Language, emotions, and memories

Latvian countryside

So, this was what I promised to write more about. Learning a language teaches you so much more than just words. I learned that in our brain words, memories, and emotions are inextricably linked to each other.

My introduction to a new language

My first time visiting Latvia was two years before we moved there. We spent a month. We both knew we wanted to move there but we also knew it would be wise to give it a test run.

I spent most of that month feeling like I was in my own little world. The friends were so welcoming. They treated us like royalty. But they didn’t speak English or they were embarrassed to try or they purposely didn’t so I would be forced to learn Latvian faster. I kept pestering my husband for translations, but he soon got tired of doing that.

At times I would listen attentively to everything going on around me, making guesses and hoping to piece together something of what was being said. Other times my brain was too fried to even try and I just sat there, letting everything wash over me.

Immersion

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A quaint little train station that I passed every day on my commute to my Latvian class. Photo credit @murmurmuliite

Two years later, we moved there, to the same city we had visited. It felt like coming home. The first few months were quite a blur. I spent every morning going to language class and every afternoon in the ministry practicing what I had learned. I really studied hard. Having such an accelerated course meant I was learning grammar I certainly couldn’t use yet, so it was difficult. But I was so determined to make this place my home that I didn’t mind a bit.

One of the first things we did was attend the biggest event of the summer for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Regional Convention. It’s a three day event, and in a small country like Latvia everyone goes to the same one. It was a great way to start out, because we got to meet a lot of new friends right away.

My conversations were primitive since I hadn’t learned much Latvian yet, though at the time I thought we understood each other quite well despite the language barrier.  The following year at convention I found that I could remember faces of the ones I had met but not names, and nothing at all of our conversations. Pictures, but no words.

I began to realize that our brains use language to help store memories.

The link to emotions

I was amazed to discover that words gradually gain more emotional impact as they become tied to specific memories. For example, my mind knows that the Latvian verb ‘to love’ is mīlēt. But the number of times my brain had connected that word with the feeling of being loved was relatively few. So my brain understood but my heart didn’t. Apparently, if it doesn’t cause an emotional response, the brain files that thought under “not important”.

On the other hand, if someone started using foul language around me or even at me, it didn’t bother me at all. Those words were just a string of sounds with zero emotional meaning.

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Our mysterious brain

I never expected that learning another language would allow me to feel how powerful words are. How they shape our memory of events and our emotional reactions.

There was a big hole in my life when I couldn’t communicate freely. I discovered how very much I need people and interactions and conversations, the exchange of ideas. In English, I prided myself on being able to choose just the right word to express exactly what I meant. Now I was restricted to a basic set of vocabulary. So, in my case, it was desperation that helped me learn.

What should you do? 

Total immersion into Latvian worked for me. It had growing pains. It was a shock to the system. The most agonizing moment was the time I met a sweet older lady who really wanted to know if God cares, why do people suffer. My language capabilities only allowed me to say, “The answer is in the Bible.” After much study and a few months of practice, I was able to return and answer her question, thankfully!

Language and communication are truly a gift. I never understood that as fully as when I learned a new language, full immersion style.

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Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater

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Hoxie House: Photo by Swampyank at en.wikipedia

That saying has been around a long time. Probably because the meaning endures through the ages, in your rush to get rid of waste, don’t lose out on a valuable treasure. During a tour of Hoxie House Museum in Sandwich, MA, I learned an explanation for that phrase that shocked my modern parenting sensibilities.

The house was built around 1675 and has been restored to reflect what it looked like then. I went into the tiny house expecting to have a short, somewhat boring visit, but I was very surprised how interesting the tour was! It gave me a glimpse into the everyday life of the pilgrims. What I remember most was the distinct feeling that if one of them were to come back to life and observe modern parenting and family life, they would think we are crazy.

Vice versa, I could not believe the way children were treated. Thinking about the context of the times, it makes sense, but it is still shocking. We were ushered into a large darkish room with a fireplace at the center. Logically this was the central work area for the women, especially in winter. On the floor next to the hearth was a tiny cradle, and next to that a toddler sized chair with a hole in the seat and a leather belt. The infants were kept in the cradle (which looks doll-sized, too small even for a tiny human) until they started to walk. From the age of 3 until about 5 they sat strapped into their little potty chair because no one could be spared from working to look after them and keep them from getting hurt. Around 5 they were considered capable of doing work under the supervision of an older sibling. When the family ate, the father got the best food, the littlest one the worst, usually the burnt bottom crust on the loaf of bread. When they bathed, once a year in the spring, the hierarchy was the same. The father first in the clean water and the baby last in all the family’s grime. Thus the reference to throwing out the baby. Because the father was the most indispensable to the family’s welfare.

Unbelievable, right? But it made me realize that more has changed in modern parenting than we know. The fundamental way children are viewed has done a 360!

