It is hard to imagine not having words for anything at all. It is harder to imagine not having the language systems to give context and meanings to language and words. But, that is often what happens from traumatic brain injury, stroke and other physiological changes to the brain. It is part of it in many, many cases.
When looking for communicative devices and tools to help people with these difficulties, I noticed that most did not approach language as I did when trying to help myself recover from head injury’s effects. Almost all the tools on the market and suggested by neurology rehab groups were, (and still are), predicated on the assumption of basic language skills and systems within the brain being available to process them, context them and provide untold meaning to them. That doesn’t work in some basic sense when those circuits in the brain are damaged.
And, as much as I know circuits in the brain after an injury or stroke can be “rewired” or “retrained” in a sense and relearning can be done to some extent given enough time and efforts, it looks like the primary approach about language by rehab groups is off a little.
For a person who has never had any damage to their brain and their closest experience to that of the difference may have occurred when very sick, very tired or stressed and sick and tired at the same time, it is probably hard to imagine when there are no words, no context, no language, sounds unseparated and no more than a fabric of cacophony.
In that moment, an arrow to show the way to an exit can be as much a roof on a house with a stick under it without any sensible meaning to indicate why it is there. How could such a confusion occur? And, yet – it is the part that is taken for granted which gives an “arrow” any meaning at all – it is the language processing acquired skills AND sets of interactions within the brain which do that. Without those operating, an arrow is no more than an interesting shape without context, without meaning and may or may not even separate itself from surrounding visual, auditory and tactile information, (all of which is incoming simultaneously.)
Visual languages therefore are not a line drawing of an apple to indicate it is an apple. The circuits required to process the assumptions most people have learned to make about that shape and its meaning as an apple and what that is – don’t necessarily fire in a damaged brain’s circuitry. Obviously enough, the brain’s circuits have to fire in specific sequences AND interactions to get all that anyway. Many psychiatric drugs are designed to flood the brain with chemicals to make its circuits fire which unfortunately, in the case of people who have had physiological damage & injury to their brain doesn’t help much, because it all fires at once or those damage neuro-synapses fire indiscriminately or not at all – flooding the entire chemistry with overwash for lack of a better term. It doesn’t fix the brain injury, doesn’t fire the neurons and regions interactively nor in sequential processing that would be as an undamaged normal brain’s circuits would do and neither does it effectively allow other regions of the brain to take over those jobs and be “rewired” and “retrained” to do those new jobs.
Regardless, language areas of the brain are often damaged by brain injury and stroke as well as when other physiological damage occurs especially to areas considered the “left-side” of the brain where many, but not all – language centers are located. Strangely but maybe rightly so, often a person with brain injury has other assets strengthen when those language centers and left-brain processing areas are damaged. And the visual languages are literally based on these, which are commonly right-brain styled thinking and processing skills – though often damage will occur not specifically right or left as if only all of one or the other remain.
In a world where there are no words, sounds are not delineated into wordforms. The indications that a person is speaking, may or may not indicate some sounds are occurring there – literally. Having a word that defines a thing or a context of a thing, or action, or sequence, or time, or concept like “if” – simply isn’t onboard – it isn’t there – when head injury has taken those circuits and deleted them. Under those circumstances, what good is it for someone to hold up an apple and keep saying to me apple, then give to me a little card or indicator on a computer console for apple or show to me holding the apple and taking a bite of it? How, in my world – does that tell me anything? First, I don’t know what you said or where the words started or ended as sounds floating in the air. Second, you’re waving some ball at me with odd spaces and shapes on it that don’t make any sense and why is it red? or is it? And Third, nothing about it indicates to me it would ever be something to eat or put in the mouth – (but note, I would probably choke on it anyway because half my throat has trouble swallowing a lot of times, so I have to be very careful about eating things like bacon, apples, nuts, even cereal that don’t swallow easily.)
So, honestly – on top of everything else, if I were to recognize that apple for what it is – I won’t trust you much after that because obviously you don’t know enough about me or about head injury or stroked to know that damn thing can choke me to death trying to eat it. Really. You just walked over from being a helper to being a very scary and dangerous person as far as I can tell – and you don’t know any better on top of that. Those are survival skills that are quickly relied upon to help me or anyone else who has had brain injury or stroke, especially when that has occurred after old enough in childhood to know anything about others. Visual language clues give me data points – that is all. It doesn’t mean they will be processed, nor does it mean they will be processed accurately or in ways you would assume they should be. That book of what it “should mean” went out the window when head injury damage occurred. And, that is the truth.
In my world, visual languages helped me for many years and still do. What is hard to express, is how they aren’t based in the same way people know language and words and word precepts and word concepts and sound distinctions of those words. It is probably more closely based upon obvious and observable elements reconstructed into meaningful cognitive interpretations with a more integrated and holistic processing mode. For instance, in visual languages – the page of something can mean something, anything without ever one word meaning anything on that page – even if it is filled with words. It can be placed next to another thing and have context based only on that placement together or in relationship to one another – and maybe only for temporary convenience as a reminder or learning a concept – or as a communication, a permanent note-taking or mnemonic or something learned – or even as a device to extend that information (and consequently communicate) to another.
Let me go get a photo of a space under my desk and it shows one of those in action – I have today, the ability to communicate through writing, words and verbal languages but I still feel more adequate and at ease with the visual languages and those systems I’ve been using to compensate for head injury, so commonly I’m using them around my home and throughout my daily world.
For instance – there is an Encyclopedia Britannica open to two pages with many words but two photos of very beautiful stately rooms in palaces or famous homes – hardly matters what they are as long as they look like home to me – and next to it is a book that is closed – but in close proximity to the other where they are commonly viewed simultaneously together – and it is a book called, Popular Science Mechanical Encyclopedia with its logo on the front looking like gears – a large and a small one whose teeth are fitting together as they turn – and something inside the small one as if a ship has been built and runs as a result of these things. All that conveyed to me – simply to have them sitting near where I’m sitting now and see them together – which also reminds me to get off my dead butt and get some simply wonderful, mechanical whizbang stuff created to make my house into a nicer palace that I like and enjoy and can show off to others too. It also reminds me that I can.