“Not the ones speaking the same language, but the ones sharing the same feeling understand each other.” – Rumi
I remember when emojis first started to emerge, thinking they were a fad. Sure, they were silly little pictures that could be inserted into texts just for fun, or to suggest something we don’t feel comfortable putting into words (I’m looking at you, eggplant emoji!). But nothing more, right?
Well, clearly emojis aren’t just a fad; they’re only growing in popularity. And this is a big deal. The ubiquity of these cute little pictures into our written language point to a new way of communicating. Looked at a little deeper, we can see that emojis, along with GIFs and memes, are a language all their own and indicate an evolution of the Western mind.
But why do we see all these emojis, GIFs and memes substituting for words as language? Obviously, in part, it’s because we now have the technology for them. Part of it, too, is they can say so much more with so much less effort. And it’s not just in terms of ideas, but in terms of the feelings that accompany those ideas.
Undeniably, however, we enjoy emojis, GIFs and memes because they are fun. I’m not all that proficient in their use, but I admit it makes me happy using emojis to add color and texture to my texts, GIFs for a quick (and often powerful) laugh, and memes to cleverly make a point that could not be made with words alone.
These are a new pictorial language. They are using pictures to say things that words cannot say, or cannot be said without using tremendous time and energy, and still not making the point adequately. You just cannot create quite the same impact writing “laugh” or “LOL” instead of using the laugh emoji. That little guy communicates something intangible that words cannot.
This new pictorial language represents a sea change in the way we communicate, and therefore, the way our brains work. The written language most of us have grown up with stimulates, and relies primarily on, the left side of our brains. This is the hemisphere of logic, reasoning, analysis, and detailed thinking. Most of us, when we’re reading or writing, are activating just half of our brains while the right-side lays largely dormant. Only the best writing has the ability to stimulate the right side of our brains, but most of us are not up to the task.
An established means of awakening the right hemisphere of the brain is poetry, where a poet activates and intends to evoke in the reader the feeling part of the brain, and therefore the heart. But who reads poetry these days, or writes it? Poetry requires the time and effort to read and understand left-brain language and then understand it with the right. Compared to the new pictorial language, it’s slow and inefficient, and yes, for many, boring.
This new pictorial language reflects an evolution of Western language and thought. Further establishment of this language through greater usage will lead to further evolution. Imagine the impact growing up with this language will have on those being born right now. Their minds will have developed using this language from the youngest age, and will never see standard written communication as adequate for expressing what language should express. How can they be expected to read a book – so largely from the left side of the brain – when they’ve grown up using both right and left sides while writing and reading? Sad as many of us older folks may interpret this development, the reality is the new generation reads and writes through texting and social media. The language is infused with emojis, GIFs, and memes. No books, no matter how well-written – and “great” by the current standard – will be able to fully capture the imagination within the mind of this new generation of reader, since it will only be evoking half of their minds (and precious little of their hearts).
It’s always tempting for the older generation to devalue the new generation for their straying from the old traditions. I imagine it’s been going on since Adam complained to Abel the new generation just doesn’t appreciate hard work like they used to. Yet this evolution of language and thinking is creating the greatest generation gap we’re ever seen. We’ve reached a point in history where technology is evolving so rapidly that what is new becomes antiquated in a few years at most, not a generation. And language is evolving to keep up. The new generation just doesn’t have the time or focus to use traditional language to communicate anymore. Words alone will not do. So, emojis, GIFs, and memes are crucial for both efficiency (saying more with less time) AND quality of communication (evoking greater emotion and intuition and activating the right-brain in communication).
Language both creates, and is created by, perspective. In other words, what we say and write is a product of the way we think, but they also create the way we think. This perpetual loop is what creates a cultural perspective and understanding of reality.
Western languages are generally constructivist in nature. They start small and build from the bottom up. They take letters, and build words, and build phrases, and build sentences, and build paragraphs. The underlying idea with Western languages – and therefore, Western thinking in the most general sense – is that they build a greater understanding of reality from small concepts to large, and not the other way around.
Compare this to written Eastern languages. Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean are among those comprised of symbolic pictures. With pictures, the mind grasps and automatically understands with a more holistic understanding, and then fills in the details from there. This is a more top-down understanding, or what could be termed as decomposition. It starts with the greater understanding and breaks it down to understand individual components.
I am not Asian, and so cannot speak with authority to how directly Eastern languages correlate to a corresponding Eastern perspective (again, in the most archetypally general sense). However, my understanding of Eastern philosophy is great respect for mindfulness and holism. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism teach us the virtues of wu-wei, patience, and the personal power gained from within quiet mental spaces. Indian yoga (also of the East) does as well. This perspective is intuitive and sensitive to the heart-space.
The point of this West-East comparison is to see that there are two general types of language and ways of understanding (and simultaneously creating) reality. In the most general sense, these two types are illustrated by Western and Eastern languages, and their corresponding cultural perspectives. And these reflect something important about all of us. (and they have a lot to say about the popularity of emojis! I’m returning to that in a moment.)
These two opposite types of language and perspective illustrate in macrocosm what we all have in microcosm: left and right hemispheres of the brain. The left, corresponding to Western language and perspective, is the side of our brains that processes reality using logic, analysis, and the sequential type of reasoning that builds understanding from small to big. It is separated from emotion but efficient and practical. The right brain, on the other hand, processes understanding with intuition, emotion, pattern-recognition, and big picture understanding. This side of the brain is activated – and activates in others – through the use of art, music, and pictures.