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I sometimes struggle to reconcile the “children should be seen and not heard” of a few generations ago, with the massive guilt a parent is taught to feel for denying their child anything nowadays. I do believe we are not serving our children well by these extreme shifts. Of course children should not be ignored or made to feel less valuable as a person simply because they are young. But unless we teach them that they are not the center of the universe and that they need to respect others, we are setting them and ourselves up for epic failure.

Children need to be specifically taught that their actions affect others. It’s ok to tell them that their whining is ruining your day.  It’s ok to tell them “no” when you really don’t have the patience or the money to take them toy shopping. It won’t break them. But it just might make them kinder, more empathetic people. 

So don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think we have something to learn from previous generations about teaching our children respect. Every human is deserving of being treated with dignity. While treating our kids that way, let’s not forget to teach them to return the favor.

Source: https://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/g201504/child-discipline-that-works/

Time

Is time real? Opinion is divided among physicists on this question. I’m not a scientist but I love science.

I’ve noticed that many scientific ideas are presented to the public while they have yet to be proven. This has definitely been the case with this mind bending question, what is time? When I think about it, my brain almost hurts and I feel as if I’m straddling the borders of science, philosophy, and religion. 

From a physics point of view, time defies categorization. Physicists attempt to explain the universe by breaking down each component into the smallest possible increment, the fundamental measurement, the quantum. (Space and light cause controversy as well. Is light a wave or a particle? How many dimensions does space have?) Time seems to break down into nonexistence after 10 to the -43rd degree. This has led to the possible conclusion that time only exists in our perception. The only reality is now, and time is simply a series of nows that we perceive as past, present, or future.

If I understand this theory correctly that argument disintegrates into an infinite mirror effect. Like when you look at a reflection of yourself looking in the mirror and in that mirror you see yourself looking in the mirror on into infinity. If time doesn’t exist, does physical matter even exist or do objects exist only when we perceive or measure them? From that point of view, this theory of time is also just the perception of the scientists who believe it. When they cease to exist, so will this idea. This logic leads to the belief that nothing is real.  

I wondered, what does the Bible teach about time? Here are a few truths I found:

  1.  God made the heavenly bodies and natural laws that allow humans on earth to perceive the passing of time. He also made our brains with the ability to understand this concept. “Then God said: “Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens to make a division between the day and the night, and they will serve as signs for seasons and for days and years.” Genesis 1:14. So the natural division of a day is created specifically for human inhabitants of earth. Seasons and years also have natural divisions visible on earth. This is not inconsistent with scientific theories that time is relative. A person standing on Jupiter would perceive a day and a year much differently. To the Author of the Bible though, the important perspective was that of humans on earth, the intended readers of that book.
  2. Since He Created ‘time’, He stands above it’s constraints. The prophet Daniel wrote, “He changes times and seasons.” Dan.2:21. At Psalm 90:2 it says God is “from everlasting to everlasting”. And verse 4 says a thousand years to him are “as yesterday when it is past”. For him even a thousand years could be just one unbroken time period in which he begins and completes some activity or purpose.
  3. Many verses in the Bible inform humans of the definite time appointments God has set for certain actions toward earth. For example Gal. 4:4 says God sent his son “when the full limit of the time arrived”. Prophecy is an integral part of the Bible, which means that our view of the future is important to God. He wants us to have hope, and so the Bible is full of promises of everlasting life. 

From these points I conclude that God meant us to have a sense of time.

Consciousness and our sense of self depend on experiences and memories, which require the passage of time to accumulate. These things can’t be easily measured or quantified, they often tend to be skewed and illogical, yet they help form who we are. It’s a miracle of life that each human who has ever lived is completely unique.

My question is: does it matter whether time disappears after being broken down into immeasurably tiny increments? In the grand scheme of things does this theory, even if it turns out to be true, change anything about the way we should live our life in order to be successful and happy? I would argue that it doesn’t. If I want to make sense of human history, and my place in it, I need to accept God’s construction of time. 

This doesn’t mean I believe time is a restriction of my free will. I believe the passing of time molds my choices based on my previous experiences and thus develops my exercise of free will into a more rounded out process. Which is another way of saying what the proverbs already say, knowledge and understanding build wisdom. However, true wisdom requires a reverence for the Creator, otherwise how can our choices fit the construction of the universe and fulfill our place in it?

To me, it’s a beautiful thing, the way space, time, energy, matter, and the perceptions of each of us meld to produce the physical world we inhabit. It contains limitless potential for exploration and fuel for the imagination. 

Photo credit: Holly Ziemba

Articles and videos used to research this post:

http://wakingscience.com/2016/02/quantum-physicists-why-time-is-not-real/
https://www.google.com/amp/amp.livescience.com/29081-time-real-illusion-smolin.html#ampshare=http://www.livescience.com/29081-time-real-illusion-smolin.html
https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200001132
https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200000970