one is aware of an impending event, surely this awareness predisposes one to a lesser effect simply through mental preparation and conscious deflection of the expected symptoms. The fact that negative feelings were still experienced despite such awareness causes an alternative etiology for the phenomenon of homesickness. Indeed, it offers a unique insight into the human condition; at a superficial level our dependency on consistency and familiarity, and at a deeper, more fundamental level, a possible interpretation of underlying cognitive processes involved in making sense of the world and responding to stimuli.

Taken at face value, a change in an individual’s usual physical and social environment displays the human reliance on group stability. From an evolutionary perspective, the prospect of travel to new and unfamiliar territories (and potential groups of other humans) is a altogether risky affair. On the one hand, the individual (or group) could possibly face death or injury through anthropogenic means or from the physical environment. On the other hand, a lack of change reduces stimulation genetically (through interbreeding with biologically related group members), cognitively (reduced problem solving, mental stagnation once initial challenges relating to the environment are overcome) and socially (exposure to familiar sights and sounds reduces the capacity for growth in language and, ipsofacto, culture). In addition, the reduction of physical resources through consumption and degradation of the land via over-farming (hunting) is another reason for moving beyond the confines of what is safe and comfortable. As the need for biological sustenance outranks all other human requirements (according to Maslow’s hierarchy), inductively it seems plausible that this could be the main motivating factor why human groups migrate and risk everything for the sake of exploring the unconquered territories of terra incognito. 

The mere fact that we do, and have (as shown throughout history) uprooted our familiar ties and trundled off in search of a better existence seems to make the aforementioned argument a moot point. It is not something to be debated, it is merely something that humans just do. Evolution favours travel, with the potential benefits outweighing the risks by far. The promise of greener pastures on the other side is almost enough to guarantee success. The cognitive stimulation such travel brings may also improve the future chances of success in this operation through learnt experiences and the conquering of challenges, as facilitated by human ingenuity.

But what of the social considerations when travelling? Are our out-group prejudices so intense that the very notion of travel to unchartered waters causes waves of anxiety? Are we fearing the unknown, our ability to adapt and integrate or the possibility that we may not make it out alive and survive to propagate our genes? Is personality a factor in predicting an individual’s performance (in terms of adaptation to the new environment, integration with a new group and success at forging new relationships)? From personal experience, perhaps a combination of all these factors and more.

We can begin to piece together a rough working model of travel and its effects on an individual’s social and emotional stability/wellbeing. The change in a social and physical environment seems to predict the activation of certain evolutionary survival mechanisms that are mediated by several conditions of the travel undertaken. Such conditions could involve; similarity of the target country to the country of origin (in terms of culture, language, ethnic diversity, political values etc),  social support to the individual (group size when travelling, facilities to make contact with group members left behind), personality characteristics of the individual (impulsive, extroverted vs introverted, attachment style, confidence) and cognitive ability to integrate and adapt (language skills, intelligence, social ability). Thus we have a (predicted) linear relationship whereby an increase in the degree of change (measured on a multitude of variables such as physical characteristics, social aspects, perceptual similarities) from the original environment to the target environment causes a resultant change in the psychological distress of the individual (either increased or decreased dependent upon the characteristics of the mediating variables).

Perceptually, travel also seems to have an effect on the salience and characteristics of the experience. In this instance we have deeper cognitive processes that activate which influence the human sensory experience on a fundamental level. The model employed here is one of stimulus-response, handed down through evolutionary means from a distant ancestor. Direct observation of perceptual distortion while travelling is apparent when visiting a unique location. Personally, I would describe the experience as an increase in arousal to one of hyper-vigilance. Compared to subsequent visits to the same location, the original seems somehow different in a perceptual sense. Colours, smells, sounds and tastes are all vividly unique. Details are stored in memory that are ignored and discounted after the first event. In essence, the second visit to a place seems to change the initial memory. It almost seems like a different place.

While I am unsure as to whether this is experienced by anyone apart from myself, evolutionarily it makes intuitive sense. The automation of a hyper-vigilant mental state would prove invaluable when placed in a new environment. Details spring forth and are accentuated without conscious effort, thus improving the organism’s chances of survival. When applied to modern situations, however, it is not only disorientating, but also very disconcerting (at least in my experience).

Moving back to social aspects of travel, I have found it to be both simultaneously a gift and a curse. Travel has enabled an increased understanding and appreciation of different cultures, ways of life and alternative methods for getting things done. In the same vein, however, it has instilled a distinct feeling of unease and dissatisfaction with things I once held dear. Some things you simply take for granted or fail to take notice of and challenge. In this sense, exposure to other cultures is liberating; especially in Europe where individuality is encouraged (mainly in the UK) and people expect more (resulting in a greater number of opportunities for those that work hard to gain rewards and recognition). The Australian way of life, unfortunately, is one that is intolerant of success and uniqueness. Stereotypical attitudes are abundant, and it is frustrating to know that there is a better way of living out there.

