On the Stage: How Many Brains?

In his talk at TEDxBerkeley, John Koenig talks about the new words he’s creating to describe emotions that are obscure (but at the same time, universal). For example, the word “sonder” means:

the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

It’s a very cool talk and an even cooler project, but what I want to touch on here is actually a tangent. About halfway through the talk, Koenig says that people often ask him whether these words are real.* He reports that he tried out many different answers to this question, but ultimately decided:

what people are really asking when they’re asking if a word is real, they’re really asking, “Well, how many brains will this give me access to?” Because I think that’s a lot of how we look at language. A word is essentially a key that gets us into certain people’s heads. And if it gets us into one brain, it’s not really worth it, not really worth knowing. Two brains, eh, it depends on who it is. A million brains, OK, now we’re talking. And so a real word is one that gets you access to as many brains as you can. That’s what makes it worth knowing.

As Koenig notes, pretty much everyone around the world knows the word “okay.” And most people who speak English will know the thousand most common words in English. But few people know the meaning of pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis—except perhaps the trivia buffs who know that this is the longest word in a major dictionary, which refers to a specific kind of lung disease caused by the inhalation of ultra-microscopic particles of volcanic dust.

When communicating a technical topic (or really any topic, for that matter) it’s important to make sure that you’re using words that your audience knows—that you’re speaking to them in a common language. By combining words that your audience already knows in novel ways, you can help them unlock new connections in their brains, giving them new insights and knowledge.

Of course, as I note in The Science of Speaking, it can also be beneficial to give your audience some new vocabulary as well, as long as you define it clearly. This is because by doing so, you are giving them additional keys that can unlock even more new insights in the future.

As always, it’s important to find balance—in this case, a balance between using the tools that are available (i.e., words that your audience already knows), and creating new tools that can be used in the future (i.e., new words that will help them learn even more in the future).

* If you want to go further down this rabbit hole of how words get to be words, see the TED talks by Anne Curzan and Erin McKean.