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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Don't Think Of A Pink Elephant

by Lori (writer), , November 01, 2008

Non-words for nonexistence

One of the tenets of Neurolinguistics is that the brain does not process negatives. This is to say that any statements that include the word don’t or prefixes such as un or non, are automatically, subconsciously processed in the positive. This is because in order to affix meaning, the brain must associate something with the words spoken.

Here’s an example. When a parent says to a child, “Don’t spill your milk!” the child’s brain must subconsciously process, in effect, the command SPILL YOUR MILK. The negative don’t is affixed afterward in the conscious mind.

This is why psychologists advocate for using statements phrased in the positive. Rather than focusing on an outcome that is NOT desired, they suggest that the client focus on what IS desired. The negative statement “I don’t want to feel bad” is changed into a positive by saying, “I want to feel good.”

Another well-used example is this: “Don’t think of a pink elephant.” In order to understand those six words, to process the meaning of the sentence, the listener has no choice but to imagine a pink elephant!

So every time someone uses a word, even if using it in a sense of negation – such as “non-affiliated” or “anti-establishment,” the listener is forced to make the association and THINK OF the very concept being linguistically negated.


If someone says antibigotry, you have to process the concept of bigotry. And you have just performed the act of feeding – that is, perpetuating – the meme of bigotry.

Say nonviolent – you just perpetuated the meme of violent (a meme of hostility).

Say uncaring – you just perpetuated the meme of caring (a meme of empathy).

Say atheist – and you just perpetuated the meme of theist—a theist being one who believes in the existence of gods.

Words are invented, proliferate, and die just like living organisms. When a word falls out of use, all its cultural connotations begin to fade, which thereby hastens its disuse—it’s a downward cycle of decay. An example, in biological terms, is cell death; if blood is cut off from an arm or leg, the cells are starved of oxygen until finally they die.

In many ways, words have also lifecycles. Words such as buggywhip or scurvy or corvee (the dues paid by a serf, usually as labour, in return for use of his lord’s land) have died out. And what causes the death of the word? The disuse of the tangible thing it stood for, or the word as the symbol for the concept, or both?

Now imagine what would happen if people stopped using these words: demon, angel, devil, heaven, hell, sin, ghost, paranormal, supernatural, god.

By continuing to use the words, we perpetuate the concepts and the connotations of the words. We feed the memes. We keep them alive, just as a hundred years ago, the word buggywhip was necessarily kept fresh and alive.

What if no one used the word god at all? This is an interesting thought experiment, a foray into cultural engineering. If people simply QUIT using the words for fantastical elements or entities, what would this do our culture?

Think about it. You’re approached by someone on the street who asks you “Do you believe in god?” If you respond, “In what? What does that mean?” your questioner is stopped in his tracks, suddenly forced to give an explanation of a word that he assumed that you were fully cognizant of.

But what if you didn’t know the word because it had fallen into such disuse that it had suffered “cell death”?

Words are memes. They act as viral agents that spread and perpetuate ideas, concepts, attitudes. For atheists, it’s tough to talk about your perspective in only positive statements. If you say “I don’t believe in god,” you have just perpetuated the concept of god. Say “there is no heaven or devil,” and you have just fed the memes of both.

Nonuse of a limb causes it to atrophy. And nonuse (a negative, I know) of words causes them to slide into oblivion.

So what words can I use to express my personal paradigm?

This works well. “Self-awareness, and the ability to make this statement, leads me to the conclusion that I, and other human beings, exist. When confronted with a mystery, I seek rational explanations and evidence that is, by consensus of the existing scientific community, viewed as empirical.”

Notice that this statement does not address what I don’t believe in. There is no use whatsoever of words for concepts that are, for me, imaginary or illusory.

Try it out. See if you can go for 30 days without using any terms for the ideas that other people may think of as real but you do not. After 30 days, check in with your brain and see how contents have shifted. You may be surprised. And the next person who tries to stronghold you into a debate about religion will be even more so.



About the Writer

Lori is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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5 comments on Don't Think Of A Pink Elephant

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By Lori on November 01, 2008 at 10:35 pm

Thanks, Julian. I respect your own writing, so your kudos is very gratifying.

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By 'Mean' Mike Duffau on November 02, 2008 at 01:26 am

i really learned something here today! i guess when people tell me not to do something, i do it anyways! i thought i just hard head...but after reading this...i gotta excuse. thanks, champ!

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By Sharlene Hardin on November 02, 2008 at 06:29 am

I understand MM, I thought I had a completely rebellious for doing something despite being told NOT to do it. 

Good article Lori.

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By Lori on November 08, 2008 at 04:44 pm

This article will soon be available as an audio essay. See the others in the series:
www.lori-stephens.com/AOMultimedia.html

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By Edward on November 08, 2008 at 06:29 pm

Thank you Lori for pointing out what is obvious to some but unfortunately isn't to others.

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