“The Desire to be Heard Never Really Goes Away”
This is my thirtieth essay, telling a variety of stories and from them deriving meta-stories. I write about that most fascinating, endearing and enduring subject, me, and what I can think of. I am occasionally surprised and often pleased with what pops into my mind and out of my fingers. I value my thoughts and suffer a disappointment from their loss, so I write my stuff on note cards and printer paper which I index and file. That is my memory system because otherwise those thoughts would be lost. Why are my words and stories valuable? Why do I suffer grief upon their loss? There is an opportunity cost for the time spent writing to save them. I could be doing something more valuable such as making or fixing something. I have plenty of that to do, but I write instead. What is the value of writing, of story telling?
Heinrich von Kleist said “I write because I cannot stop.” Harlan Ellison riffed upon this and wrote that writing “seemed to be a good thing to do at the time.” I write to know who I am, and then to express the temper of my mind. I write because I need and want to. Writing is self-expression and self-realization – the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These are powerful motivations. Valuable stuff indeed. But still, why and wherein the value?
I, and other writers, go another step further and publish my essays. What is publishing but an open-ended attempt at communication, at transferring information from one mind to another. Like excreting pheromones into the wind, I excrete words, broadcasting them to the wind onto the Web to go where they may.
Life communicates. Animals do it, so do plants. Communication is valuable, necessary and instinctive, and built into life and minds. Communication is built into the structure of life itself because plants, and even bacteria, communicate without minds. The value of communication rests upon the necessity of communication and that rests upon the condition of life itself. Life needs to communicate. Life wants to communicate. I need to communicate. I want to communicate. “The desire to be heard never really goes away.”
I have two mental ‘pictures’ in mind that illustrate the value of communication. The first is the behavior of slime molds. They are soil dwelling amoeba and in good times they are free-living individuals. But when times are poor and they are hungry, they emit a metabolic byproduct of hunger, chemical molecules that diffuse through the atmosphere. Here is the interesting part: if that chemical is detected by a nearby hungry slime mold amoeba, it initiates a particular behavior. The waste product leaving one cell is a signal to another cell upon its reception. The recipient cell will move along the chemical gradient toward the emitting cell. The recipient knows ‘toward and away.’ This is intentional or purposeful behavior, if I may stretch those concepts a bit. The result is an aggregation of individual amoeba which become communal and now function as a single body with new physiological and metabolic structures, and enhanced mobility, moving along chemical, heat, and light gradients searching for food. At the extreme, lacking sufficient food, they will form a fruiting body and generate spores which are dispersed as single cells which lie dormant until environmental conditions improve and the spores become amoeba. They reproduce and die and yet live, a life-like death of suspended animation to preserve life.
This is communication and behavior control at the cellular level. Something left one cell, was detected by another cell and made a change therein. Information was transferred from one cell to another and behavior was changed: the recipient amoeba moved up the chemical gradient toward the signaling amoeba. One said “I’m hungry.” The other said “me too. Let’s get together to search for food, and failing that, let’s reproduce and die. Our spores will be our hope for the future.” And so, they gather together to form a body that exhibits behaviors impossible for individual amoeba.
The slime mold story illustrates a function of communication: an enhanced response to changing environments and consequent alteration of behavior to solve a survival and reproductive problem. Signaling and communication appear at the cellular level. Viruses, simple non-cellular biologic agents, do not appear to have inter-virus signaling, but do initiate a variety of cellular signals upon invading a cell. Signaling and communication are fundamental life processes from the cellular level up. This the first ‘why.’
My second mental ‘picture’ is from another complex cellular assembly: humans. It is my brief essay about a road trip:
“I drove north through five hours of California coastal green and gold, rolling hills of sere brown grass in geographical counterpoint to eroded indentations of rivers, and craggy exdentations of headland rock into the ocean. I carried with me the memory of one John, travelling to place his ashes into rest, and carried with me on that doleful journey, the words of another John, himself a traveler.
“Of the first John I can say that he was a good and true friend. We asked no more of each other and that is enough for this life. We hung out together for years, John and I together with Rex, another good and true friend. Our talk was of machines, and tools, and skills, jobs well done and lessons learned.
