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Alice in Wonderland and mind bending language

By on March 2, 2015

A couple of days ago I was walking through Central Park, returning to my upper East side home from my office near Penn Station in New York City, when I was asked directions by a group of charming young ladies from Newcastle, England. They were looking for the famous Alice in Wonderland statue which stands near the mirror Pond just north of the 72nd St. cross-park road. Fortunately they were very close to where the statue is, so I took on the role of a tour guide and lead them there.

I was therefore delighted to come across an article by David Robson of the BBC talking about Alice in Wonderland. The book Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, is one of my favorite ever books, and I frequently refer to it to find metaphors for change work. Mr. Robson’s article discusses some links between Alice in Wonderland and the brain, which are quite fascinating.

In this article we will talk about one of those links, mainly the rather peculiar language patterns which are used by the various characters Alice meets in her journey through Wonderland. You see the human brain is set up to understand language from a number of different perspectives. The most obvious of these is that we understand the raw content of what is being said, so for example if your young niece Alice says, “eat-me-banana”, the chances are she is asking for a banana because she wants to eat it (rather than for example asking that she be eaten by a giant banana!). Another of these perspectives relate to the emotional content of what’s been said, which we measure by listening to the tone of the words and sentences. I remember one of my colleagues at work being very upset by and email he had received. I asked him what his problem with the email was, and he said “read the tone!” Obviously there is no tone in emails, but he had convinced himself of the emotional content of the sender and therefore ‘heard’ that tone when he read the email.

There is a third level of meaning which is embedded in spoken or written language, and that is the meaning which is conferred by ‘grammar’. We are using the term ‘grammar’ in a very loose sense to cover all the relationships between the words in the sentence, not simply relationships that we would normally think of as being ‘grammatical’.  The example that Mr. Robson gives is the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ which describes a story that seems to make sense because we can follow the ‘grammar’, even though most of the words (content) are themselves nonsense.

This idea of playing with grammar is the basis for Attention Shifting Coaching (ASC), developed by our friend and teacher John Overdurf. ASC is also the basis for Igor Ledichowski’s Mind Bending Language (MBL). In ASC or MBL, the contents of a client’s statement about their problem is taken and reorganized according to the rules of ASC, which are sufficiently similar to the rules of English for the client to feel like they understand what is being said!

So for example, if your client said that he is afraid of speaking in public when he, “sees the audience looking at me”, you might ask him, “What is everything else they are not looking at, when they’re listening to you?” grammatically the question makes sense, and the client’s brain response to it as if it does make sense. If you actually consider the question in the context of the client’s fear of speaking in public, the question doesn’t make any sense at all, but like Alice your client will respond to you as if it does, and will become confused about the nature of their problem, and therefore open to change.

We don’t have the time here to fully discuss Attention Shifting Coaching or Mind Bending Language, but here’s a link to the BBC article.

BBC – Future – Five things Alice in Wonderland reveals about the brain

It begins in the first chapter, when Alice reads a poem called the Jabberwocky. “Twas brilig, and the slithy toves/ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe…” the poem begins. “It seems very pretty,” Alice says when she had finished it, “but it’s RATHER hard to understand!”

Alice hits the nail on the head: the poem somehow tickles our sense of grammatical correctness even though the words themselves are nonsense. Neuroscientists exploring the machinery of language now regularly use “Jabberwocky sentences” during brain scans, to show that meaning and grammar are processed quite separately in the brain. (Interestingly, other writers have also used such “grammatical nonsense” to great effect. BBC – Future – Five things Alice in Wonderland reveals about the brain

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