If we widen our perspective and use our imaginations a little bit, we can see how the Western World and Eastern World represent opposites in terms of language and corresponding means of processing and understanding reality. And when we look at the two opposing hemispheres in our brains, a similar juxtaposition between the bottom up thinking of the West and top down thinking of the East. In the most general and essential sense, they are the archetypal masculine/yang versus the archetypal feminine/yin.
The use of pictures in written language is nothing new to those in the East. From its very origins, the Eastern perspective is already wired to be more right-brained and intuitive. A crucial development has been occurring for generations now, as students throughout Eastern countries have been learning English and other western languages. During that process, the Eastern perspective has been infused on a grand scale with the Western language, and its corresponding perspective. It has been an integration of West with their native East.
And at the same time – not coincidentally – as the world shrinks and increasing numbers of Easterners learn the Western languages, we are at the point where increasing numbers of Westerners are learning a pictorial language and gaining a greater degree of Eastern perspective. Not largely formal Eastern languages, like Chinese or Japanese, but rather through a newly created and rapidly evolving pictorial language represented by emojis. (and GIFs and memes.)
And so, we see emojis represent something far greater than a fun new way to communicate. They are an indicator of the integration of Eastern perspective into the Western mind. This new pictorial language is both the cause of and result of regular engagement of the right hemisphere in Western written language. This integration is creating – in real time – an evolution in language and thinking.
Thanks to the technology that makes this new pictorial language possible, Western civilization is being freed from its left-brain limitations. We have not had the means of communication through pictures. Artists, musicians, and poets have elicited emotion and intuition through their modes of language, but for the rest of the culture at large, there has been very little. We could try to write a poem or write a song, but these cultural artforms were beyond most people’s ability to even attempt. Now, with these cute little emojis, we are learning to activate the heart-center of our minds, and therefore communicate with greater intuition and greater perspective of ourselves and the worlds around us.
We’ve all heard the axiom a picture is worth a thousand words. What does this actually mean? A picture activates an understanding within our minds that traditional Western language fails to accomplish. We might say that art and music have the ability to communicate what our language cannot. There are too many spaces between language – feelings and concepts where words cannot describe – that art has had exclusive purview over. What words can be used to describe great works of art? Or your favorite song? Western languages (and to a lesser degree, Eastern languages) fail to do them justice.
Think of your favorite emoji. Now write in words the equivalent message you are communicating when you use that emoji. No matter how hard you try, or how many words you use, left-brain language just cannot quite express what the heart wants to say. Artists have been creating and expressing languages of the heart since the beginning of history. And now each of us, in a far more modest way, are expressing a language of the heart through our emojis, GIFs, and memes.
This is fundamentally important because we are seeing the merging of Western language with the intuitive gifts previously reserved for Eastern language. It is the integration, on a global scale, the Western perspective and the Eastern perspective. Individually, within each person who is discovering how fun it is to use emojis, and how surprisingly effective it is for communicating the feelings that words could not, the integration of the left and right brain within.
This means that the Western world is becoming more intuitive, creative, holistic, and heart-centric. If you doubt this, I encourage you to engage with younger people who are more greatly adept at using this new pictorial language. We may be tempted to say they are less intelligent because their language skills often don’t measure up to an old standard. But that old standard is going away, slowly. The new generations are opening passageways in their minds that are largely closed within their parents. Young people are smarter in more intuitive and intangible ways, but have probably not quite realized it yet, and have certainly not been given credit for it either.
Five years ago, I discovered tarot and have spent a lot of time since trying to understand why it was so effective in opening my mind, heart, and allowing me greater access to a deeper truth I never knew before. Picture cards, used for fortune telling? My reasonable and logical way of thinking for 40 years never allowed for the possibilities that tarot had to offer.
Since I’ve discovered tarot, however, I now understand. Pictures are worth at least a thousand words, and often far more. When looking at the archetypal symbols on a tarot card I see intuitively, with heart open, and with far greater perspective.
Not by coincidence, tarot is surging in popularity. There is a clamoring for greater understanding of truth, the kind that cannot be read in any books, but can only be accessed intuitively within. Pictures can do this for us because they engage the right hemisphere of our minds and open our hearts. They allow for the inner knowing we all have within us to emerge into consciousness. This knowing is not available through left-brained logical means. Only by integrating the right side – opening to this other way of understanding the world – can we gain the great knowledge and wisdom that lies deep inside ourselves.
And this is what we’re all doing – just a little bit – every time we use an emoji, GIF, or meme. We are activating the right side of our brains: the fun, creative, and intuitive side. By using this pictorial language over and over again, we are individually integrating the right and left hemispheres of our minds. In doing so, we are gaining greater understanding and power of ourselves.
Imagine a world, very soon from now, where everyone was raised with this pictorial language. They know it deep down, and can express themselves with it effortlessly. Who knows what new methods will be added to the pictorial language? Who knows what possibilities they will have for greater expression of language and creativity of thought?
As we plunge ahead into the uncertain future, we do so with an ever-increasing integrated language and perspective. We each evolve, left and right brains merging. Our cultures evolve, West and East merging. And the result? I don’t have words for it. Maybe someone can design an emoji for it.
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Photos courtesy of John Hain at Pixabay.com