Perhaps this is one of the social benefits of travel; the more group members that do it increases the chances of changing ways of life towards more tolerant and efficient methods. Are we headed towards a world-culture where diversity is replaced with (cultural) conformity? Is this ethically viable or warranted? Could it do more harm than good? It seems to me that there would be some positive aspects for a global conglomerate of culture. Then again, the main attraction of travel lies in the experience of the foreign and unknown. To remove that would be to remove part of the human longing for exploration and a source of cognitive, social and physical stimulation. Perhaps instead we should encourage travel in society’s younger generations, exposing them to such experiences and encouraging internal change based on better ways of doing things. After all, we are the ones that will be running the country someday.

Social aptitude is something that is often at the forefront of my mind. Not because I am particularly interested in the topic, but rather I worry about the perceptions others hold, whether I am ‘performing’ socially at an adequate level and where the next social challenge will come from. But where do these fears and observations stem from? Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places social interaction (the need to belong) as a fundamental requirement of human nature. Evolutionary psychologists correlate brain size with group size and through a process of ‘social grooming’, the development of bigger brains (as more individuals are engaged) becomes a necessary evolutionary requirement if the individual is to remain competitive. Linguists, philosophers and evolutionary psychologists all theorise that the growth of language arose from the need for efficient communication in large social groups. According to the philosopher Daniel Dennet, the use of primitive ‘warning-call’ languages that used a single word for each unique event (high pitched cry = lion approaching) quickly exhausted the minds of our ancestors, thus encouraging the development of a versatile language where words can take on multiple meanings and be used interchangeably in syntactically acceptable ways.

The conclusive intersection reached by all of these variations on our social heritage seems to suggest that social interaction is a fundamental need of humanity. The questions I intend to explore in this article include; what does this conclusion mean for day to day life and where did it come from, should we be worried about how we are performing socially (and how others perform) and finally, is such a reliance on social exchange wise in a society that is moving away from such contact, at least in the traditional sense (replacing face-to-face interactions with those of a purely distant, digital form).

The origins of our social nature might lie in ancient survival techniques. We are relatively vulnerable creatures, and following our descent from the trees, became even more so. Mad dashes between the relative safety of foliage could have acted as the first catalyst for communal behaviour. Warning calls and proto-language enabled groups to share the task of vigilance, while at the same time, allowed some individuals to exploit the warning system, using it to cheat others out of food (faking danger to eliminate competition). This actually occurs in the real-world with primates. Anexample I can only dimly recall from an Evolutionary Psychology lecture goes a little something like this. A specific species of primate (a type of monkey I believe) can be observed in the wild to fake the warning calls that signal a predator is on the way. This eliminates other group members from the newly spotted food source and allows the faker to steal it from under their noses. What is more astounding is that upon seeing this obvious deception, the remaining group members will attack the faker and beat them to within an inch of their life! Thus the raw ingredients for human social characteristics (in a psychologically comparative sense), such as deception and basic morality/punishment of wrongdoers seem to have their roots in dynamics that govern large groupings of animals.

Questions that still linger on the horizon are 1) why aren’t there species at various stages of cognitive/social evolution (providing us with irrefutable proof of the missing human/primate link) and 2) what made us (or more specifically, our ancestors that diverged from the chimp lineage) so different to all other species; what acted as the catalyst for change that prompted the development of bigger brains and society? The answer to 1) is easy, we killed them. Neanderthals and earlier sub-species (Australopithecus) , whether due to climate change, competition with homo sapiens or simply poor genes that weren’t as catered towards adaptability as ours, were all wiped out. It is interesting to note that Neanderthals’ brain size was larger than that of modern humans, possibly (though not necessarily) indicating higher intelligence, although perhaps their brains were organised in a different or less efficient way (or perhaps they were less war-like and bloodthirsty than us!).

