Conversation 1: Language creates Conflict

Your Mind’s Evolution

Listen to this section as audio, or read below.

Your Mind’s Evolution – a recording of Julian McNally (5:31 min)

(“Your Mind’s Evolution” by RMIT Counselling and Psychological Services, Six ACT* Conversations, RMIT University is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

So what does this have to do with improving my academic performance, or making me more successful at relationships, or balancing study, work and the rest of my life?

Remember the barrier you identified earlier. Have you ever found yourself having thoughts about that barrier? Did having those thoughts get rid of or fix the barrier? Or after all the thoughts were you still stuck with the barrier?

As you had those thoughts about the barrier, did you also have thoughts about how if you could just think the right thoughts, or smarter thoughts, or more creative thoughts, then you could solve the problem?

Has it been the case with this barrier or others like it, that the more thoughts you had, the further it seemed you got from a solution? That doesn’t make sense, does it? Usually if you think long enough, hard enough or smart enough about a problem, you can solve it.

Exercise 3: Thinking as a Tool

As an example of that kind of problem, stop reading and try this brain-teaser.
A black and white photo of a man thinking with his hand over his mouth.
Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Whether or not you solved that problem, you probably went through a process of making images of people’s names, matched with hair or clothing colours, then comparing these ‘composites’ to the information provided and checking that they matched that information. Or, you may have, as I had to do, written down a matrix of names, hair and dress colours and replaced one or other of the names or colours until the combinations matched the information provided.

What you did was try something and if it didn’t work, you kept trying other things until it did work. So why isn’t that working with your barrier? To explain why this is so, we need to do a detour into the evolution of the human species and its mind.

When you compare human beings to every other species on the planet, it’s hard not to conclude that in the game of surviving and flourishing we are the champions. One hundred thousand years ago, it is estimated there were fewer than one million human beings on the planet, perhaps as few as 10,000. We reached our first billion individuals in 1804 CE, and our population now stands at almost 8 billion. No other species has achieved that kind of growth sustained over such a long period.

Usually, through natural selection, a species develops a new technology for defence, reproduction or feeding and then displaces competing species. Then its population will increase until it fills its environmental ‘niche’. At that point its numbers will stabilise until another more efficient species displaces it. That has not happened with humans however. The rate of increase of our population has accelerated consistently over the past 100,000 years. I am not saying that is necessarily a good thing. But even if we fill our environmental ‘niche’, planet Earth, that isn’t necessarily the end of the story for humans.

We’ve already shown that we can live in the polar regions, underwater, and with some limits, in space. So it’s conceivable that we could travel to other planets and live on them or even build artificial planets to live on. And we may have to if we don’t look after this one. Other organisms will only be living on those planets if we take them with us. So what is the survival technology that separates us so starkly from these other species? It’s the same tool I asked you to employ in solving the ‘kindergarten’ brainteaser – cognition or thinking, and language.

Early human beings could use language to communicate, for instance, that a tiger was nearby, that a particular fruit was poisonous or that they could catch game more easily by setting a trap. With thought and language together they could plan how to build a trap to catch the game or a fence to protect everyone in the tribe from the tiger. With the additional linguistic technology of writing or symbols they could even place a warning on the path near where the trap was hidden so that anyone coming by would not be harmed. This refinement to language meant you not only didn’t have to see the trap being built to know where it was, you didn’t even have to know the person who had built the trap to be protected by them. Not so lucky for the tiger or deer caught in the trap – they either missed out on lunch or became lunch, unlike the humans.

Once we started working together in these ways to ensure each other’s survival, comfort and safety, we then had to apply our linguistic technology to social relationships. After all it was through establishing and maintaining those relationships that we were able to develop and build ingenious survival tools like game traps and protective fences. What this has meant for human beings is that, compared to other species, we have become very attentive to and skilful at interpreting subtle emotional cues such as changes in body language, eye gaze, facial expressions, tone of voice and so on. So far so good. By harnessing our linguistic, cognitive and social technologies, we can find food and water, protect ourselves from predators and weather, even pass on useful knowledge to each other such as the medicinal or toxic qualities of specific plants.

Where’s the problem then?


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