Anyone who has tried to write any sort of sustained argument has surely suffered the burn of the brain’s betrayal – the moment when the words simply stop making sense on the page. As a graduate student interested in the executive functions of language I’m no stranger to this feeling (writing this short blog post will probably take me all day; the research proposal I’m writing is nearly killing me) but I also wonder why my brain feels so addled and achy.
As I’m learning, the answer to such questions is never simple.
Andy Clark’s (1997) analogy of the mangrove forest offers a compelling explanation.
A mangrove tree grows from a floating seed that roots itself in the shallow mud flats of a body of water. The seed sends out a complex web of roots that, as Clark notes, culminates in what looks like “a small tree posing on stilts” (p.208). Over time the web of roots traps debris floating through the water and eventually, where once there was only a tree on stilts, an island grows. Usually, trees need soil to grow but in the case of the mangrove, the tree itself creates the soil by trapping it over time. Clark uses the “mangrove effect” to think about language and thought.
Conventionally, we suppose that words are rooted in the soil of thought and yet, as the mangrove tree shows us, sometimes, it’s the other way around. Language, itself may create thoughts. In fact, Clark argues that language is a tool that has evolved to scaffold the generation of new, and complex ideas. Like other tools, we use language to accomplish what we cannot accomplish without them and this, of course, takes effort.
Where complex written arguments are concerned, Clark notes, “By writing down our ideas, we generate a trace in a format that opens up a range of new possibilities. We can then inspect and reinspect the same ideas, coming at them from many different angles and in many different frames of mind. We can hold the original ideas steady so that we may judge them, and safely experiment with subtle alterations. We can store them in ways that allow us to compare and combine them with other complex ideas in ways that would quickly defeat the unaugmented imagination. In these ways […] the real properties of physical text transform the space of possible thoughts.” (p.208)
Maybe the pain and disorientation of writing complex thoughts is just my interpretation of what Clark calls the “transformation of the space of possible thought.” Writer’s block may be the cost of growing a mangrove tree that wasn’t there before.
Clark, A. (1997). Being there: Putting brain, body and world together again. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Mangrove Tree photo from: http://jkseward.com/Mangrove%20Tree.jpg