The second question of our uniqueness is a little tougher to explain. I believe that the combination of random genetic mutation, physical traits and environmental change all acted as evolutionary momentum towards the creation of language and society. An analogy using the imagery of mountains and channels of water aptly describes this evolutionary process. Pressures on a species to change/adapt, whether they be environmental or genetic, combine to create a large peak; the height of the peak is determined by the urgency of the change. For example, the sudden onset of a new ice age combined with a hairless body would cause the formation of a large peak as the organism would thus be genetically selecting (through evolution) for offspring that could survive the change (warm coats of fur is one solution). Like a flowing river, evolution follows the easiest path downhill to its ultimate destination. Again, in analogy to a river, external influence can alter its course or slow its speed, sometimes with drastic results (an evolutionary dead end and extinction of the species). So quite possibly, the combination of our differing physical traits (homo sapiens were taller and acquired less muscle mass than the stocky, well-built Neanderthals) combined with some sort of environmental change (climate change or elimination of a primary food source – homo sapiens were omnivores whilst Neanderthals were thought to rely solely on meat) gave our species the evolutionary push down the mountain slope that outpaced that of our competition.

The creation of society and language is even more uncertain. The main problem is deciding whether language was a gradual process or emerged ‘all at once’. But again I digress. We now have enough background knowledge to proceed with a discussion on modern social traits and what they mean for everyday interaction.

Owing to a long history of evolutionary pressure to establish pro-social traits in the human psyche, we consequently now have many autonomously and automatically operating processes that operate on a sub-conscious level. Conscious thought patterns are prone to error, therefore creating the need for these processes to occur unconsciously and without our awareness. The nature of humanity, with the majority acting as intrinsically ‘good’ and moral beings and a minority acting in their own self interest, caused the formation and detail to most of these processes. On one hand, we require co-operative patterns of interaction, with pro-social attitudes such as conflict resolution (because fighting is alot riskier than talking) and the fair division of resources. On the other hand we also require a defense (and capability to commit it ourselves) against deception. A fine balance has to occur between knowing when to take more than you need and sharing out for the greater good. In a society where all are treated as equal, communal behaviour rules. But like any evolutionary system, occasionally ‘cheaters’ will enter the fray. Those that evolve patterns of behaviour and thinking that seek to take more and gorge themselves at the expense of others. A society full of such organisms is prone to failure, therefore the natural solution is to limit the number of such agents. Perhaps this formed the basis for language and self-actualisation; a defensive mechanism invented by communal individuals to defend against cheaters and test the sincerity of other communals.

So from a purely animalistic perspective, yes we should be worried about our social performance. As most of this behaviour is rooted in unconscious processes that are often beyond our control (at least if we aren’t aware that they are occurring), other individuals will unknowingly be testing each other at each interaction. At first thought this seems paralysingly frightening. Every interaction is a test, a mental duel, a theatrical performance with both agents vying for supremacy. Unconsciously we begin to form impressions based upon animal urges (are they sexually attractive, are they a cheater or a communal, are they a threat to my power) and often such stereotyping and categorising brings out the worst in human behaviour.

More forward, as most of social interaction is based upon unconscious processes that stem from millenia of evolution, is it wise for us to proceed ‘as planned’ without challenging the ways in which we exchange information with other people? Especially in a society that is moving quickly towards one that favours anonymity and deception as a way of life. The internet and information revolution has prompted a change in the way we conduct social interactions. The elimination of non-verbal communication and direct observation of physical features during socialisation is good in the sense that our animal evolutionary processes are being stunted, but bad in that this newfound anonymity makes it easier for the deviants of society to hide behind a digital veil. The world has, without a doubt, become increasingly more social as the internet revolution reaches full intensity, however is this at the expense of meaningful and truthful social interaction? On the digital savannah, truth flies out the window as the insecure and otherwise socially inept have a vast arsenal with which to present themselves in a more favourable light. Avatars replace face-to-face communication forcing people to exist in a pseudo-reality where one can take on any attributes they desire.

Is the new path of social interaction leading us to an increase in cognitive development or stunting our growth and forcing us back hundreds of years in social evolution? The jury is still out, however it is without a doubt that social situations are still highly valued exchanges between individuals. This makes them none-the-less scary, especially for those individuals that have a tendency to bring the unconscious to the forefront of their minds (myself included). Performing such an act is paralysing, as the frontal lobes take over the task that is usually dealt with on an unconscious level. Each word is evaluated for its social merit, the mind constantly simulating the reactions of others and hypothetically testing each sentence to ensure it makes sense. It is only through a relaxation of this monitoring process and a relapse towards the unconscious that conversation flows and the individual is socially effective. But as we have seen, these unconscious processes are steeped in ancient and primitive principles that have little use for a future society that aims to be inclusive, intellectualised and transcendent. However, one thing is certain. The full extent of the changes that sociology is currently experiencing must be monitored to determine if they are accentuating dysfunction or more positively, changing our evolutionary course away from animalistic urges and towards genuine social interactions that value the input of both members without and subtle undertones and jockeying for higher authority.