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Brain Damage

“It is possible that we have
adapted ourselves
to disinformation, to Newspeak,
to public-relations hype,
to imagery disguised as thought,
to picture newspapers and magazines,
to religion revealed in the form of entertainment,
to politics in the form of a thirty-second television commercial.”
– Neil Postman

It was from Neil Postman that I first learned that the brain is the only organ of our body that feels no pain and therefore does not know when it is injured. The brain, if we are to believe Postman, does not regard brain damage as a problem. I am not referring to the sort of “brain damage” riffed on by the now disgraced but brilliantly comedic entertainer Bill Cosby in his former stand-up routines. Cosby was referring to his young children who, like most children, could not help themselves in answering the question, “Why did you do that when you know you are not supposed to do that?!”  with the reflexive answer, “I don’t know. . .”  Cosby was hilarious in his exasperated rendition of such encounters, but I aim to be quite serious in my commentary on the brain.

What if our brains are damaged in some way, but we don’t perceive the damage? What if we are “thinking” in ways that are sub-par, yet we are wholly unaware of such deficiencies? Worse, what if we are not thinking at all, yet such suspension of brain-power is outside the realm of our own awareness?

Drug addicts certainly experience various forms of brain damage whenever they are consuming the foreign substances we refer to as illegal drugs – including now legal drugs such as marijuana, of which the chemical compound, THC, seems to essentially bore holes into the brain. And while cocaine and heroin will certainly place the brain in two very different states, both illegal substances surely compromise the brain in some way.

It is instructive to consider how our brains have come to embrace language in business circles that have become normative. I have in mind the use of acronyms, using initials to replace words. As a consultant, I was being screened to participate in a possible client initiative, and the person screening me said something like, “We haven’t gotten a lot of LOI opportunities lately so this one is right up your alley.” I understand LOI to mean Letter of Intent. Thus, I didn’t know what he was talking about. (I later found out it meant, in his circle, Leadership and Organizational Improvement. He’s right; that is right up my alley.)

In my current work with a major corporation in the high-tech space, I am mindful that virtually everyone I encounter peppers their sentences, even their phrases, with words such as IAOP, SLN, TWH, and RBA. In fact, there is an Acronym List floating around the company, which, in several instances, the same acronym is listed twice because there are two very different possibilities for the same acronym. In one instance, I discovered an acronym in use that was missing from the official company acronym list – at least for that particular meaning, yet there were two other uses of that exact same acronym that had two distinctly different meanings. When they update their acronym list, there will be three distinct uses of that one given acronym.

What I am saying is not unique to this organization. All of the various organizations I have recently done work for in recent years, including a large non-profit organization specializing in childcare resources, a French-based aerospace manufacturing firm, a chemical distribution facility, a large financial services institution, and a large consumer-research enterprise, all had a workforce that peppered their sentences with acronyms to the point that it sounded like everyone was speaking in code – which they were. Efficiency over effectiveness? Or brain damage?

Here’s another observation: many business people speak in jargon. Did you know that the word jargon originally referred to language that was rather, shall we say, barbaric? It’s come to mean special expressions used by a particular profession, but I am starting to wonder if the original meaning is more apt. The jargon I am talking about includes some trendy expressions, many of which are vacuous. “We don’t have enough runway to make the deadline;” “Let’s engage in some blue sky ideation;” “We have to do a deep-dive to uncover the hidden variables;” “It’s like putting lipstick on a pig;” “Let me circle back to you;” “Let’s grab the low-hanging fruit;” “I’ll ping you later;” “That is a big ask;” “This project has lots of moving parts;” “We have to move the needle;” “I am ready to open my kimono;” “Let’s not reinvent the wheel;” “Let me run this up the flagpole.” And the list goes on and on and on. Jargon in place of plain English? Brain damage?

For a third and final example, I look at technology and what it’s done to language and the ways in which we express ourselves. The world has experienced a number a discontinuities, that is, radical shake-ups in societal norms, which have caused upheavals in our ways of expression, especially in Western cultural thought. And all of them were brought about by technology. The earliest of which I am aware took place in the fifth century B.C. (We had technology in the fifth century B.C., you ask?) I’m referring to when the Athenians moved from an oral culture to a written culture, brought about by the creation of the first complete alphabet. The next discontinuity took place with Gutenberg and his printing press with movable type, making it possible for the rank and file being able to join the elites in reading – mostly the Bible. A third took place with the advent of the television in 1927, where the populace moved from looking at words (in a book) to looking at moving pictures or talking heads – a profoundly different mental experience than what happens when one is reading a book. Finally, the arrival of broadband, the internet, and Google. Is Google, with its democratization of knowledge, making us smarter? I mean, just tonight I answered two questions in an extremely short amount of time thanks to Google:

  • Is the Brad Pitt movie Legends of the Fall based on a true story? (No.)
  • What is the average lifespan of a Grizzly Bear? (20-25 years).

But am I really any smarter than I was? Or do I just seem smarter?

Add to that the additional technology of smart phones with their ability to allow us to send text messages, either by typing or by recording our voices. The art of conversation seems stunted because fewer and fewer people are speaking on the phone, let alone in person. Is the art of conversation regressing? Brain Damage?

Ara Norwood is a multi-faceted and results-oriented professional. Spanning a multiplicity of disciplines including leadership, management, innovation, strategy, service, sales, business ethics, and entrepreneurship. Ara is also a historian, having special expertise on the era of the founding of our republic.
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