Communication and Comprehension

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.   -Albert Einstein

The above is a quote commonly attributed to Einstein. Like many quotations, it’s challenging to find a primary source to reference. However, I’m really more interested in the line itself, the fact that many people seem to respect it, and the underlying assumptions that go along with it. A friend of mine recently mentioned the quote to me; it got some part of my brain bubbling over it, and eventually I realized that I was having thoughts and feels about it. So, of course, I share those thoughts with you now. I’m a blogger, what else would I do?

First of all, it bugs me. It took me a while to process and figure out why it bugged me, but bug me it did. Eventually, though, I realized something. This quote is based on the idea that there is a direct correlation between one’s ability to communicate, and one’s ability to think or understand.

Oh dear.

I’m going to start with words. While the attitude is slowly changing in some corners, there is still a strong idea that words are required in order to think – and, by extension, to understand. It’s an assumption perpetuated by word-thinkers (who happen to be fairly dominant in society), who have apparently decided that since they think in words, everyone must think in words. And since they cannot envision a method of thinking that does not involve words, clearly all thoughts are word-thoughts.

So if we extend it just a bit more, maybe the idea is that if we have a thought, and it is in the form of words because all thoughts are words, then all that is required to communicate that thought is to simply say those words. For all I know, this method works really well for people who think primarily (or exclusively) in words. Since I only occasionally think in words, I wouldn’t know.

When the idea for this blog topic bubbled out of the recesses of my brainspace, I tried to share it with Nee. I didn’t have anything to write it down with at the time and I didn’t want to forget, so I was hoping getting it into two brains would make it easier to remember. The idea seemed pretty clear in my head. I had a pretty good idea of what I believed, what I wanted to say, and a rough outline of how I wanted to say it. Actually verbalizing it, though, was rough. Like whoa. I stumbled over my words, had lots of partial sentences, and was having a really hard time getting the concept out in a word way. Why? Because the thoughts were not in word form in my head. I was needing to translate them from their conceptual form into talking form, and quite frankly, I’m not very good at that. This occurred only a few hours ago (from the time of writing this) so I don’t think it’s that I didn’t really understand it before and just had a lot of time to clarify the thought. It’s that the thought was not in word form, so saying it out loud was not working very well. Also, my brain has trouble with that sometimes.

Now, for me this is only an inconvenience. I write fairly easily, and given time I can usually work out words in talking form too. However, not everyone is verbal. Not everyone can speak, and not everyone can communicate in words at all. If we assume that thoughts must be in the form of words, and if we are faced with a person who has no words, then the only logical conclusion is that they also have no thoughts.

That is a terrible conclusion.

Those who speak already have significant privilege over those who do not speak. Our response to that privilege should not be turning it into a way to deny the intelligence of those who do not speak or do not have words. Happily, there is more and more attention being paid to examples of people who did not have words for some portion of their lives, eventually found words, and have then been able to tell the world that yes, thoughts existed before words. A particularly famous example is Temple Grandin, and her explanation of how she thinks in pictures. More and more people are speaking out about having thoughts that are not in the form of words. Just because I sometimes have difficulty translating my thoughts into words, that does not mean those thoughts are any less real than someone else’s word-thoughts.

Speaking of which, this is not just about words. This is about communication, and means of communication, and the fact that some of us have limited communication. Not everyone on the autism spectrum speaks. Not everyone on the autism spectrum types. Some people can only communicate via picture boards or electronic devices that help to communicate basic needs and such things. Sometimes a person’s ability to communicate is very limited, for instance, a person who communicates with a picture board would probably be unable to communicate some types of thoughts and concepts. Assuming that a person’s ability to communicate directly reflects their ability to understand an idea or a concept is to say that these people never have thoughts beyond “I’m hungry” or “I need to use the bathroom” or whatever is possible using whatever communication devices that have been provided. This is not an ok thing to assume. Frequently, it is not an accurate thing to assume. This is why we push to presume confidence. This is (one of the reasons) why I talk about how what you see on the outside does not necessarily reflect what is happening on the inside.

These assumptions are harmful. Casually tossing around such quotes as though the reflect some constant truth is harmful. Intended or not, it’s ablist. I want to see people approach these assumptions more thoughtfully, with more care about what’s implied, and the impact it might have on people who have more severe disabilities.

Because thoughts are not always words. And our ability to communicate our thoughts does not necessarily reflect on our level of comprehension.


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2 responses to “Communication and Comprehension

  1. Ross

    Excellent article.

    I can relate to this a lot, as I don’t think in words, in fact I generally think in what I guess you could call ‘pictures’. It’s not an exact description but ironically, I lack the right words to describe it. Most of my thoughts happen in this manner and my brain works at 100% 24/7, never slowing, never pausing, just constantly cycling through thoughts and processing them. Some are stored for later, sometimes I figure something out that I thought of months ago, sometimes I plan for conversations that may arise etc.

    However, when it comes to speaking to somebody, my brain gets flustered. I have to essentially translate my internal thoughts, into words so I can say them aloud to explain to somebody else. I’m slightly ashamed to admit, that on occasion I have ‘played dumb’ and stated that I didn’t know something that I did in fact know well, just because it was going to be too difficult to try and explain it.

    There’s also the flip side of the problem, where when somebody else (an NT for example) speaks to me, I have to then translate what they say as they are speaking into my own thought processes. This causes a sort of ‘communication lag’;
    They speak,
    I translate their words into my system,
    My brain comes up with a response,
    Then I translate that into words,
    Then I vocalise it.

    The best analogy I have seen so far to describe this is it’s like speaking to somebody in a foreign language, all the time.

    It’s wrong to assume that because I can’t speak to somebody aloud very well, I must be stupid. In fact, my brain is very quick and usually several steps ahead of most people in the room, the problem comes with the verbal communication side of things.

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