How Do You Make Meaning?
Posted on November 1, 2012
When you want to convince someone, you can make an argument or you can tell a story. Which path do you choose? If you argue, you focus on logic, truth, coherence. If you tell a story, on the other hand, you aim at emotional connection, imagination, and verisimilitude. Analysis for argument, drama for story.
You can test your argument against the rules of reason and empiricism. Arguments are right or wrong, logical or illogical. Stories don’t work that way. We don’t test stories in the same way. Instead, we connect emotionally to narrative, to the unfolding particulars of the character, the conflict, and the theme. This is not to say that stories can’t convey powerful, revelatory truths. The best ones usually do. But that’s not why stories appeal to us, at least not primarily why. Stories, unlike arguments, appeal to us because they create meaning, and meaning is what renders us human.
So, how do stories create this meaning? Where does meaning come from? Through language, naturally, if not entirely. We use words to tell a story. Fine, you say, but this only pushes the question further back: how then do words make meaning? Here, again, we must further refine our question, the end of the regress: how do our minds make meaning?
Recent cognitive science and linguistic research suggests that our minds make meaning through embodied simulations. When we hear or read the words of a story, those words trigger the parts of our brains usually reserved for action and perception. That’s right, words create simulations in our minds using the same parts of the brain we use for directly interacting with the world, such as eating, grabbing, running, hugging . . .
Meaning, then, is not simply a matter of definitions, as many of us dictionary-lovers previously believed. Rather, according to the embodiment theory, our brains construct meanings through the same mental networks that allow us to see, hear, feel and act in the world. We come to understand language by automatically, subconsciously simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things described.
This insight may not seem all that revelatory until we consider the implications. George Lakoff says it best in his introduction to Louder Than Words – The New Science of How The Mind Makes Meaning:
“Every thought we have or can have, every goal we set, every decision or judgment we make, every idea we communicate makes use of the same embodied system we use to perceive, act, and feel. None of it is abstract in any way. Not moral systems. Not political ideologies. Not mathematics or scientific theories. And not language.”
In other words, meaning is not about abstract definitions. It is about our experience in the world. And because meaning is about our experience – our specific actions and perceptions – it is intrinsically personal to each of us. Moreover, these personal meanings are changeable and constructive, not stable and fixed. So, to answer this blog entry’s titular question, meaning is something you construct in your mind based on your own experiences.
Which brings us full circle, back to the choice between story and argument with which we began. Do you argue or tell a story? What once appeared a live choice between two alternatives now reveals itself to be a rhetorical question. Of course, you tell a story, as you must, as only you can, as you create meaning for yourself and others.