The title of this post comes from a song that I learned about while listening to Marshall Rosenberg’s 9-CD Nonviolent Communication training. The song is called “Words are Windows, or they are Walls”. He sings it after relating an anecdote about nuns in a convent: they were stuck on the question of whether or not it would be appropriate for some of the nuns not to wear their traditional clothing, the habit, when they go out into the community.
This past week, I had two separate experiences which brought the song back to me. I would like to share with you what I take as the significance of how words can either be windows—or put differently, words can help us to build bridges—or walls.
The first experience was my finishing the audiobook of “The Hidden Spring” by Mark Solms. It is a fairly technical book, and describes how the author and his collaborator, Karl Friston, believe that consciousness arises naturally as a consequence of a self-representing system developing affect as a core feature of regulating different motivational states.
The second one was a call on Clubhouse offered by the “Compassion in Tech” club. During this call, a senior Google engineer spoke about how he uses metaphorical statements to communicate with other engineers about what psychologists would generally describe as feelings or affect. By using words other than feeling labels directly, he explained that it can be much easier to reach some people.
How does this matter?
In the book I mentioned, Mark Solms explains that a—if not the—fundamental principle of life is the minimization of Free-Energy. Consciousness arises, according to him and Friston, out of the need to holistically balance all primary needs through the experience of affect across the entire organism. For anything to be registered consciously as real and relevant to you, there must be something that it feels like to experience it. Conversely, anything in your mental and cognitive processing that can be handled automatically often does not rise to the level of consciousness. This is particularly true if a given process does not contribute to what you consider relevant to your current or chronic goals, including and up to survival.
Importantly, humans have evolved to the point where we have at our disposal symbolic pointers—words together with a propositional structure (sentences)—that allow us to trigger in others conscious representations of states related to our and their attempts to minimize free-energy. And to speak to another person links our minds up. It allows us to transmit some of our inner experiences to other people which, in turn, create inner experiences in them. Or at the least it allows for the attempt…
One critical problem in all of this is that it necessarily requires subjectivity. To have stable inner states that represent anything outside of your organism, an epistemic cut must be present. Ultimately, we can only ever experience our own inner states. And given that one fundamental function of life is an attempt to reduce the chances of deterioration towards chaos and randomness—which would mean a severe increase in free-energy—we are driven to evaluate any incoming signals and stimuli as either supportive to or disruptive of this effort of self-sustaining activity.
Whenever we communicate directly with others, through words and nonverbal signals, these people cannot help but intuitively evaluate the extent to which what we say is helpful to them. A fundamental barrier towards finding the words that will support us in connecting in a positive way—to send signals that are interpreted as a trustable source of support in this joint free-energy-minimizing effort, so to speak—is that as long as our attention is focused primarily on our own free-energy problem, we have little mental space to spare.
And whenever people find themselves in conflicting situations in which tense experiences are present, a common, cyclical dynamic can set in: people on both sides will experience the other side as hostile, as requiring to exert further effort toward minimization of their own free-energy. This will create an incentive or motivation to act in self-defense. And receiving back signals of that nature will lead the other side to act in a similarly self-defensive way.
In my last post, “Individual vs. Collective Value”, I tried to describe a belief I hold: if we can remain consciously aware that the process which unfolds in ourselves and others is, on a fundamental level, the same—and that it is possible to find a solution which minimizes free-energy for both of us collectively, as a system—then I believe we can accept that any signals we receive to the contrary simply are, in the words of Marshall Rosenberg, tragic attempts to meet needs.
When we choose our words to connect with other people, it can thus be very helpful to know about their background, their context, their attitudes and habits, and to always remain attentive to their responses. In addition, we want to remain aware of the fact that signals representing unpleasant feeling states in others, such as distress, anger, frustration, hatred, etc., are all primary consequences of their internal processes signaling to them (and their environment) that, at least from their perspective, things are not going well.
That, to me, is the meaning of successfully employing empathy: the ability to correctly identify a path towards signaling to other people that whatever their true need is can be understood, and that understanding their need is a source of support in their attempts to minimize their free-energy. I will explore this theme in another blog post soon.