“Of the other John I can say that I carried with me Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, who travelled our land, and told stories. He too has, in the fullness of his time, travelled to that far land from which no one returns. His words, still with us, ink on paper and memories in print, are of the human condition. He tells of French-Canadian migratory potato harvesters in the fields of northern Maine, how he gathered them together around the table in his pickup truck camper one evening for talk, coffee, and cognac. As the cups were emptied and a silence of appreciation gathered, John felt a triumphant human magic, making of the ten parts ‘…a whole as surely as my arms and legs are part of me, separate and inseparable.’ He had known them for only an hour or two and they had been telling stories to each other.
“I am in awe of the power of his mind, of his expression and evocation, of the temper of his mind. Magic, pure magic, that squiggles on paper could transmit something of his mind into mine, could bring us together although one of us is absent. He was a story teller. His talk was of places and people, of things seen and heard. I fell in love with his words and stories.”
Both the convocation in the truck camper and Steinbeck’s telling of it, transmitted by ink on paper into my mind, were a triumph of communication. The convocation made a social community out of individual minds via the exchange of coffee and cognac, shelter and stories in real time and at first-hand. The book communicated that event between his and my mind – two minds far apart in time and space. Triumphs of communication – social synchrony – bridging the gulf between minds.
“Speech is grooming on the cheap”[note]Robin Dunbar, anthropologist[/note] to which I add: and at a greater distance and less emotional than the touch grooming of those chimpanzees on the African savannah. Communication, like care, is a social glue. Speech is better grooming than writing because it is closer, more immediate and personal, and conveys more information about the state of mind of the sender.
To be a member of a social species I must communicate a wide variety of information about myself, my experiences, and my understanding of myself and my experiences. And conversely, I must receive similar information from other members of my group. Communication glues us together as does grooming. Communication, even in the absence of minds and words, is essential at the biological level of cells and above. The need to be heard and to hear never really goes away. Communication is necessary, useful, valuable, and instinctive. This is the second ‘why.’
There are several communication mediums available to life forms. The most ancient is diffusion of chemicals in water or air – we call it smell. Smell, being ancient, is powerful, but it is limited in bandwidth. While our brain will make a variety of associations with a smell, the chemical itself conveys little information. Vision and sound have larger information bandwidth and are widely used communication mediums. Humans have vastly increased the bandwidth of those two mediums by the discovery that light and sound can transmit meaning by words. Somehow words can form, express, and convey a pattern that matches, or functions similarly, to a pattern in my mind and insert that functionality into your mind by modulating those communication mediums, voice or writing.
A story is a syntactical collocation of those words – a carefully selected set of words in a particular order – containing emotion, motivation, meaning (whatever that is) that is intended to first express those mental states within the conscious mind of the author, and then to transfer those states from their author to another mind to modify the state of that mind including its emotion, motivation, survival rules, behavioral controls and knowledge.
My brain extracts meaning from perception and transliterates it into words in my mind which I wrestle into a syntactical collocation that might, hopefully, enter the mind of a reader, and in the miracle of communication affect that mind, to rewire it to have an experience similar to mine. This is the essence of a social, verbal, story-telling species: transferring meanings, patterns, connections, and insights from one individual to another, influencing or controlling emotion, motivation or behavior and thereby enhancing each other. This is one of the powers of shared knowledge.
But communication, like magnetism, can attract or repel. Later in his road trip, John Steinbeck encountered the other side of communication in the racial segregation in the South. Communication also mediates tribalism, gluing on one hand and pushing away in anger, hate and rejection, cleaving the human species into a mosaic of tribes, on the other. We preferentially move, mentally or physically, along a story gradient, toward or away from something in the story. Stories and signals can move us away from danger and toward food, water and other resources; and toward each other in friendship, or away from each other in enmity. Communication, like magnetism, is bi-directional pulling together or pushing apart, resonating or dissonating in our minds.
Communication expresses the state of mind and body of the source and affects the state of mind and body of the recipient. The power of stories arises from creating, telling, remembering, re-telling and hearing them. They organize our personal and social lives. Stories generate care and tribalism, dominance and submission, competition and cooperation. Stories manipulate minds to be like other members of the group thus gluing us together into the same story ecology. Stories develop within the ambit of the tribe and tribalism thus dividing one tribe from another. Stories are an essential part of our survival behavior.
Communication: The desire to be heard never really goes away and neither does the need for hearing. Communication is one core of a social species.