"Thoughts have no language."
This profound-sounding wisdom was put forward by Swedish psychic Jörgen "Cry Baby" Gustafsson on a TV-show aired 28th of February. It was in answer to host Alexandra Pascalidou's question if Gustafsson would be able to convey a message from her much loved departed Greek grandmother who never uttered a word of Swedish. But according to Gustafsson it doesn't matter if the spirit spoke Mandarin or Swahili in this life, the post-life communication is done with imagery. So when the dead speak to Gustafsson they do so by showing images that he interprets. This explanation is very convenient as it opens up a cultural and language independent market for every psychic and at the same time suggests why psychic statements are so vague and dim. By freeing thinking from the shackles of language, psychic omnipotence emerges.
Do thoughts really lack language? Well, most of us have experienced the occasional inability to find the words for some thought and people who have suffered a stroke may experience how their thoughts are turned into gibberish as they try to speak, due to some degree of brain damage or malfunction. And we obviously don’t need to speak words to be able to think so maybe it is justified that an aphorism such as “thoughts have no language” is taking root in New Age lingo?
No, it is not. If we move beyond the intellectual boundaries of the likes of psychic Gustafsson, we find that language in fact is essential to our thoughts and ability to think (Kowalski & Westen, 2005). True, we think in images as well as in words; our thoughts often rely on visual representations of some kind. But it is our ability to think in words that pretty much makes us human. Tattersall notes:
“Language is, indeed, the ultimate symbolic mental function, and it is virtually impossible to conceive of thought as we know it in its absence. For words, it is fair to say, function as the units of human thought, at least as we are aware of it.” (Tattersall, 2006)
Since words often are symbols of objects and phenomena that are absent, it is speech and language that enables us to intellectually move beyond the immediate perceptual field. This ability is one of the things that separate us from other species (Crain, 2005). Words are also necessary to capture concepts that are impossible to visualize. What image would you use to explain the concept of “democracy”, to account for your holiday plans this summer, to describe what you think of the latest Outkast album or explain a solution to a math problem?
Even if we restrict ourselves to the context of Gustafsson’s psychic performances, we find phenomena that would be hard or impossible to communicate through images. When I recorded a séance with Gustafsson a couple of years ago, he allegedly channeled, for instance, how a departed woman was someone who didn’t let herself be pushed around in her lifetime. How was that shown by imagery? Or that the woman was energetic? Or that she was ignorant regarding her own illness? And how was the different opinions supposedly held by the woman’s relatives conveyed through images? And why did Gustafsson, all through the séance, refer to the information being passed on to him from the other side in terms of “she is saying to me”, “he tells me”, “I hear”, “she is talking about”, and so on? If an alleged spirit had shown Gustafsson images, shouldn’t he be using expressions such as “she is showing me”, “I see”, etc?
Of course he should, but Gustafsson is a money-grabber, a parasite that feeds off people’s emotional needs by means of deception and psychological trickery. He will say anything to get away with what he is doing. At the séance he hear words, the spirits are talking to him. In the TV studio he would understand a Greek grandmother because the dead communicates by showing images. One day communication is based on language, the next it isn’t.
Gustafsson makes it up as he goes along. He has learned that as a psychic, he can get away with lies and fraud – no one will do a background check on him, no one will check his claims. Even when he tells the TV hosts that a TV studio really doesn’t provide an ultimate setting for psychic contact and that he needs half an hour in seclusion with one person for it to work, no one asks him how it is possible for him to pull off séances in front of hundreds of people.
Of course thoughts have language - thinking and words are intertwined and inseparable. And just as our language defines us as human beings, it defines us as individuals in many ways. If we were able to communicate with people that have died and passed over to some other form of existence, words would be essential units in that communication as well as it is in communication between the living. And language would be essential to the personalities of the dead to the same degree as it is for the living. To claim anything else is ridiculous. To suggest, as Gustafsson does, that “thoughts have no language” and then perform séances were language obviously is the main ingredient, is deliberate deceit and the only paranormal about it is how he gets away with it.
Crain, W., (2005). Theories of Development. Concepts and Applications (5th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson
Kowalski, R., & Westen, D., (2005). Psychology (4th ed.). Hoboken: Wiley
Tattersall, I., (2006). How we came to be human. Scientific American, 16, (2), pp. 66-73.